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Why Carlee Russell’s false kidnapping claims won’t harm the search for missing Black women

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Michelle Del Rey
October 17, 2023

Carlee Russell, the Black nursing student who went missing in July after falsely reporting her own kidnapping, was sentenced to a year in jail and ordered to pay $18,000 in restitution, Alabama media outlets reported last week. Russell had been charged with two class A misdemeanors of falsely reporting to law enforcement officers and falsely reporting an incident.

The 26-year-old’s initial disappearance captivated the nation, prompting federal and local law enforcement agencies to launch a sprawling search to ensure her safe recovery. But experts believe her case won’t harm future cases of missing Black women.

Former Dallas Deputy Police Chief Craig Miller believes it’s unlikely that Russell’s disappearance makes any changes into how kidnappings are investigated in Alabama moving forward. He said law enforcement has to take every threat seriously.

Miller said he dealt with his fair share of false reports during his law enforcement career. In one instance, he recalled a time when authorities had to investigate a fake claim circulating social media about a shooting threat to a local high school.

The incident was initiated by a 17-year-old student. Miller said he didn’t view Russell’s case any different to that incident.

“There has to be a cause and effect,” he said.

In July, Russell disappeared after she called 911 claiming to have spotted a lone toddler walking on the side of a highway. After ending the call with a 911 dispatcher, Russell called her sister-in-law, who said she heard Russell scream and did not hear from her again.

Crime Stoppers of Metro Alabama raised $63,000 in the 48 hours Russell was missing. A spokesperson for the Hoover Police Department in Hoover, Ala. said that officials likely spent thousands of dollars searching for her.

Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, said that Russell’s disappearance has only put a spotlight on the disproportionate number of people of color that have gone missing.

According to FBI data, Black people make up 37 percent of missing people, despite accounting for only 14 percent of the population.

Though her organization mobilized to help find Russell during the time she went missing, she said she’s reflecting on her sentencing by focusing on the women of color who still have not been found.

“Ultimately, our goal is to help amplify a case and help bring that loved one home or provide answers for families,” she said, choosing not to comment on Russell’s case specifically, other than to say that her punishment should be determined by the judicial system.

She did note, however, that the media attention brought on by Russell’s case has shown her that the country can become galvanized to find a missing person of color when they go missing.

“People are taking notice,” she said.

Cases of people faking their own kidnappings are rare, but they do happen. In May, a 23-year-old woman in western Pennsylvania was charged with false alarm, false reports, obstruction and disorderly conduct after she lied about going missing.

In July, officials in Orlando, Fla. arrested an 11-year-old after she told police that her friend had been kidnapped as part of an online challenge. The child was handed a second-degree felony charge of making a false police report concerning the use of a firearm in a violent manner and a misdemeanor charge of misuse of 911.

She had told authorities that her friend was taken by an armed man driving a white van.

Photo credit: Reckon

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