A look at Carlee Russell’s abduction hoax, and the floodgates she opened with her actions


A week prior, we were all hit with the news that Carlethia “Carlee” Nichole Russell, a 25-year-old nursing student from Alabama, was suddenly missing. The news actually hit all forms of social media, and I couldn’t believe it. A story centering on a missing Black woman was actually getting good attention on news outlets. More on that front later, but Carlee would later be found after 50 hours, and regarding her tale, she stated that she heard a baby crying inside a van, and it was followed by a man forcing her into said van and abducting her. Carlee added that a woman was also with said man, and at some point, after being placed in another vehicle, she managed to escape through the woods and find her way home.

It was quite a tale of peril and danger, but on July 24, it was revealed to be a big lie.

Suspicions (and eyebrows) were raised about Carlee’s statements for a few days, but on July 24, 2023, Carlee came clean: she made it all up. She never saw a baby. She was never abducted. She cooked the whole thing up. A detailed story of events revealed that Carlee made a lot of online searches prior to her “abduction,” including “how to pay for an Amber Alert,” a bus ticket from Birmingham to Nashville, and even a search regarding the film, Taken. My goodness.

So yeah, Carlee’s “abduction” was a hoax. It’s definitely not the first time we’ve heard of these hoaxes, but regarding Carlee, this one is just so, so damaging in so many ways. Here’s why:

Earlier this year, Lifetime released the movie, Black Girl Missing, which starred Garcelle Beauvais as Cheryl, a mother whose teenage daughter, Lauren, goes missing, but unfortunately, the case is being dismissed in favor of a teenage white girl, Jessica. Even worse, Lauren is branded as a runaway, and even made to look like a criminal during this whole ordeal. By the way, the film’s near climax saw a report that Jessica had safely returned home, and–brace yourselves…she simply ran away. Wasn’t missing. Just ran away.

Now, the film tells us what we already know and what we’ve been knowing for too long. Cases involving missing Black (or any member of the BIPOC community) women do not get one-tenth the coverage, attention, or diligence that cases regarding missing White women get. Missing girls of color often get regarded as “runaways” who are “simply acting out,” with police giving the worried parents the “Just wait around and see what turns up” speech. Meanwhile, missing White women get all sorts of attention: nearly every media outlet (local and national, and international in some cases), several forms of law enforcement involved, even actual press conferences that are as elaborate (or more so) than those in the sports world.

When a case involving a missing Black woman actually gets some semblance of attention, that’s big. That being said, it makes what Carlee did absolutely damaging. Missing Black woman cases get dismissed enough as it is. Carlee’s actions set things back in so many directions. I wouldn’t be surprised if the name “Carlee Russell” gets repeated derisively from this point on when a Black woman goes missing. But you definitely won’t hear these names:

Jennifer Wilbanks

Who here still remembers the “runaway bride”? Jennifer Wilbanks told a tale that, right before her wedding, she was abducted a Latino man, and yes, she did the racial scapegoating in her story. Turns out there was no abduction, Jennifer simply had cold feet regarding the wedding. The coverage was there, but after it was deemed a hoax, the “runaway bride” got her nickname, she became a topic of comedy for a brief while, but we all moved on from that.

Heidi Jones

I still remember this story when it broke. Heidi Jones, a former meteorologist for WABC in New York, as well as a fill-in on Good Morning America, claimed that she was raped while she was jogging and attacked once again in her home. Heidi described the “attacker” as a Hispanic “pervert” (hell’s bells), but after inconsistencies in her story were noticed, Heidi admitted to making up the story, blaming her “stressful job” for her actions. Sure, Jan. That didn’t get much attention, and again, we moved on.

Bethany Storro

A decade ago, Bethany Storro was introduced as a victim of an acid attack by, according to Bethany herself, a Black woman. However, after searching for a couple of weeks, it was determined that the only “attacker” was Bethany herself, who had received thousands of dollars in donation money since the “attack,” and was even set to appear on Oprah to discuss her “ordeal.” This got quite a bit of attention, but again, we moved on from that as well.

Sherry Papini

We all know about Sherri Papini. Went missing in November 2016 and found on Thanksgiving Day, and for four years, she stated that she was abducted and imprisoned by a pair of Hispanic women. It wasn’t until last March that the news broke that Sherri was arrested for actually fabricating her own abduction, as it came out that she ran off with an ex-boyfriend and plotted this scheme with him, which included bruising herself to keep up the ruse. All of this happened in California, so this whole story got a lot of coverage out here. Lifetime made a movie about this story earlier this year: Hoax: The Kidnapping of Sherri Papini, which starred Jaime King in the titular role.

Even with that, however, we moved on.

Now, I know that all of the examples I mentioned weren’t kidnapping hoaxes, but you get my point. The bottom line is this: Carlee Russell is a selfish hoaxer, as are all four of the women I mentioned. Here’s the thing, though. Nobody even stops to think about any of the four women I mentioned whenever a White woman goes missing; their cases still get taken seriously. I guarantee you that Carlee Russell will most likely serve as a derisive reference any time a Black woman goes missing. That, sadly, is what Carlee has done with her actions, and that’s the point I’m getting across. All abduction cases should be taken seriously and shouldn’t be met with side eyes, doubt, or raised eyebrows, yet the ones centering on missing Black women receive all of those negative reactions, and that was before Carlee. 40% of the missing persons who haven’t been found: Black women. Carlee Russell’s actions have set things too far back, and all any of us can hope is that her hoax doesn’t cause that percentage to increase.

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