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Carlee Russell admits there was no abduction. Experts say the saga puts ‘real’ missing Black women at risk.

Marquise Francis and Jayla Whitfield-Anderson
July 24, 2023

Carlee Russell, the Alabama woman who went missing earlier this month after she reported seeing a toddler walking along the interstate, admitted to police Monday that she was not kidnapped and there was no child on the side of the road walking alone before she vanished for two days.

Russell’s admission, which ends a near two-week saga filled with more questions than answers, came in a statement through her attorney, Emory Anthony, and was sent to Hoover Police Chief Nick Derzis early Monday.

In a brief press conference Monday afternoon, Derzis read the statement in which Russell asked for forgiveness.

“My client apologizes for her actions to the community, the volunteers who were searching for her, to the Hoover Police Department and other agencies, as well as to her friends and family,’’ Anthony wrote. “We ask for your prayers for Carlee as she addresses her issues.”

Derzis added that based on the facts announced last week, the department “knew it was a hoax” and said possible charges would be discussed with the local district attorney’s office on Tuesday.

‘First case that went viral’

As doubt grew around the Russell case, many critics have highlighted the twisted irony in the widespread coverage and resources devoted to Russell’s safe return that have been nonexistent for thousands of other missing Black women.

“This was really the first case that went viral of a missing Black woman or young girl,” Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, told Yahoo News.

Russell’s safe return after she vanished for 49 hours was initially celebrated as a rare victory. But as more evidence was made public last week — including a number of revealing Google searches she made on her cellphone in the days and hours leading up to her disappearance about an abduction movie and the cost of Amber Alerts — many questioned whether a crime took place at all.

Now that the new details reveal Russell was never abducted, advocates want to keep the momentum on finding other missing Black women and girls.

“We just have to keep moving,” Wilson said.

1 in 5 people missing in the U.S. are Black women

In the U.S., Black women and girls are missing at an alarming rate.

In 2022, Black women and girls accounted for approximately 18% of all missing persons cases in the U.S. despite making up just 7% of the population, according to data from the National Crime Information Center and the U.S. Census Bureau. Of the more than 546,000 people reported missing last year, Black women and girls accounted for nearly 98,000 of those cases.

And, according to experts, most of the missing cases receive little to no attention at all.

In a 2016 study titled “Missing White Women Syndrome,” attorney and legal scholar Zach Sommers found that when Black people are missing, their disappearance is covered with far fewer stories than that of people in other demographics.

“At any given time, there are tens of thousands of Americans categorized as ‘missing’ by law enforcement,” Sommers wrote. “However, only a fraction of those individuals receive news coverage, leading some commentators to hypothesize that missing persons with certain characteristics are more likely to garner media attention than others: namely, white women and girls.”

That’s why critics say the growing holes in Russell’s story only make it harder for others.

“I think people are always looking for an excuse not to care about these types of stories involving Black women,” Amara Cofer, the creator and host of “Black Girl Gone,” a podcast that highlights missing Black women and girls, told Yahoo News. “It’s sad that after so much time of wanting stories of missing Black women to get this type of attention, the story that does end up getting it is essentially a hoax.”

Eric Guster, a Birmingham, Ala.-based former criminal defense lawyer and civil litigator, called the unraveling of Russell’s story a “setback.”

“In the criminal justice system, whenever you have [kidnapping] stories like this, it makes convictions harder to achieve because the juror will remember this fake one,” he said. “And that would be in that person’s mind.”

‘They cannot turn a blind eye’

For decades, advocates have aimed to put the overwhelming number of missing Black women and girls in the forefront, and they say one possible bluff will not derail that progress.

“I know people are angry, they’re disappointed, they’re frustrated, but they cannot turn a blind eye to the families that are desperately searching for their missing loved ones,” Wilson said, noting that many of these disappearances stem from a wide range of causes, from human trafficking to domestic violence to mental health incidents.

“Even if this case is, in fact, not a legitimate case of someone missing, this is still a very important issue, and Black women still need the type of attention that this young woman got,” Cheryl Neely, a sociology professor at Oakland Community College in Michigan, told USA Today.

‘We still don’t know about those 49 hours’

Since Russell returned home, her boyfriend, Thomar Latrell Simmons, has asked the public to consider her mental health.

“I know what it seems like she did. Just stop bullying on social media,” Simmons told the New York Post. “Think about her mental health. She doesn’t deserve that. She doesn’t. Nobody deserves to be cyberbullied.”

However, for many, more questions remain.

Derzis says authorities are still uncertain about Russell’s motive, “I wish I could tell you, but I think only Carlee knows, and maybe now her attorney,” he said during the press conference on Monday. “We still don’t know about those 49 hours, where she was, did she have any help, we have no idea.”

More than $63,000 that was donated to Crime Stoppers of Metro Alabama to aid in Russell’s search will not be returned to donors, the organization announced Monday.

“This investigation is still ongoing, and accordingly, there is no basis to refund any contributions at this time,” the company said in a statement to “Furthermore, the Hoover Police Department has not requested for any donor contributions to be released or refunded.”

But advocates for missing Black women say the public deserves an explanation.

“This has the potential to retraumatize those families [of missing Black women], and the crying-wolf syndrome may lead many to not believe the very next occurrence,” Chad Dion Lassiter, a social worker and executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, told Yahoo News.

While the public still has a slew of unanswered questions, advocates say they are prioritizing Black women and girls who are actually missing.

“I’m glad that Carlee has admitted that the kidnapping was a hoax. I know a lot of people still want to know why she did it, but now that we know it was a lie, hopefully we can all move on and begin to put the energy people had for Carlee into the Black women and girls that are really missing,” Cofer said.

Photo credit: Yahoo News

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