Keith Papini Says Ex-Wife Sherri Lied to Him About Her Faked Kidnapping and Torture for 6 Years: 'I'll Never Know the Truth' (Exclusive)

"At the end of the day, you feel like if you can trust anyone, it’s your partner in life," Keith Papini tells PEOPLE

<p>Chloe Aftel</p> Keith Papini, missing poster for Sherri Papini

Chloe Aftel

Keith Papini, missing poster for Sherri Papini

For 22 excruciating days in the fall of 2016, Keith Papini waited for news — and clung to hope. 

On Nov. 2 his wife, Sherri, the mother of his two young children, disappeared while jogging near the family’s home in Redding, Calif., leaving behind only her iPhone and strands of blonde hair. “I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t sleeping. It was the worst time of my life,” recalls Keith, now 40.

As police and volunteers scoured the neighborhood for clues, Keith appeared on national TV to tearfully appeal for her safe return. And then, just as suddenly as her alleged abduction had made headlines everywhere, Sherri reappeared on Thanksgiving Day beside a highway near Sacramento, some 150 miles from home. She had a chain around her waist and metal clamps on her ankles and told police she had been kidnapped and held in a dark room with a bucket of kitty litter for a toilet.

Sherri’s survival appeared to be a miracle. But when Keith rushed to a hospital, where police made him wait five hours while they questioned Sherri before leading him to her bed, he was struck by a fleeting doubt. “As soon as I saw her face — the way she was looking up at me — I just felt it: This is fake,” he says. Yet when he hugged her, Keith felt scabs on Sherri’s back and saw bruises all over her body. “It made me believe there’s no way somebody could do this to themselves,” he says. “Then I felt guilty that I even thought it.”

<p>Chloe Aftel</p> Keith Papini, missing poster for Sherri Papini

Chloe Aftel

Keith Papini, missing poster for Sherri Papini

It was a pattern that had repeated countless times over the course of his life with Sherri, 42, whose terrifying false account of being kidnapped at gunpoint, held against her will and tortured by two Hispanic women riveted the nation in the 2010s. For six years after her apparent release, Keith stood by his wife’s side, supporting her despite doubts in 2020 when authorities, citing DNA, claimed she had orchestrated her ordeal with help from a former boyfriend in Costa Mesa, Calif. But the reality that he’d been duped became clear to Keith by April 18, 2022, when Sherri pleaded guilty to felony charges of making false statements to federal agents and mail fraud. Sentenced to 18 months in prison, Sherri was released early in 2023 and is living in California. (The ex-boyfriend hasn’t been charged with a crime.)

<p>Shasta County Sheriff's Office</p> Sherri Papini in the hospital

Shasta County Sheriff's Office

Sherri Papini in the hospital

Now divorced and raising their children Violet, 9, and Tyler, 11, as a single dad, Keith is telling his side of the story in Perfect Wife: The Mysterious Disappearance of Sherri Papini, a new three-part documentary series streaming on Hulu on June 20.

For more on the how Sherri Papini's hoax kidnapping, subscribe now to PEOPLE, or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands Friday.

The "suspects" in Sherri Papini's fake kidnapping
The "suspects" in Sherri Papini's fake kidnapping

“She told me she hadn’t done anything, and I believed her,” says Keith, who characterizes Sherri as a skillful manipulator who used her tough childhood as an excuse for her frequent lying and exaggeration. 

“At the end of the day, you feel like if you can trust anyone, it’s your partner in life. But I was wrong.”


Keith Papini and Sherri Graeff exchanged their first kiss when he was in the seventh grade and she was in the eighth at a middle school in Redding. The couple fell out of contact when Sherri’s family moved out of town, but they reunited in 2006 when she moved back, and married three years later.

They were busy raising two kids in a Redding neighborhood with views of nearby Mount Shasta when Keith, an audiovisual specialist, returned from work one day to find that Sherri, who had been laid off from her job at a telephone company, was not at the house and hadn’t picked up the children from day care.

Using a GPS tracking app, Keith located Sherri’s phone on the ground a mile from their home. “I remember I went down to grab it, and then I stopped myself to take a photo because I just knew it was too bizarre,” he says. “Then I saw her hair wrapped in the headphones.”

The couple’s wedding song, Michael Bublé’s “Everything,” was playing on repeat. “I knew with absolute certainty,” he says, “that she was taken against her will.”

Keith called 911 — and the massive, nationwide search for Sherri began. Close friends and neighbors were supportive, Keith says, but as one week turned into another, whispers about Sherri leaving him to escape her marriage began to spread. Keith brushed them off: "Sherri wrote me songs. She wrote me cards. I felt loved," he says of life before her disappearance. "And even if that wasn't true, I didn't see how it's possible she would leave the kids."

<p>Shasta County Sheriff's Office</p> Sherri Papini being interrogated by police

Shasta County Sheriff's Office

Sherri Papini being interrogated by police

Not that Sherri hadn't resorted to deception before. When Keith proposed, Sherri began a wedding blog with over-the-top writing about their romantic life. "It was this fairytale love story. A lot of it's true, but a lot of it is twisted to make the story better," says Keith, who believes Sherri wanted attention. "I was like, 'Okay, that's her. I accept her flaws.'"

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<p>Rich Pedroncelli/AP</p> Sherri Papini walks to the federal courthouse in 2022

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Sherri Papini walks to the federal courthouse in 2022

Sherri also embellished her past, claiming she had attended college in Southern California, studied ballet and sold cars. Keith pointed out problems with her timeline. "If something wasn't adding up, she was quick to move it to, 'Well it's because of my childhood. You didn't experience that because you had loving parents,'" he says. "Now I see how she was twisting it — but back then I would say, 'Oh, I'm sorry. Let me give you a hug.'"


The police and FBI investigation of Sherri's abduction continued for several years. Keith remained in contact with authorities, providing information when Sherri revealed details of her invented assault and captivity. He accompanied her when FBI agents claimed during questioning in 2020 that DNA from her clothing had been identified as belonging to her ex-boyfriend, proving that she was with him when she faked her kidnapping. Devastated, Keith kicked her out of the house. But after only one day of staying with a relative, Sherri persuaded him to let her return, he says.

From that day on, tension ebbed and flowed. “She’d say, ‘I love you. I didn’t do anything. I told you they’re messing with us — they’re trying to pit us against each other,’ ” he recalls. Every day Sherri brought up the “22 days” of trauma and criticized Keith for being insensitive. “Once she looked at me and said, ‘I have to live with the fact that you never found me.’ It crushed me.”

<p>Courtesy Keith Papini</p> Keith and Sherri Papini, and their children

Courtesy Keith Papini

Keith and Sherri Papini, and their children

When Sherri was finally arrested by FBI agents while she was with her children in March 2022, Violet and Tyler witnessed their mother being led away in handcuffs. Today Keith has custody of the kids — Sherri sees them on monthly supervised visits — and recently told them about their mother’s crimes, although not in detail.

“A lot of their childhood was, in my opinion, stolen from them,” he says. “So my biggest goal is giving them a happy and healthy life and surrounding them with loving people.” As for regrets for placing his trust in their mother, Keith says his recent bitter experiences have not profoundly changed him. “I ask more questions, and I’m probably more cautious, but I’m still finding people to be truthful,” he says. “That’s how I’ve lived my life and what I teach my kids.”

Keith Papini tells his story in Perfect Wife: The Mysterious Disappearance of Sherri Papini, a new three-part documentary series streaming on Hulu on June 20.

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