What Was Marriage Like Between Keith and Sherri Papini After Kidnapping Hoax? 'You're Not Going to Win Against Her' (Exclusive)

"Every day something revolving [around] what we dubbed 'the 22 days' would come up," Keith Papini says

Courtesy Keith Papini Sherri and Keith Papini
Courtesy Keith Papini Sherri and Keith Papini

For years, Keith Papini believed that his wife Sherri Papini, the mother of his two children, was abducted and held hostage for 22 days — until finally, she admitted to a court that she made the entire story up.

On Nov. 2, 2016, Sherri disappeared while on a jog near her Redding, Calif., home. But miraculously, after more than three weeks away from her young children and family — which sparked a nationwide search — Sherri, then 34, turned up on a highway near Sacramento more than 150 miles from where she disappeared.

She looked malnourished and badly beaten. When Keith received the news that she was found alive, he rushed to a Woodland, Calif., hospital to see her. He went into Sherri’s hospital room and pulled back the curtain to see his wife for the first time since she'd vanished. 

Related: 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)

“As soon as I saw her face, the way she looked up at me in that moment, I just felt, this is fake, this is not real,” says Keith in this week's issue of PEOPLE. (Keith also speaks about his ordeal in Perfect Wife: The Mysterious Disappearance of Sherri Papini, a new three-part documentary series now streaming on Hulu.)

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

But as quickly as the feeling surfaced, it faded. When he hugged her in the hospital bed, he felt scabs on her back and saw bruises all over her body. “There's no way somebody could do this to themselves,” he says he thought to himself. “Then I felt guilty that I even thought that she could do this,” Keith says.

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Despite his initial gut feeling, Keith stood by his wife for years and believed that she'd been taken against her will. He spoke often with law enforcement and encouraged his wife to tell him everything she remembered about where she was held in order to aid the investigation.

"I was constantly trying to solve the case," Keith says. "I always was reaching out to the FBI. Every time she would tell me something, I was writing it down or trying to find a picture of it, and I would give that to the FBI."

<p>Chloe Aftel</p> Keith Papini

Chloe Aftel

Keith Papini

Despite his efforts, the case was seemingly going cold, with no leads on the suspects who Sherri said abducted and tortured her. And while Keith was trying to support his wife's recovery from the trauma she claimed she endured, Sherri herself was inflicting constant trauma on Keith and their two small children, Keith says.

"Every day something revolving [around] what we dubbed, 'the 22 days' would come up, whether that be loud sounds at night where I have to go outside to make sure someone's not  coming in to kill us. I mean, she led us to believe that we were being ... Essentially that we were going to be attacked at some point," Keith says, adding that they also had to upgrade their security system due to Sherri's purported fears.

Related: Kidnapping Hoaxer Sherri Papini Said She's Writing 2 Books: 'Mommy Is an Author Now'

During the investigation into her disappearance, investigators began poking holes in her claims and eventually learned Sherri lied about the entire kidnapping. Investigators discovered that during the 22 days she was missing, she was willingly at the Costa Mesa, Calif., home of her ex-boyfriend.

Sherri was arrested in March 2022 in connection with the hoax.

<p>Rich Pedroncelli/AP</p> Sherri Papini walks to the federal courthouse accompanied by her attorney, Willian Portanova on April 13, 2022 in Sacramento, CA..

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Sherri Papini walks to the federal courthouse accompanied by her attorney, Willian Portanova on April 13, 2022 in Sacramento, CA..

On April 18, 2022 — nearly six years after her disappearance — Sherri pleaded guilty to one felony charge each of making false statements to federal agents and mail fraud. (She was sentenced to 18 months in prison and was released early in 2023.)

Related: Where Is Sherri Papini Now? What to Know About Her Life After 2016 Kidnapping Hoax

Days after her guilty plea, Keith filed for divorce and eventually cut off contact with Sherri, who he said continued to try and manipulate him even after the divorce.

“It was such a weight off my shoulders because I was constantly trying to play this game with her, but you're not going to win against her. She's too good," Keith says. "And ever since [cutting off contact with Sherri] it's been a lot easier, because now I just get to focus on the kids.”

Keith now has sole custody of their two children, and Sherri sees them once a month during supervised visits.

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

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