The case of Carlethia “Carlee” Russell has taken an even more unsettling turn as she apologized through her attorney and admitted that she was not kidnapped in a hoax that flooded social media and dominated national news.
Police poked holes through her story last week and couldn’t verify her initial account of seeing an unaccompanied toddler on the side of an Alabama highway.
Hoover Police Chief Nicholas C. Derzis read the statement provided by Russell’s attorney during a news conference on Monday. The 25-year-old said she wasn’t abducted when she disappeared July 13. She returned home 49 hours after a call to 911 reporting that she saw the child on the interstate.
“My client apologizes for her actions to this community, to the volunteers who were searching for her, to the Hoover Police Department and other agencies as well,” the statement said.
The headlines that Russell received were not the norm for missing Black people, especially Black women, who disappear or are kidnapped.
It was an “unprecedented” level of news and social media coverage, said Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation.
“We ask the question all the time: to name a person of color that has garnered around-the-clock media coverage like Natalee Holloway, Chandra Levy, and the list goes on and on. And today we can say Miss Russell’s name,” said Wilson, whose nonprofit raises public awareness about missing people and helps their families work with police and news media.
Wilson also said social media influencers with millions of followers who utilized their platforms to bring awareness to Russell’s case, pushing newsrooms beyond Alabama to report her disappearance. “That’s what we want to see more of. Awareness is key. And if we have more eyes on those missing persons cases, it can result in a recovery,” she said.
Russell’s car was abandoned on Interstate 459 on Thursday evening, and the 25-year-old returned to her family home on foot late Saturday, police said. It remains unclear where she was in the meantime.
Often, Wilson says, missing people of color are treated as criminals, and children are treated as runaways.
“And if you’re classified as a runaway, you do not receive the Amber Alert or any type of media coverage at all,” she said, adding, “our young girls or women are not seen as victims when they are missing — they are typically adultified or seen as promiscuous.”
When Black women went missing in Kansas City, Missouri, last year, residents and activists said police didn’t take the community’s concerns seriously. Local law enforcement even released a video rebutting the community’s claims of a serial kidnapper. More than a month after one of those Black women disappeared, she escaped and led police to a 40-year-old white man who is now facing rape, kidnapping, and assault charges.
Of the nearly 550,000 people who went missing in 2022, more than 35% were Black, though Black people make up only 13% of the U.S. population. The vast majority of the more than 190,000 Black people who went missing last year are children under 17, according to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center’s (NCIC) Missing Person and Unidentified Person statistics, and just over half are women and girls.
During 2022, over 543,000 missing-person reports were removed from the NCIC’s records either because the person was located or returned home, or the report was invalid. The FBI did not report how many of those removed from the NCIC records or who recovered safely were Black.
“Because of the disproportionate media coverage or law enforcement resources, our cases — missing cases of people of color — tend to remain open four times longer than any other race,” said Wilson, whose organization monitors the data, and a College of William & Mary report shows the same statistics.
With limited headlines and investigations of these cases, grassroots organizations such as Black and Missing Foundation and Our Black Girls developed resources to increase awareness of missing people of color.
Capital B is taking this moment to look at just a handful of cases of missing Black women:
Devin “Sacoya” Cooper — Columbus, Ohio
Cooper was last seen shortly before midnight on August 31, 2021, leaving her home in Columbus, Ohio. The 33-year-old transgender woman was driving her 2009 black Ford Fusion to a close-by convenience store. It’s unclear if she ever made it to the store, but her best friend, Bre Belcher, received a call from her a few hours later at 3 a.m. Belcher was sleeping and didn’t answer.
Cooper was reported missing on Sept. 1 by her partner after she failed to return multiple phone calls. Local police and the FBI suspect foul play because Cooper’s car was found on the other side of town with new license plates about a month following her disappearance.
Earlier this year, Belcher told NBC News that although Cooper’s phone has never been recovered, she has noticed activity on her Facebook page, noticing twice that Cooper’s messenger icon was lit, indicating that someone was signed in on the page.
Relatives and friends have been vocal in calling for more police attention to the case. “We just want her home,” Belcher recently told NBC News. “Whether dead or alive — just home, please. She just deserves to be back to her family.”
Densil Porteous, executive director of the LGBTQ+ community center Stonewall Columbus, has also made calls for increased attention because “so many cases similar to this for trans identities are usually often unsolved.”
Anyone with information related to the disappearance of Sacoya Cooper is asked to call the Central Ohio Crime Stoppers Tip Line at (614) 461-8477 (TIPS), contact your local FBI office, or submit a tip online at tips.fbi.gov.
Rajah Adriana McQueen — Cleveland
McQueen, a 27-year-old mother of two, was last seen around 7:30 a.m. on June 26, 2021. She was getting into her car — a silver 2018 Nissan Sentra — at a crowded gas station near East 131st and Harvard Avenue. City surveillance footage some four hours later shows someone else driving the car, which now had a bullet hole in the roof and another in the back passenger door.
McQueen’s car has since been modified, according to the FBI’s missing persons database: “The vehicle’s appearance had been altered by the removal of the hubcaps and her license plate, and a ‘dealer’ plate was visible in the rear window.”
McQueen’s cousin, Alica Kirkland, told News 5 Cleveland in September that the disappearance is taking a psychological toll on relatives and friends, and that “sometimes the frustration of how long things have taken and the discouragement” can wear people down.
