How Carlee Russell's Kidnapping Hoax Quickly Unraveled

Carlee Russell came home safe after going missing for two days. But police have since said they suspected early on that her story about being abducted didn't add up.

By Natalie Finn Jul 29, 2023 12:00 PMTags
Watch: Carlee Russell CHARGED for Kidnapping Hoax: See Her Mugshot

Carlee Russell's parents got the only outcome that mattered to them: Their daughter is alive and came home safely.

But the true end result of the 25-year-old nursing student's actions—lying to police about being kidnapped—remains up in the air.

"It is what it is," Hoover, Ala., Police Chief Nick Derzis told reporters July 25, the day after Carlee admitted through her attorney to making up a story about being abducted. "The facts, I think, last Wednesday pretty much showed that we knew that it was a hoax."

On that Wednesday, July 19, he told the press that Russell had said she'd been held against her will for two days before managing to escape—and his detectives hadn't been able to verify most of her story.

"I wouldn't say I'm frustrated," the chief said at the time. "I'm very happy that Carlee's home, that was the main ingredient here. We'll figure it out, I promise you that. We'll end up figuring it out."

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And so they did.

Carlee is now facing misdemeanor charges of false reporting to law enforcement authorities and falsely reporting an incident, each of which carries a possible punishment of up to a year in jail and a $6,000 fine if she's convicted.

Derzis said July 28 that she turned herself in at Hoover City Jail, where she was arrested and subsequently released from custody after posting bond.

Hoover Police Department

E! News has reached out to Carlee's attorney and the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office for comment but has not yet heard back.

While this case is now in prosecutors' hands, Derzis said he'd be contacting state legislatures to urge lawmakers to review the charges that were possible pertaining to the facts of the investigation and "add an enhancement" to current legislation regarding false reports of kidnapping or other violent crime.

"Her decisions that night created panic and alarm for the citizens of our city," he told reporters, "and even across the nation."

Here's how Carlee's story unraveled:

What was the initial response to Carlee Russell's disappearance?

No piece of information was considered too small when it came to finding Carlethia "Carlee" Nichole Russell, who went missing on the night of July 13, according to a news release from Hoover police shared on social media the next day.


"We really want this to blow up," said her dad Carlos Russell, per NBC affiliate WVTM. "We want the word of the day to be Carlee. We just really want to have her back home safe."

Angela Harris, whose 19-year-old daughter Aniah Blanchard was abducted and killed in Auburn, Ala., in 2019, immediately called Carlee's parents and volunteered to lead a search. She was always among the first to show up when someone went missing, Angela told, explaining, "Just knowing the pain they're going through, I have to be."

Carlee left her part-time job at the Woodhouse Spa Birmingham at 8:20 p.m. and stopped to pick up food from Taziki's at The Colonnade shopping center at 9 p.m., according to police and details provided by her family to She then called 911 at 9:34 p.m. to report seeing a toddler walking alone on the southbound side of I-459.

She then called her brother's girlfriend and also told her there was a child on the road and she was going to check on him, according to her mother, Talitha Russell.

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On the phone, her son's girlfriend heard Carlee asking, "'Are you OK?'" Talitha told "She never heard the child say anything but then she heard our daughter scream. All you hear on her phone is background noise from the interstate."

"She probably let her guard down thinking 911 would be there in a second‚" she said of her daughter's apparent decision to get out of her car and help the child.

"Her car door was open," Russell's mother added. "They found her phone on the ground, along with her wig and her hat...Her purse was still in the car. Her Apple Watch was in her purse and her AirPods as well."

When officers located Russell's Mercedes on the highway, they said the motor was running and neither Russell nor a toddler was anywhere to be found. The news release noted there had been no other reports of a small child going missing.

Immediate responses to the police's July 14 update were heartfelt, and TikTok videos breaking down the story were already multiplying.

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What happened when Carlee Russell returned home?

Authorities were alerted at 10:45 p.m. on July 15 that Carlee had returned to the Hoover home where she lived with her parents, after which she was taken by ambulance to a hospital for evaluation, Hoover Police Lt. Keith Czeskleba said in a statement that night. She was discharged the following afternoon.

"We tried to hug her as best we could but I had to stand back because she was not in a good state," Talitha described their reunion during a July 18 TODAY interview. "So we had to stand back and let medical professionals work with her. It was..." She tearfully shook her head.


But it had been a long two days. Waiting for news of their daughter's whereabouts, "there were actually just so many calls and texts from people who maliciously lied to us," Talitha said. "I just didn't know people could be so evil."

Moreover, the jaded social media tide had started to turn against Carlee practically overnight.

"She's having to deal with the trauma of people making completely false allegations about her," her mom said.

