Authorities in Alabama cast doubt Wednesday on the story of a woman who set off a frantic search when she disappeared for two days after calling 911 to report a toddler wandering on the highway. Carlee Russell told investigators she was abducted and forced into a car Thursday, but they have been unable to verify her account, police said.
The 25-year-old’s return home Saturday prompted intense speculation about where she had been and what had happened to her.
Carlee Russell’s mother, Talitha Russell, told NBC’s “Today” show on Tuesday that her daughter was abducted and fought for her life when she disappeared.
But Hoover Police Chief Nick Derzis cast doubt on that account at a news conference, saying detectives were still investigating her whereabouts, but had so far been “unable to verify most of Carlee’s initial statement.”
She told detectives she was taken by a man who came out of the trees when she stopped to check on the child, put in a car and an 18-wheel truck, blindfolded and held at a home where a woman fed her cheese crackers, Derzis said. At some point, Carlee Russell said she was put in a vehicle again but managed to escape and run through the woods to her neighborhood.
In the days before her disappearance, she searched for information on her cellphone about Amber Alerts, a movie about a woman’s abduction and a one-way bus ticket from Birmingham, Alabama, to Nashville, Tennessee, departing the day she disappeared. Her phone also showed she traveled about 600 yards while telling a 911 operator she was following a 3- or 4-year-old child in a diaper on the side of the highway, Derzis said. She has not talked to investigators a second time.
“I do think it’s highly unusual the day that someone gets kidnapped that seven or eight hours before that they’re searching the internet, Googling the movie ‘Taken’ about an abduction,” Derzis said. “I find that very, very strange.”
Her family told police she was traumatized and not ready to talk again, he said.
“As you can see, there are many questions left to be answered, but only Carlee can provide those answers,” he said, later adding, “We want to know the truth.”
Talitha Russell told “Today” her daughter was not in a “good state” when she got back and needed medical care. She said her daughter gave detectives a statement so they could “continue to pursue her abductor.”
“There were moments when she physically had to fight for her life, and there were moments when she had to mentally fight for her life,” Talitha Russell said.
Police said Tuesday that detectives did not uncover any evidence of a toddler walking on the interstate. Surveillance video from the Russells’ neighborhood showed Carlee Russell walking down the sidewalk alone before arriving at her home. She was conscious and talking when first responders arrived, and later treated and released from a hospital, police said.
Police have said Carlee Russell called a 911 operator Thursday night and then a relative and told both of them she saw a toddler in a diaper on the side of Interstate 459 and was stopping to check on him. Police played the 911 call at Wednesday’s news conference.
When officers arrived at the location, they found her car, cellphone and wig but were unable to find her or a child in the area.
Talitha Russell told al.com last week that her daughter was headed home after leaving work and stopping to get food. Carlee Russell was on the phone with her brother’s girlfriend when they lost contact.
“My son’s girlfriend heard her asking the child, ‘Are you OK?’ She never heard the child say anything but then she heard our daughter scream,’’ Talitha Russell said. “From there, all you hear on her phone is background noise from the interstate.”
A single witness reported possibly seeing a gray vehicle and a man standing outside Carlee Russell’s vehicle, police have said.
Police said Tuesday that she also stopped for snacks on the way home, but none of the food was found in her car or with her cellphone and wig.
Hoover is about 10 miles (16 kilometers) south of Birmingham.