On the evening of July 13, Carlee Russell called 911 to report seeing a toddler walking alone on an Alabama highway while she was on her way home from work.
When officers arrived at the scene, they found her red Mercedes still running and a few of her belongings—including her wig, phone and purse—but no sign of the 25-year-old nursing student, according to a police report.
Two days later, Russell returned home—a seemingly happy ending. But to authorities who continued to investigate exactly what happened while she was missing, the story she told them about being kidnapped when she stopped to help this nowhere-to-be-found child on the side of the road was full of holes.
And on July 24, an attorney for Russell acknowledged she made up the whole abduction story.
Here's everything to know about the kidnapping hoax:
Who is Carlee Russell?
Carlethia "Carlee" Nichole Russell is a 25-year-old nursing student from Hoover, Ala., who made national headlines when she disappeared after making a 911 call and reappeared two days later.
How did Carlee Russell disappear?
During her commute home from work, at around 9:34 p.m. on July 13, Russell called both 911 and a family member to report spotting a child alone on the interstate I-459 South, according to authorities.
However, when police arrived, Russell's vehicle and some of her belongings, including her phone and Apple Watch, were there, but there was no trace of her or a child. Authorities soon confirmed they had not received any other calls involving a missing toddler.
Crimestoppers offered a $5,000 reward for Russell's safe return, and an anonymous donor offered an additional $20,000.
"A single witness has reported possibly seeing a gray vehicle with a light-complected male standing outside of Carlee's vehicle," Lt. Daniel Lowe stated in a press release at the time. "but we have no further information on that individual or the vehicle at this time."
Russell's mother Talitha Robinson-Russell told AL.com that Russell had called her brother's girlfriend when she went to check on the child.
"My son's girlfriend heard her asking the child, 'Are you okay?'" Robinson-Russell said. "She never heard the child say anything but then she heard our daughter scream. From there all you hear on her phone is background noise from the interstate."
When did Carlee Russell return home?
Two days after she went missing, Russell returned home July 15. Hoover Police Capt. Keith Czeskleba told NBC News that Russell was taken to a hospital for further evaluation and, upon being treated and released, she had provided them with a statement.
What happened to Carlee Russell?
After hearing from Russell, police did not share any details of what she had told them, citing their ongoing investigation.
"During the initial portion of the investigation," said Hoover PD, "detectives were able to retrace nearly all of Carlee's steps until the point she went missing and are confident that will continue to be the case."
What did Carlee Russell's loved ones say when she came home?
Russell's boyfriend, Thomar Latrell Simmons, wrote on Facebook (in a since-deleted post) that she had been "literally fighting for her life for 48 hours, so until she's physically & mentally stable again, she is not able to give any updates or whereabouts on her kidnapper at this very moment."
Mom Talitha, meanwhile, posted about how how grateful her family was that Russell was safe.
"Great morning!! My husband and I want to make this statement again as we did last night," she wrote. "It's nothing more to add or take away from how we're feeling right now. God is faithful and He has answered our prayers... We do want to ask for privacy at this time to allow us to just love on our daughter and each other with our close family and friends."
How did Carlee Russell's kidnapping story unravel?
Russell told investigators that, when she approached the child on the road, a man "came out of the trees," mumbled something about checking on the baby and then grabbed her, Hoover Police Chief Nicholas Derzis said at a July 19 news conference. "She claimed he then forced her into a car and the next thing she remembers is being in the trailer of an 18-wheeler."
Investigators had determined that Russell had moved at least 600 yards down the highway while she was on the phone with 911 and had told the dispatcher she had stopped on the road to help the child, according to the chief.
Derzis also shared that Russell had searched online for information about Amber Alerts, the abduction thriller Taken, booking a bus ticket from Birmingham, Ala., to Nashville and "how to take money from a register without being caught."
Derzis said that they'd been unable to verify Russell's story—the bare bones of which had already sparked skepticism online. After police shared these details, armchair sleuths were only more convinced something wasn't right, and genuinely concerned-sounding people lamented that the possibility of this being a hoax was a setback for victims of real crimes.
As the backlash mounted, Simmons pleaded for the online "bullying" to stop, telling the New York Post July 22, "I know what it seems like what she did. Just stop bullying on social media."
Ultimately, Russell's lawyer told reporters on July 24 that she had lied to police about being kidnapped.
"My client did not see a baby on the side of the road," attorney Emory Anthony said in a prepared statement. "My client did not leave the Hoover area when she was identified as a missing person."
Russell acted alone, he continued, and "was not with anyone or any hotel with anyone from the time she was missing. My client apologizes for her actions to this community, the volunteers who were searching for her, to the Hoover Police department and other agencies, as well to her friends and family."
(Originally published July 17, 2023, at 2:08 p.m. PT)
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