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The True Story of the Fake Kidnapping Behind the Sherri Papini Docuseries Perfect Wife

13 minute read

From the outside, Keith and Sherri Papini appeared to have an idyllic life. Together since 2006, the married Redding, Calif. couple were outwardly loving toward each other and their two young children; they had good friends and family living nearby; Keith was a Home Theater Specialist at Best Buy and Sherri had been employed as an account executive for AT&T but later became a stay-at-home mom. 

Then one day, in late 2016, Sherri disappeared, kicking off a nationwide search. About three weeks later, on Thanksgiving, Sherri turned back up. She claimed she’d been abducted, branded, and tortured by two Hispanic women before being released on the side of the road.

It was a captivating story—except none of it was true. Perfect Wife: The Mysterious Disappearance of Sherri Papini, a new three-part Hulu docuseries from filmmakers Erin Lee Carr (Mommy Dead And Dearest, I Love You, Now Die) and Michael Beach Nichols (director of Wrinkles The Clown and cinematographer for Last Call: When a Serial Killer Stalked Queer New York), explores Sherri’s sudden disappearance and reappearance, and the six-year investigation that revealed how the wife and “supermom” faked her own kidnapping.

Here’s the true story behind Perfect Wife, airing June 20 on Hulu.

Read more: The Traumatic Kidnapping Case Behind Netflix’s American Nightmare Docuseries

What happened to Sherri Papini?

Perfect Wife
The Papinis during happier timesCourtesy of Hulu

On Nov. 2, 2016, 34-year-old Sherri Papini vanished. She'd last been seen jogging in her neighborhood, leaving her cell phone and earbuds with a few strands of blonde hair attached to them. Three weeks later, on Thanksgiving, she reappeared. When authorities found her along Interstate 5 in Yolo County, 146 miles from home, she looked emaciated, with a chain around her waist and a brand on her shoulder she claimed had been inflicted by her captors. 

Initially, Sherri told police she'd been abducted by two masked Hispanic women armed with a handgun. In a statement, Sherri's husband, Keith Papini, said that his wife "was thrown from a vehicle with a chain around her waist, attached to her wrists and a bag over her head. The same bag she used to flag someone down once she was able to free one of her hands."

As a six-year investigation unfolded, authorities eventually found male DNA evidence on Sherri's clothes, which led them to her ex-boyfriend James Reyes. Sherri had lied about being kidnapped—she’d been staying with her ex in Costa Mesa while pretending to be missing.

Later, Reyes confessed to authorities that Sherri had asked him to hit her, which he refused to do. Ultimately, he agreed to hold a hockey stick for her to run into and he hit her with hockey pucks. He also admitted to branding Sherri—also upon her request.

Read more: How Documentary Filmmaker Erin Lee Carr Brings ‘Radical Empathy’ to True Crime

Who is Keith Papini?

Sherri’s (now ex) husband Keith, who gives extensive interviews in Perfect Wife, was initially a suspect in Sherri’s disappearance. When investigators searched Sherri’s phone, they discovered intimate texts between her and a Michigan man named Donovan Miske. Sherri had in fact had an affair with Miske, telling him how “evil” Keith was, leading investigators to think that she walked out on Keith to be with Donovan.

Eventually, Keith successfully passed a polygraph test, and investigators cleared him of any suspicion. 

Still, the couple’s friends had lingering doubts around Keith’s innocence. Early on in Perfect Wife, an interview with Sherri’s best friend Jenifer Harrison reveals how Sherri told her about an abusive dynamic with Keith: "If I ever try to leave him, he'll kill me.” Jenifer also tells filmmakers that Sherri said Keith had an overly traditional idea of marriage: “What [Keith] wants is a 1950s housewife that cooks, cleans, does everything around the house… But he wants me to work as well."

While it’s true that the seemingly perfect couple fought—even occasionally coming to physical blows—the docuseries emphasizes Sherri’s tendency to lie and exaggerate. For instance, when Keith met Sherri in 2006, he discovered two wing-like scars on her back. At the time, Sherri alleged that her ex-boyfriend stabbed her in the back. Meanwhile, she’d told Jenifer a different story, alleging it was her father who cut her with an X-Acto knife. In reality, she had done it herself. 

Who is James Reyes?