The FBI is offering a reward of up to $25,000 for information leading to McQueen’s recovery and/or to the recovery of her car.
Kierra Coles — Chicago
Coles, 26, was three months pregnant when she was last seen on Oct. 2, 2018. The Chicago Police Department told ABC News that Coles’ case is classified as “a high-risk missing person investigation with potential foul play suspected.”
In 2022, police released surveillance video of Coles with a man of interest at her home. They were seen driving away in her car, and the last known footage of Coles shows her withdrawing money from an ATM. The next day, the person of interest was seen returning Coles’ car to her house and driving away in his own vehicle.
Coles’ mother, Karen Phillips, holds onto hope that her daughter and first grandchild will return home. Reward money for information leading to Coles’ whereabouts has been raised to $68,000 and the Chicago Police Department has requested that any tips be submitted to CPDTip.com.
Lashaya Stine — Aurora, Colorado
Stine left her home in Aurora, Colorado, around 2 a.m. on July 15, 2016, and was never seen again. Stine, then age 16, had a scheduled job interview at Firehouse Subs the following day. She attended George Washington High School and had planned to intern at a nearby medical school that summer.
Three years ago, the Aurora Police Department and the FBI conducted a three-day search at a vacant home 13 blocks from where she was last seen because she had connections to the previous tenants, The Denver Post reported. The findings from the investigation are unclear.
Aurora Police and the Denver FBI are still investigating the case. Metro Denver Crime Stoppers is offering a reward up to $15,000 for information into Stine’s disappearance.
Arianna Fitts — Oakland, California
Arianna was just 2 years old the last time her extended family saw her in early 2016. Her mother, Nicole, left Arianna with a babysitter and her husband on April 1, 2016, as she made the two-hour commute across San Francisco’s Bay Area for her job at Best Buy.
Later that day, Nicole withdrew $600 from the bank and told her roommate she needed to meet her friend, Sam, whom none of her family or friends knew. An unverified post was made on Nicole’s Facebook that evening — “Spending time with my 3-year-old need this brake” — which many of her friends and family believe was not made by her because of Arianna’s incorrect age.
Nicole’s body was found in a shallow grave in a San Francisco park on April 8.
“We do not believe that Arianna was with Nicole at the time of her death, but we do believe Arianna’s disappearance is related to Nicole’s murder,” said FBI agent Scott Schelble during a press conference last year.
In 2017, San Francisco police searched and seized a vehicle they said belonged to Helena Martin, one of Arianna’s babysitters. Although Martin has been questioned multiple times by police, the results of that search have never been released. In March 2020, authorities announced that a $100,000 reward was being offered for information related to Nicole’s murder and Arianna’s disappearance.
If you have any information regarding Arianna’s disappearance or Nicole’s murder, please contact the San Francisco Police Department’s tip line at (415) 575-4444, or the FBI’s San Francisco Division at (415) 553-7400.
Nefertiri Trader — New Castle, Delaware
Shortly after Trader returned home from a quick trip to 7-Eleven on June 30, 2014, she went missing outside her residence in New Castle, Delaware, local police said. Around 4 a.m., a neighbor saw a man force Trader into the rear seat of her vehicle, a silver 2000 Acura RL with license plate DE 404893, and drive away.
Trader, a mother of three, worked as a housekeeper at Christiana Hospital. After her disappearance, her phone records and credit card bills were inactive. The only pieces of evidence left behind were “a crushed loaf of bread, cigarette butts, an unopened condom” and her shoes near the front door, according to The News Journal.
The New Castle County Police Department and the FBI are investigating the case. The FBI is offering a reward of up to $20,000 for information, and New Castle is offering $10,000.
Tionda and Diamond Bradley — Chicago
Diamond was 3 years old and Tionda was 10 when they disappeared from their apartment in Chicago’s predominately Black Bronzeville neighborhood in 2001. According to the FBI, the girls were reported missing to the Chicago Police Department. On the FBI’s website, it says that, according to Diamond and Tionda’s mother, “a note written by Tionda was found, stating that the two girls were going to the store and to the playground. An extensive search of the area and surrounding neighborhood met with negative results.”
In May, FBI officials had a potential break in the case when a young lady from Harris County, Texas, claimed on Facebook that she was Diamond Bradley, who would be 25 today.
The Bradleys’ great-aunt Sheliah Bradley-Smith told ABC 7 Chicago that the woman submitted a cheek swab and fingerprints to the FBI. But the results have yet to be released, and FBI officials are not commenting on the ongoing investigation.
Anyone with information about the missing Bradley sisters should contact your local FBI office or submit a tip online at tips.fbi.gov.
Capital B Staff Writers Christina Carrega, Erick Johnson, Adam Mahoney, Brandon Tensley, and Aallyah Wright contributed to this report.
This story has been updated to note that Carlee Russell has acknowledged making up her report of being abducted.
Capital B is a nonprofit news organization dedicated to uncovering important stories — like this one — about how Black people experience America today. As more and more important information disappears behind paywalls, it’s crucial that we keep our journalism accessible and free for all. But we can’t publish pieces like this without your help. If you support our mission, please consider becoming a member by making a tax-deductible donation. Thank you!