Woman charged with fake abduction story used racist stereotypes to describe kidnappers, advocates and scholars say

    Sherri Papini is pictured. (Shasta County Sheriff)

    (CNN) — When Sherri Papini claimed she was abducted in Northern California, investigators were led to believe they were looking for two Hispanic women who spoke Spanish, played Mariachi music and fed her mostly tortillas and rice.

    Papini’s elaborate story of her 2016 kidnapping, which federal prosecutors now allege was false, reinforced a number of racist stereotypes and the anti-Latino rhetoric that has fueled racial division across the United States in recent years, advocates and scholars say.

    “She fell into stereotypes about the Latino community that are far too prevalent in the population at large but clearly, she was also counting on law enforcement relying upon stereotypes,” said Thomas Saenz, the president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), a Latino legal civil rights group.

    Nearly six years after she went missing in Shasta County, the 39-year-old mother of two has been charged with making false statements to a federal law enforcement officer and mail fraud, the Department of Justice said. If convicted, she faces up to 25 years in prison. Papini, who was was arrested last week, was released on bond and mandated to receive psychiatric treatment by a federal judge on Tuesday.

    CNN has reached out multiple times to Michael Borges, an attorney for Papini, for comment.

    In a 55-page affidavit filed last week in federal court, prosecutors detailed what Papini told authorities after she was found. She told police she was abducted and branded by two Hispanic women who kept her chained in a closet. Papini mentioned hearing them talking about a buyer and getting paid for the kidnapping, the document states.

    While Papini offered only a few details about her alleged abductors, claiming they wore masks and she could not understand them because they mostly spoke Spanish, the way she described their appearance and behavior signaled a biased view of Latinas, said Stephanie L. Canizales, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced.

    She told police that one of them wore “those big hoop earrings” and had thin, “almost drawn in” eyebrows, according to the affidavit. A sketch based on Papini’s statements and released by the FBI showed one of the women wearing a bandana over her face.

    Two sketches released by the FBI were based on Papini’s description of her alleged abductors.
    (AP licensed)

    Canizales, who has researched the causes and consequences of racism against Latinos, said Papini’s description of the alleged abductors aligned with tropes of Mexican women in which hoop earrings and bandanas are linked to the cholo/chola subculture and proximity to gang culture.

    The political climate at the time of the alleged fake abduction can’t be ignored, said Saenz, the president and general counsel of MALDEF. Anti-Latino sentiment had been surging and Papini’s story likely fed into it.

    In 2015 and 2016, former President Donald Trump centered part of his campaign on offensive remarks about Mexican immigrants, calling them criminals. For Saenz, that behavior ultimately gave “license” to those who listened to Trump to openly “indulge in racial stereotypes about not just Mexican immigrants but other Latino immigrants and more broadly about the Latino population regardless of citizenship.”

    The impact on the Latino community

    The search for Papini and her claims to police in 2016 took a financial and mental cost in a county with a growing Hispanic community, Shasta County Sheriff Michael Johnson has said.

    In all, the cost of the investigation borne by public safety agencies was an estimated $150,000, Johnson said in a statement on Facebook last week. The case also diverted resources from real cases with real victims.

    “Not only did this charade take valuable resources away from real criminal investigative matters,” the sheriff said, “but in a time where there is serious human trafficking cases with legitimate victims Sherri Papini used this tragic societal phenomenon to gain notoriety and financial gain.”

    In a 2020 report, the anti-trafficking organization Polaris said thousands of women and girls from Mexico, Central America, Latino communities in the US are victims of sex and labor trafficking across the country. In California, advocates and lawmakers have said human trafficking is “rampant,” “pervasive” and many victims are Black and Hispanic women.

    “Not only did this charade take valuable resources away from real criminal investigative matters,” Johnson said, “but in a time where there is serious human trafficking cases with legitimate victims Sherri Papini used this tragic societal phenomenon to gain notoriety and financial gain.”

    Bill Garcia, a private investigator who volunteered to help find Papini in 2016, said Shasta County sits on Intestate 5, which is known to be a corridor for trafficking between Mexico and Canada. That made me him believe Papini could be a possible target of trafficking like other women in the region.

    ‘Racialization of crime’ played a role, scholar says

    Some people have drawn comparisons between Papini’s case and the behavior that other White women have shown in past controversial interactions with people of color.

    In 2020, Amy Cooper, a White woman, called police on a Black man while he was birdwatching in New York’s Central Park. The incident, which was partially filmed and posted on Facebook by the man, Christian Cooper (no relation), was shared widely as another example of White people calling the police on Black people for mundane things. In the recording, he is silent for the most part, while she frantically tells police he is threatening her and her dog.

    Amy Cooper faced a misdemeanor charge of falsely reporting an incident to police but the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office dropped the charge last year after she completed education and therapy classes on racial equity.

    “She wasn’t under threat, but she had very much internalized that ‘if a Black man is speaking to me, I’m being threatened and when I tell the police that a Black man is threatening me they will believe me,” Canizales said. “In the Sherri Papini case, she was evoking the same sort of racialization of crime.”

    When Papini described her alleged abductors as Mexican women, she had a similar confidence “that no one would question her because the public has accepted that this is what criminal looks like,” Canizales said.

    Advocates and scholars said the notion that Latinos are viewed as part of a migration crisis or being criminal has not stopped or disappeared.

    “It’s a great concern that we are in 2022 and we are dealing not with less, but in many ways with more open statements of racial bias against the Latino community,” Saenz said.


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