In the meantime, her daughter had given detectives a statement so "they can continue to pursue her abductor," Talitha said. Asked by NBC News' Priscilla Thompson if she believed her daughter's abductor was still out there, she replied, "Absolutely."

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Talitha continued, "She definitely fought for her life. There were moments where she physically had to fight for her life and there were moments when she had to mentally fight for her life."

The day after Carlee was found, her boyfriend Thomar Latrell Simmons wrote in a since-deleted Instagram post, "All I asked from everyone right now is to be respectful of Carlee's situation. She was 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."

What was Carlee Russell's kidnapping story?

Carlee told detectives that, when she got out of her car to check on the child on the road, "a man came out of the trees and mumbled that he was checking on the baby," Hoover Police Chief Nick Derzis told reporters during a July 19 news conference. "She claimed that the man then picked her up and she screamed. She stated he then made her go over a fence. She claimed he then forced her into a car, and the next thing she remembers is being in the trailer of an 18-wheeler."

She told detectives she tried to run away, he said, but was caught and then blindfolded, though not tied up "because the captor said he did not want to leave impressions on her wrists."


According to the chief, Carlee said she was brought to a motel, ordered to get undressed and then photographed, but she didn't have any memory of being sexually assaulted.

At some point the next day she was put back in a vehicle, his account of Carlee's story continued, and then she was able to escape once they were in the west Hoover area. "She told detectives she ran through lots of woods until she came out near her residence," he said.

The chief noted that, when Carlee came home, her T-shirt was torn and she had "a small injury" to her lip." There was $107 tucked into her right sock, he added, and she told police her head was hurting. He also said there was no alcohol or drugs in her system.

Police had been "unable to verify most of Carlee's initial statement," he said. And what investigators had found out resulted in more questions than answers.

What was Carlee Russell doing before she disappeared?

Two days before she made the 911 call, Derzis said, Carlee's phone was used to search "do you have to pay for an amber alert or search."

On the day she went missing, he continued, Carlee looked up "how to take money from a register without being caught," "Birmingham bus station," "one way bus ticket from Birmingham to Nashville" and Taken (the 2008 film starring Liam Neeson as an ex-CIA agent whose daughter is kidnapped by human traffickers).


"There were other searches on Carlee's phone that appear to shed some light on her mindset," the chief said, "but out of respect for her privacy, we will not be releasing the content of those searches at this time."

While Carlee was talking to the 911 operator, he noted, her phone traveled at least 600 yards, or the length of six football fields.

"I'm not saying it couldn't happen," he added. "To think that a toddler, barefoot, that could be 3 or 4 years old, he's going to travel six football fields without getting in the roadway, without crying...It's just very hard for me to understand."

They were still investigating, Derzis concluded, and while authorities hadn't yet secured a second interview with Carlee, they hoped to soon.

"There are many questions left to be answered," he said, "but only Carlee can provide those answers."

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When did Carlee Russell admit she faked her kidnapping?

On July 24, Carlee's lawyer said she wasn't kidnapped, nor did she see a child on the side of the road.

She acted alone, attorney Emory Anthony said in a statement read by police.

Carlee wanted to apologize to everyone she deceived, the lawyer said, and asked for forgiveness and prayers "as she addresses her issues and attempts to move forward."

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Social media judgment was merciless, and Thomas—who deleted his posts in support of Carlee (as well as all photos of her) from his Instagram—went from being identified by national media as her boyfriend to calling her his ex.

In a statement shared to Instagram July 25, he said he and his family were "disgusted from the outcome of this entire situation" and he felt "blindsided."

Thomar Latrell Simmons / Facebook

Activists, however, stressed the importance of not getting discouraged by this uncommon turn of events.

"At the onset of this case, it seemed credible," Derrica Wilson, co-founder of the Black & Missing Foundation, which maintains a database of open missing-person cases, told WVTM. Law enforcement did "an incredible job of coming through with the investigative process," she said. "Sadly, this is the outcome."

But Carlee's case going viral and police getting to the bottom of what happened so quickly was what groups like hers wanted to see, according to Derrica, who also told CNN the public should not be deterred from making the inevitable next missing-person case go viral, too.

Hoover Police Department/ Facebook

Where is Carlee Russell now?

Carlee's attorney met with the police chief on July 25, and the lawyer told reporters the next day he expected his client would be charged in connection with her disappearance.

Anthony called their roughly 20-minute talk a "great meeting," per WIAT. "We tried to identify some things about where we go from here," he said. "There's responsibilities that we need to take care of." 

Their goals, he added, were to ensure that Carlee was "dealing with her issues" while the city of Hoover felt "comfortable and safe."

The charges against Carlee, both Class A misdemeanors, were announced at a July 28 news conference.

"Actions can have consequences," Derzis said, "and that's why we're here today."

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