Though Perfect Wife does not speak directly to the ex Sherri faked her kidnapping to stay with, investigators from the case who are interviewed in the docuseries describe how Sherri and James dated in the early-to-mid 2000s. Years later, Sherri got back in touch with James, and they would communicate using burner phones. 

As they reconnected, James believed Sherri was trying to get away from her allegedly abusive husband. So when Sherri asked him to drive up to Redding and pick her up, he obliged. "Essentially, James just did what Sherri asked for 22 days," says Shasta County Sheriff Sergeant Kyle Wallace.

Over the course of those 22 days, Sherri asked James to "bang a [hockey] puck off of her leg," giving investigators the impression she’d been seriously abused. She also fractured her own nose on a hockey stick James held up; she ate less, giving her an emaciated appearance; she contracted a rash on her arm from cleaning supplies; and James branded her at her request. 

One day, Sherri told James she was ready to go home, claiming to miss her two young children. After asking James to purchase chains and other binding tools at Ace Hardware, Sherri chained herself up and told James to get rid of his phone before asking him to drop her off on the side of the freeway.

Investigators ultimately chose not to indict James. In addition to passing a polygraph test, James told Kyle Wallace he believed Sherri had been a friend in need asking for help: "It's not an abduction. She asked me to get her."

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What does Perfect Wife reveal about Sherri’s background?

Perfect Wife
The Papinis on their wedding dayCourtesy of Hulu

Through interviews with Sherri’s family and friends, as well as local and federal investigators, Perfect Wife illustrates a volatile childhood, during which her parents frequently fought and struggled to support Sherri and her older sister, Sheila. When she was 16, Sherri dropped out of high school and ran away, landing in Los Angeles and then the Bay Area. 

Sherri’s parents do not appear in the docuseries, but there is a record of them filing police reports about their daughter. In 2017, the Sacramento Bee reported on a Dec. 2003 call to 911 where Sherri's mother, Loretta Graeff, told police that her daughter was "harming herself and blaming it on [her.]" Loretta allegedly called 911 for "advice" because her daughter was planning on moving back in with her. The police report did not specify whether Sherri had actually hurt herself. 

Prior to that, in Oct. 2000, Sherri's father, Richard Graeff, alleged that Sherri vandalized the family's home in Shasta Lake, Calif. Three years later, in Oct. 2003, Richard told police that an unauthorized withdrawal had been made from his bank account and that he suspected Sherri, who was living with them at the time, was behind it. A subsequent police report read that the money had been returned, and that Sherri was opening a credit card account.

When Sherri was arrested, in May 2022, her parents released a joint statement defending their daughter: “We love Sherri and are appalled by the way in which law enforcement ambushed her this afternoon in a dramatic and unnecessary manner in front of her children.”

Why did Sherri fake her kidnapping?

"Because of the trauma Sherri and I experienced as children, Sherri sought out positive love and attention. She would exaggerate a lot, and she wasn't honest a lot,” her sister Sheila tells filmmakers. 

As for why Sherri lied about being kidnapped, Sheila reasons that some of it had to do with being a stay-at-home mom. "I think she wasn't getting the attention that she wanted with being at home,” says Sheila. "I think she really wanted to feel important... She always has."

Meanwhile, Sheriff Sergeant Wallace tells filmmakers that Sherri’s own lawyer described his client as having "chameleonic personalities."

Wallace’s narrative to filmmakers alleges that Sherri ultimately left home to regain control of her relationship with Keith. Her severance package from AT&T was running out—money that paid for daycare and cosmetic surgery. Keith didn’t want to pay for daycare if Sherri wasn’t working. “Her lifestyle was going to change once she ran out of money,” Wallace says. “I don't think she was prepared for that. I think she left because that's how she knew to get away from conflict."

Another revelation that lends itself to the “positive love” theory is Keith telling filmmakers how Sherri would “soak rags in [rubbing] alcohol, put it in a zip-lock bag, and tie a string around [the children’s] neck… so that they would continue to not feel good so that she could take them to the doctor.”

Perfect Wife also outlines how Sherri had a history of racism against the Hispanic and Mexican community. When she reappeared after going missing, Sherri claimed she’d been abducted by two Hispanic women who frequently played Mariachi music. As authorities began combing the region for two women—one older and one younger—fitting Sherri’s description, their search had a chilling effect on nearby Hispanic communities, who were suddenly fearful of traveling in pairs, lest they come under suspicion.

