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Nearly a week after the sudden disappearance of Carlee Russell, the Alabama woman who went missing last Thursday after reporting seeing a toddler walking along the interstate, police in the city of Hoover said they do not believe she was kidnapped.
During a 30-minute press conference Wednesday afternoon, Hoover Police Chief Nick Derzis said he does not believe a crime was committed and shared new evidence casting doubt on Russell’s abduction story, which includes a number of revealing Google searches on her cellphone in the days and hours leading up to her disappearance.
Recent searches on Russell’s phone, he said, included “How to take money from a register without being caught,” “one-way bus ticket from Birmingham to Nashville,” Amber Alert information and a search for the movie “Taken,” a film about an abduction overseas.
“This investigation is not over,” Derzis said. “However, due to the public interest and, in some cases, public fear that this story has generated, we owe it to our citizens [to share] the facts that we have uncovered.”
“It’s highly unusual the day someone is kidnapped that they Google the movie ‘Taken,’ about an abduction,” he added. “I find it very strange.”
Derzis, who was flanked by Hoover Police Capt. Keith Czeskleba and Mayor Frank Brocato, walked through how officials pieced together the moments leading up to Russell’s disappearance, including playing the 911 call she placed with the police. During the call, Russell said she'd observed a white male toddler 3 or 4 years of age walking along the interstate. The dispatcher asked her to keep an eye on the child, but Derzis said video footage shows that the car rolled at least 600 yards, or six football fields, on the shoulder of the interstate before coming to a complete stop.
“Carlee’s 911 call remains the only call about a child on the interstate,” he said, later adding, “To think that a toddler, barefoot, that is 3 or 4, to travel six football fields without crying or getting into the road, it’s very hard for me to understand.”
The police chief also said that, prior to her disappearance, Russell had taken a bathrobe and toilet paper from her spa job before leaving for the evening, and stopped at Target for granola bars and Cheez-It snacks, but that none of these items were found at the scene when officers arrived to find her car.
In the one interview that police have had with Russell thus far, Derzis said the 25-year-old nursing student told authorities that when she got out of her car to check on the toddler, a white man with orange hair grabbed her and made her go over a nearby fence and into a car. Before she knew, she said, she was in the trailer of an 18-wheeler truck, where a female accomplice was present. Russell told police she escaped once but was initially captured and put into a room, where she was given cheese crackers. At some point later, while in a vehicle, Russell told police, she was able to escape once again in the western part of Hoover and ran through the woods to her home.
The chief reiterated that the department would like to have another conversation with Russell to better understand what took place, but the family has said that because of her mental state she is not ready to talk.
“We’re ready to talk as soon as she is ready,” he said.
‘I knew it was a hoax’
Wednesday’s press conference shed substantial light into Russell’s disappearance, which sparked national headlines and a statewide search over last weekend until she returned to her family’s home alone late Saturday. Her parents and boyfriend claimed earlier this week that she had been kidnapped, but now critics are questioning the validity of their accounts.
Ahead of the presser, Eric Guster, a Birmingham-based former criminal defense lawyer and civil litigator, told Yahoo News that he had doubts about the story from the beginning.
“On Thursday I was scared. I said to myself, ‘They are snatching [this woman] off the side of the road 20 minutes away from my house.’ Then Friday it hit me — this doesn’t make any sense,” he said, explaining that Interstate 459, where Russell’s car was found, has a speed limit of 70 mph and it would be nearly impossible to spot a small child at night. “By Friday afternoon I knew it was a hoax. I knew it was a lie.”
Guster, a legal analyst who since Monday has been hosting Facebook live videos in which he discusses the case, now believes criminal charges are imminent.
“I expect them to bring a tsunami of charges,” he said. “I expect them to likely have all the videos and show all of her movements and how she made this up, to let the world know that Hoover is a safe place.”
Hoover, an affluent community, is home to about 92,000 people, according to the latest census data. Of that population, 70% are white and about 19% are Black. The median household income is just shy of $100,000. But Guster says race relations in the community have historically been tense, particularly following the 2018 police killing of 21-year-old Emantic Bradford Jr., a Black man.
“They were taking the attacks on their police department very personally … and they're going to drop the hammer on her,” Guster said.
Thumbnail credit: Carlee Russell (Hoover Police Dept)