The ‘Supermom’ Who Became a Real-Life ‘Gone Girl’

Hector Amezcua/TNS via ZUMA Press Wire/Shutterstock
Hector Amezcua/TNS via ZUMA Press Wire/Shutterstock

Sherri Papini was regarded by all who knew her as a “supermom” who went above and beyond for her two young children as well as her husband Keith. So when the blonde-haired, blue-eyed 34-year-old vanished in 2016 while on a jog not far from her Redding, California, home, her family and the community were rocked. It wasn’t long before Sherri’s disappearance became national news, and things only got stranger when, 22 days later, she was miraculously found, the apparent victim of brutal torture. The story she spun horrified her loved ones and captivated the nation. As Perfect Wife: The Mysterious Disappearance of Sherri Papini reveals, however, it was actually a tall tale that resulted in far more questions than answers.

Hulu’s three-part docuseries (June 20) concerns a woman who seemingly had it all, and yet was clearly unhappy enough—for reasons that are open to debate—to risk everything via an unthinkably brazen stunt. Director Michael Beach Nichols’ docuseries benefits from the participation of virtually everyone close to this case (save for Sherri herself), and it suggests a number of hypotheses regarding why it happened in the first place. As multiple interviewees admit, Sherri’s true motives for her actions remain unknown, but that merely enhances the speculation-fueled mystery of this bizarre, headline-making saga.

On Nov. 2, 2016, Sherri dropped her kids off at daycare and went for a routine run. When Keith arrived home from work later that day and didn’t find her or the children waiting for him, he became suspicious. He soon learned that his son and daughter were never picked up, and that no one had heard from Sherri. When he snooped around the nearby area, he discovered her cellphone and headphones (with a bit of her hair) on the ground near their mailbox. This implied something awful, and he reported it to Shasta County police officer Kyle Wallace, who took the lead on the ensuing investigation into her whereabouts.

In extended clips from interrogation room interviews, the officer questions Keith about his wife and their marriage, and learns that Keith had made his spouse sign a postnuptial agreement after he found out that she had been in duplicitous contact with another man. This indicated that there was trouble in paradise, and so too did reports from neighbors about loud arguments between the two, as well as a years-earlier incident in which Sherri had received a black eye from Keith during a video game-related accident. Like any reasonable sleuth, Wallace’s initial focus was Keith, although the more he pried into the family’s life, the more it became clear that the man had not committed foul play—a notion further bolstered by Keith passing a lie detector test.

In both archival footage and new conversations, Keith comes across as deeply shaken by this entire affair, beginning with the search for Sherri. That ended when, 22 days after she had left home and never returned, she was found on the side of a highway, chained up and crying for help. Worse, her arms and legs were covered in bruises, her face was battered and her nose was broken, and her back had been branded with words that seemed to say something about “Exodus.” All in all, she resembled someone who’d endured hell.

Cops Accused This So-Called ‘Gone Girl’ of Faking Her Kidnapping

As Keith states in Perfect Wife, the first time he saw his wife in the hospital, “I felt like she was lying.” Nonetheless, he stuck by her during the subsequent police interviews and oppressive media coverage, during which Sherri claimed that she had been abducted by two Hispanic women, one younger and one older, who had held her prisoner and tortured her in a house. Over time, she provided various details about that locale—in particular, the unique design of her room’s closet and the marble table upon which she’d been branded—but in total, her recollections were hazy, due (she said) to being drugged by her kidnappers. Even when she offered descriptions that begat sketches of the supposed perpetrators, the investigation went nowhere fast.

Years passed with Keith and Sherri working hard to overcome the trauma of this ordeal, and Perfect Wife paints an intimate portrait of that period via home movies, photographs, and the recollections of Keith, Sherri’s sister Sheila, and best friend Jenifer, and Wallace, whose office never stopped working the case—and, ultimately, enlisted the services of the FBI. It wasn’t until 2020 that things took a decisive turn. Courtesy of a DNA match, Wallace and FBI special agent Peter Jackson were led, on August 10, to the Costa Mesa, California, residence of James Reyes, Sherri’s “burnt-out” hockey player ex-boyfriend. His home eerily matched the information given by Sherri, and he quickly copped to having been her accomplice in her getaway. As it turned out, Sherri had orchestrated the entire thing, crafting a narrative that was based on bits and pieces borrowed from Gone Girl, Elizabeth Smart’s experiences, and the tragic 1998 disappearance of 16-year-old Redding native Tera Smith.

Perfect Wife’s bombshell moment involves investigators confronting Sherri and Keith with their findings, which compels Sherri to deny that she had ordered James to bruise and brand her. No matter this twist, Keith stood by his wife. Still, when she was arrested and charged with 35 crimes in 2022 and, in response, opted to consider a plea, Keith decided that he had been duped and cut ties with his spouse. This was a wise decision, since he later learned from his kids that Sherri had been making them sick by forcing them to sniff rubbing alcohol—behavior that resembles Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

Frustratingly for Keith, Sheila and Jen, no one knows precisely why Sherri carried out this hoax, although it’s likely that she was driven by a desperate craving for attention and validation. Perfect Wife: The Mysterious Disappearance of Sherri Papini knows the what, when, and where of this mind-boggling tale, but it leaves viewers to parse the more fundamental and tantalizing why.

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