When Sherri was in high school, she'd apparently written a blog about getting into a fight with Latina girls. "Being white is my family, my roots, my way of life," she wrote, adding how fighting back made her father proud of her. In later years, Sherri would claim she didn't write the blog, alleging someone had posed as her. She even hired a lawyer to get the blog post taken down in 2007.

How did Keith's view of Sherri's story evolve?

Perfect Wife
A still from Perfect WifeCourtesy of Hulu

Though he initially believed Sherri’s kidnapping story, stood up for her in public, and attended therapy sessions with her to aid in her recovery, Keith ultimately separated from his wife soon after investigators questioned her in August 2020 with DNA evidence leading to James Reyes. "I'm the idiot husband who stayed around the whole time," he told investigators at the time. 

Keith also recalled in the docuseries how, though Sherri was not arrested that day due to lack of additional evidence (investigators were hopeful Sherri would confess), she professed her love for him, to which he replied, “Just don’t talk to me… I don’t want to hear it… You can’t stay in the house.” 

As local and federal officers worked to build a stronger case to arrest Sherri, Keith let her come home. However, he characterized that interim period as “very strange, very odd to be in the house with her. There was this weird tension in the house.” As far as what really happened to Sherri, Keith didn’t know whom or what to believe.

In March 2022, Sherri was formally arrested, jailed in Sacramento, and charged with making false statements and mail fraud. As Sherri awaited trial, she talked to Keith about potentially taking a plea deal, noting that it would only be six or so months on house arrest with an ankle monitor—”not a big deal,” as she put it to Keith. Sherri’s nonchalance proved to be a breaking point for Keith, who literally ran away from Sherri after she aggressively propositioned him for sex, telling him how she just “wanted to feel love.”

Keith officially filed for divorce in 2022 after Sherri confessed to lying and entered a guilty plea. ”Her lawyer told me, ‘It took a while to get it out of her, but she said James Reyes picked her up,’” Keith told filmmakers. “She had a burner phone with her and she watched [me] and everybody else search for her for 22 days on her phone.”

Over the course of filming Perfect Wife, Keith said he started “connecting dots,” realizing how Sherri had pieced together a false narrative using self-help books on trauma survival, true stories of kidnapping—such as Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped at age 14 in 2002—and fictional ones, like the film version of Gone Girl. Most upsetting to Sherri’s friends and family was her allegedly borrowing aspects of another disappearance case in Redding; in 1998, a 16-year-old named Tera Smith went missing and was never found. 

What happened to Sherri Papini, and how has she responded to the docuseries?

Perfect Wife
Sherri and Keith in an archival photoCourtesy of Hulu

After confessing to lying about her disappearance, Sherri told a California courtroom she was "deeply ashamed" of what she’d done and was "sorry for the pain I've caused my family, my friends, all the good people who needlessly suffered… I will work the rest of my life to make amends for what I have done." Soon after, Keith filed for divorce. Their marriage was dissolved in May 2023.

Sherri later pleaded guilty to mail fraud and making false statements; she was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison in September 2022. She was also ordered to pay back $300,000—money from the state’s victim compensation fund, disability payments, and the costs associated with the search to find her and her alleged kidnappers.

In October 2023, after serving 10 months and 21 days in prison, Sherri was released to a halfway house. As of March 2024, Sherri is permitted to see her children only during one-hour visits that are supervised by a professional agency appointed by a judge.

As of this month, PEOPLE reports that Sherri recently told her nine-year-old daughter that she is writing two books. According to a supervised visitation report from Jan. 17, when asked what she was doing for work, Sherri replied: "Well, like, this place [a supervised visitation center] is very helpful for families, well mommy is building a foundation to help places like this more. Mommy is making a business that will be a foundation to help people."

Sherri also said: "Do you know what an author is? Mommy’s also an author now. She’s writing two books. I work lots of hours to write chapter books. So, when I tell you I’m working remotely, that means I’m at home writing chapters on my laptop.”

Sherri did not participate in the Perfect Wife docuseries, which ends with one statement: "The filmmakers made several attempts to contact Sherri Papini but never received a response."

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