Marin Cogan is a senior correspondent at Vox. She writes features on a wide range of subjects, including traffic safety, gun violence, and the legal system. Prior to Vox, she worked as a writer for New York magazine, GQ, ESPN the Magazine, and other publications.
From the beginning, the details of Carlee Russell’s disappearance seemed destined to cause an internet frenzy: Russell, a Black 25-year-old nursing student, went missing from the side of a highway in Hoover, Alabama on the night of July 13th, shortly after calling 911 to report a child wandering alone on the side of the highway.
Russell’s brother’s girlfriend, on the phone with her following her 911 call, reported hearing Carlee scream and what sounded like the phone being dropped. When the police reached Carlee’s car just a few minutes after her 911 call, they found her phone and wig nearby, along with her purse and the food she’d just picked up for dinner inside of her car. Neither Russell nor a toddler was anywhere to be found.
Russell’s disappearance went viral on TikTok and other social media platforms, and in the days following received national media attention as law enforcement agencies searched for her. The chilling details surrounding her disappearance – and the prospect that a child was used to lure her into danger – likely contributed to its going viral: fears about human trafficking and abduction have become a bigger part of the national conversation in recent years.
Then, 49 hours after she went missing, Russell showed up at the doorstep of her family home. Everyone who’d been following the case had a lot of questions. So, apparently, did the police.
In a news conference on July 19, Hoover Police Chief Nick Derzis revealed that detectives had been unable to verify many of the things that Russell had told investigators in the brief interview she gave them following her return.
According to Derzis, Russell said that after calling 911, a man emerged from the trees near the highway to say he was checking on the child. She then said the man forced her into a car, and “the next thing she remembers is being in the trailer of an 18-wheeler,” said Derzis. Russell said that the man who kidnapped her had orange hair with a bald spot, and that she heard the voice of a woman who was with him but never saw her face.
At one point, she said, she managed to escape from the trailer, but was recaptured and taken to a house where she was forced to undress and be photographed. After being put in another vehicle, Russell said she escaped again, and was able to make it to her home by running through the woods.
Derzis shared some other details that seemed to cast doubt on Russell’s story. Video footage showed Russell leaving the spa she worked at the day of her disappearance reportedly concealing a bathrobe, toilet paper, and other items. Those items, as well as the snacks she purchased from Target shortly before her disappearance, were missing, despite her purse and other belongings being left with the vehicle.
Derzis also noted that Russell drove 600 yards while on the phone with 911 saying she was watching the child, and police said they received no other reports of a toddler walking alone . (Video footage on the highway appears to show only one figure, Russell, on the side of the road.) “To think that a toddler, barefoot, that could be 3 or 4 years old, could travel six football fields without getting in the roadway, without crying, it’s very hard for me to understand,” Derzis said.
Then there were the Internet searches on Russell’s mobile phone: In the days before her arrest, Derzis said, Russell was searching for information about one-way bus tickets and how to take money from a cash register without getting caught. She also looked into whether someone had to pay for an Amber Alert – a government program that helps alert communities when children are missing. On the day she went missing, Russell apparently searched for the movie “Taken,” a 2008 thriller in which Liam Neeson plays a dad who hunts down human traffickers who kidnapped his teenage daughter and her best friend.
“I do think it’s highly unusual ... on the day someone gets kidnapped ... that they’re searching the internet, Googling the movie ‘Taken,’ about an abduction. I find that very strange,” Derzis said.
Why the Carlee Russell story took off – and what the social media response about it says
He didn’t come right out and say it, but the subtext seemed clear: Police have doubts about Russell’s story.
And just as quickly as social media users rushed to share concern for Russell and the details about her disappearance, so too did they rush to offer their opinions on the latest developments.
Some criticized Russell for perpetrating what appeared to be a hoax and argued that her story would make it harder for people to believe families when other Black women go missing.
Others condemned the rush to judgment, noting that Russell could have mental health issues that the public isn’t aware of and pointing out that missing Black women rarely receive the same amount of media attention white women do. A few said they were just happy Russell was home, regardless of what happened.
There’s still much about Russell’s story we don’t know, and certain things we may never understand, including the state of Russell’s mental health. New details could still emerge that might change the perception of her case. If past prosecutions of women who staged their own disappearances are any indication, police will likely be unsympathetic if they find evidence that she fabricated her disappearance.
When a story about a possible crime sparks national attention to the extent this one did, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The reactions are informed not only by the facts of the case, but filtered through broader contexts that exist outside of the particulars of the incident. And those responses can tell us a lot about the culture in which we live.
The public concern about Russell’s case was driven in part by the understanding that Black women rarely receive the same amount of attention that white women get when they go missing. It was also driven by the frightening details around her disappearance, including the reports of a lost child. America has been consumed by a moral panic about the idea of human traffickers lurking in the shadows, ready to kidnap unsuspecting women and children and sell them into sexual slavery.
The outsized fear is driven by internet conspiracies and misinformation, social media, politicians, and pop culture. But the reality is that the people most at risk of human trafficking are those who are already vulnerable because they live at the margins of society, sometimes as children in the foster care system, or as undocumented immigrants, or as people struggling with addiction or homelessness. They are often forgotten because the authorities don’t always identify them as victims.
And in this case, it seems clear that while our culture is obsessed with salacious sounding crimes – we’re also, whatever the truth of this case turns out to be, deeply fascinated by the idea of scam artists.
There are, unfortunately, countless real stories of missing Black women and children, like Relisha Rudd, an 8-year-old child who went missing in Washington DC in 2014 and still hasn’t been found. As the Black and Missing Foundation stated this week: “We must remain vigilant and not lose sight of the bigger picture while we await additional information.” For years, the foundation “has been sounding the alarm on the plight of missing Black and Brown people, from around the country, and their stories rarely go viral…Let’s keep hope alive for these families and channel our efforts to bringing them home.”
The public, and the media, will likely move on from Russell’s story soon. Finding Rudd, and other missing children and adults, remains just as urgent as it was before social media discovered the Russell case, and will remain just as important once it moves on.