The 25-year-old told dispatch she stopped her car to check on the child, and called a family member before losing contact, according to the Hoover Police Department.
By the time officers arrived five minutes later, Russell had seemingly disappeared, with her car engine still running, and the toddler was nowhere to be found.
Law enforcement and family members mounted a desperate search for the missing woman and pleaded with the public for help before police were notified 48 hours later that Russell had returned home on foot.
Two weeks after making headlines for a harrowing tale of disappearance, child neglect, and kidnapping, the Alabama woman admitted that she had fabricated a story about being kidnapped by a white man with “orange hair.” Just three months later, Russell has been found guilty of filing a false police report and falsely reporting the incident.
Here’s what we know about the hoax:
At the time she was reported missing, Russell lived with her parents in Hoover, a fast-growing suburb on the southern outskirts of Birmingham. She worked part-time at The Woodhouse Spa and was also a student at Jefferson State Community College, where she was studying to be a nurse, according to AL.com.
On the day she went “missing,” Russell had spent time with officers from Harpersville Police Department, according to a Facebook post asking for help finding her.
She stopped for food at Taziki’s in the nearby Colonnade mall to pick up food for herself and her mother, and then drove south onto Interstate 459, according to AL.com.
At 9.34pm, she called 911 to report coming across a young boy aged three or four in diapers walking along the side of the highway near mile marker 11. She then phoned her brother’s girlfriend to say she was stopping to check on the child. Russell lost contact with the relative, although the line remained open.
The girlfriend then heard what they thought was someone scream, followed by traffic noise from the interstate, according to AL.com.
According to police, traffic cameras caught Russell stopping at the side of the road.
The child was not sighted on the footage, and authorities haven’t received any other reports of a missing child, Hoover Police Department said in a statement last week.
When police officers arrived, they found her red Mercedes still running and belongings including a wig, phone, Apple Watch and purse, but no sign of her or the toddler, her mother Talitha Russell said.
Local, state and federal law enforcement agencies joined family and friends in the frantic search.
It would soon be revealed they were searching for a woman who wasn’t really missing, but not before the Alabama woman shared a harrowing story with police.
The return home
Early on Saturday evening (15 July), police were dispatched to the Red Roof Inn in Vestavia Hills after receiving reports of a sighting, AL.com reported.
There was no sign of Russell by the time they arrived.
Then at 10.44pm, police received a 911 call to say Russell had showed up at her home on foot.
She was reportedly in a state of shock.
Police and fire responded, and Russell was taken to UAB Hospital where she was treated for unspecified injuries before being discharged.
While she was in hospital, detectives from the Hoover Police Department took an initial statement from her.
The kidnapping claims
At a press conference on Wednesday 19 July, Hoover police chief Nicholas Derzis said detectives conducted a brief interview with Russell in hospital, where she claimed to have been abducted by a man with orange hair and a bald spot “who came out of the trees”.
She claimed the man picked her up and forced her into a car, and the next thing she remembered she was in the trailer of an 18-wheeler semi, Mr Derzis said.
Russell told police that she heard a woman and a baby in the semi, but didn’t see them.
She claimed to have escaped from the trailer, before being recaptured and taken to a house, where her alleged captors forced her to undress and pose for photographs.
She told detectives she was placed in a car and was able to escape and flee into woods and came out near her home.
Detectives noted she had a minor injury in her lip and a torn shirt. They also found $107 in cash tucked in her right sock.
“Out of respect for Carlee and her family, detectives did not press for additional information in this interview, and made plans to speak with her in detail after giving her time to rest,” Mr Derzis said following her return.
The Secret Service analysed her phone and computers, and found internet searches that are “very relevant to this case,” Mr Derzis said.
On July 11, Russell searched: “Do you have to pay for amber alert or search.”
On the day of her alleged abduction, she searched “how to take money from a register without being caught”. She also searched for a one-way bus ticket from Birmingham to Nashville departing that day, Mr Derzis said.
She searched for Taken, a 2008 thriller about an abduction starring Liam Neeson.
“There were other searches on Carlee’s phone that appear to shed some light on her mindset, but out of respect to her privacy we will not be releasing the content of those searches at this time,” the police chief said.
On Sunday, Russell’s boyfriend Thomar Latrell Simmons claimed that she had barely survived her ordeal after being kidnapped.
“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,” Mr Simmons wrote.
Mr Simmons added that he had been searching for Russell “nonstop” since he was notified of her disappearance.
He said there had been “false allegations & assumptions” that he had something to do with her abduction, adding he hadn’t let the rumours distract him.
Mr Simmons thanked the family, friends and fellow churchgoers for their help.
“All I (ask) from everyone right now is to be respectful of Carlee’s situation.”
The truth emerges
As the search for Russell continued, police began airing their doubts about the Alabama woman’s story.
At a press conference last week, Hoover police revealed Russell drove 600 yards (548m) along an Alabama interstate while on the phone with a 911 operator claiming that she was following a lost toddler.
Data from Russell’s cellphone showed she had driven the length of six football fields while talking to police dispatch, Hoover Police Department chief Derzis said during the press conference.
“To think that a toddler, barefoot, that could be three or four years old is going to travel six football fields without getting on the roadway, without crying … it’s very hard for me to understand,” Mr Derzis said.
“Carlee’s 911 call remains the only report of a child on the interstate, despite numerous vehicles passing through the area at that time,” he said.
“We don’t see anyone on the interstate other than her car, and then someone getting out of her driver’s side.”
These doubts were confirmed on 24 July, when Alabama police said Russell had admitted in a statement from her lawyer to lying about the whole affair.
“There was no kidnapping on Thursday, July 13. My client did not see a baby on the side of the road,” according to a statement from Russell’s lawyer. “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, as to her friends and family.”
“My client did not see a baby on the side of the road,” the statement continued. “My client did not leave the Hoover area when she was identified as a missing person. My client did not have any help in this incident, but this was a single act done by herself.”
The Alabama woman asked the public for forgiveness and prayers as she continued to “address her issues.”
Russell is found guilty of false reporting charges
On 28 July, authorities announced two misdemeanour charges against Russell, for false reporting to law enforcement authorities and falsely reporting an incident.
Each charge had a bond set at $1,000 and can result in up to a year in jail and a potential fine of $6,000 if convicted. Hoover Police Chief Nicholas Derzis told a press conference the charges were for “for her actions related to faking her kidnapping and subsequently making false statements to detectives”.
“Her decisions that night created panic and alarm for citizens of our city and even across the nation,” he said.
The announcement came shortly after Russell turned herself in to be placed under arrest. She posted bond and was released from jail.
On 11 October, Russell was found guilty of filing a false police report and falsely reporting the incident by a judge.
She will have to pay more than $18,000 in fines and restitution, reported WBRC.
Judge Brad Bishop ordered Russell to pay $831 for each misdemeanour charge, and more than $17,000 in restitution.
The state had asked for Russell, who has appealed the decision, to serve one year in jail.
“We stipulated and appealed the case and the reason behind it was that they’re trying to ask for jail time, which we totally disagree with,” Russell’s attorney Emory Anthony told reporters after the hearing, per WBRC. “So, in fairness, there’s no need of having a trial here, knowing their position. So we have stipulated and appealed the case and we’ll start anew in the Bessemer circuit court.”