It is not uncommon for people who make up, for whatever reason, some story that they were the victim of a seemingly random attack that led to robbery or assault, to claim that their assailant was a person of color, a phenomenon known as a ‘racial hoax’. In doing so, they are taking advantage of the fact that such attacks get more media coverage and, because of the nature of racial prejudices in the US, are more likely to be believed. When Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, he took advantage of this prejudice with a racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican platform as the centerpiece of his campaign, saying that the Mexicans coming into the country were drug dealers and criminals and that his wall would stop them.
Furthermore, I have written before about how disappeared, abused, and killed white women are a very common plot device in films and TV dramas. So when in 2016, a 34-year old white woman named Sherri Papini went missing in California while jogging and reappeared on the side of a highway 22 days later saying that she had been abducted by two Latina women who had brutally beaten and even branded her and had planned to sell her into a human-trafficking ring, the climate was ripe for her narrative to be believed, and it supported Trump’s message.
But this week, authorities arrested Papini and released statement claiming that she had made the whole thing up, that she had spent the 22 days with her ex-boyfriend and had inflicted the bruises on herself.
Sherri Papini disappeared in 2016 while on a run around her Shasta County neighborhood. Twenty-two days later, she returned, beaten, bound and branded, claiming that her kidnappers were women who spoke Spanish and that one had long and curly hair, thin eyebrows and a thick accent.
On Thursday, authorities arrested Papini, 39, charging her with lying to federal agents in faking her abduction and defrauding a California victims compensation fund of more than $30,000 meant for therapy and other costs. She faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted.
Papini is accused of hitting herself to create bruises and burning herself on the arms to support her story — injuries her ex-boyfriend said she inflicted around the time he drove her back to Northern California. He brought her back because she said she missed her children, according to federal investigators.
Forensic analysis revealed an unknown man’s DNA on Papini’s underwear. In March 2020, investigators received a hit identifying a potential relative of the unknown male whose DNA was on Papini’s underwear. The subject had two biological sons. One of them was her ex-boyfriend.
While Papini stayed at her ex-boyfriend’s home in Costa Mesa, search parties in Shasta County scoured the wilderness and hiking trails looking for the mother of two. The community was on edge.
The impact on the Hispanic community was huge.
“Ever since 2016, many of our Latino/Hispanic residents were forced to feel like the criminals in a twisted scheme that never, ever happened,” Shasta County resident Alan Phillips, who is part Latino and part Indigenous, wrote in an email.
Many Latinos in the community avoided walking in pairs or traveling together in a van for fear they might appear suspicious because of Papini’s story, Phillips said.
“They were sent into shock during a time of already growing and rampant anti-immigrant and [anti-] people of color politicking and hatred,” Phillips said.
Various people who have known Papini at various times describe her as a habitual liar, who would lie even about stuff that was irrelevant and her earlier comments seemed to support the idea that she had racial animus.
Investigators said they looked into whether there were racial motivations behind Papini’s kidnapping story. A 2007 blog post signed by Sherri Graeff, Papini’s maiden name, told a story about her getting into fights with Latina girls because she was “drug-free, white and proud of my blood and heritage.”
Papini told investigators she did not write the post and described it as “awful,” according to the affidavit. Investigators did not say whether they tracked down the post’s author.
What was clear, according to the affidavit, was that Papini had a reputation for lying. Several men whom she had dated told investigators that she fabricated stories about being the victim of abuse in her home.
Shauhin Davari dated Papini when he was 15 and she was 20. He was not interviewed by federal investigators but spoke to reporters about the relationship, telling the Sacramento Bee on Thursday that Papini was a habitual liar.
“She was allergic to the truth,” Davari later told The Times. “I can’t even really explain it. She would lie about absolutely anything. Even stuff that was irrelevant.”
There are numerous cases of black men who, while innocent of any crime, were convicted because judges and juries were only too willing to believe that they could be guilty. In the latest episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver discusses wrongful convictions and he says that Black men are seven times as likely to be wrongfully convicted of a crime than a white man. And once people are convicted, it is incredibly difficult to exonerate them even if evidence turns up that shows they are innocent. He discusses the case of Melissa Lucio who is due to be executed on April 27th for the murder of her child despite being coerced into a confession. You can read more about that case here.