Fake Crime and Real Punishment: Carlee Russell Found Guilty
Carlee Russell said she saw a toddler walking along the side of I-459 in Hoover, Alabama. The boy was wearing nothing but a diaper, lacking any kind of adult supervision, and clearly up past his bedtime. This struck her as unusual. One doesn't normally expect to see unaccompanied babies taking nightly strolls along the side of interstate highways. The then 25-year-old Russell stopped on the side of the interstate and called 911 to report the incident, then called her brother's girlfriend to share what she saw.
Things went from strange to horrifying during the second call. Russell approached the child to offer help, then screamed. The line went quiet but stayed open. When police arrived at the scene they found Russell's car, her cell phone, her wig, and some other personal effects strewn about the road. Her car's engine was running. Her purse was inside, as were her AirPods and Apple watch.
The search for Russell began immediately. Russell's family joined the police as they scoured the immediate area, finding no other sign of Russell or the alleged child. Tips came flooding in from the community. One supposed witness claimed to have seen a gray sedan parked by Russell's vehicle and a tall man with khaki shorts on leaning into Russell's open door. Police found no evidence of such a person or his gray sedan on traffic cameras, though they did find some tire tracks in the grass nearby.
The signs pointed toward the worst possible outcome: Russell had been kidnapped, and the perpetrator had used a small child to lure her into their clutches. Russell's family feared the worst.
And then Russell just sort of showed up at home a couple days later.
So About That "Kidnapping" Thing…
Russell's family – and the police – were understandably confused when assumed kidnapping victim Carlee Russell knocked on her home's front door on Saturday night, about 48 hours after she'd disappeared.
Detectives questioned Russell soon after her return. She told them a wild story about a man with orange hair emerging from the trees, blindfolding her, bringing her to a house, and forcing her to get undressed. She managed to free herself after some time, she said, and made her way back to her house on foot. The police weren't convinced.
It didn't take long for Russell to admit that she'd made the whole thing up. There was no kidnapping, there was no orange-haired man, and there was no baby. Russell had just left her car, her phone, her wig, her AirPods, and her Apple watch sitting on the side of the interstate and disappeared for a couple days. She'd caused an incident that captured national attention for reasons that still aren't apparent.
This revelation made a lot of people very angry and was widely regarded as a bad move.
Hoover Police Chief Nicholas Drevis announced that Russell was to be charged with two misdemeanors: falsely reporting to law enforcement and falsely reporting an incident. This felt insufficient to many observers, and even to Drevis himself:
"I know many are shocked and appalled that Miss Russell is only being charged with two misdemeanors, despite all the panic and disruption her actions caused … Let me assure you, I too share the same frustration … Her decisions that night created panic and alarm for the citizens of our city and even across the nation as concern grew that a kidnapper was on the loose using a small child as bait."
The charges carried a bond of $1,000 each and are technically punishable by up to a year in jail and a $6,000 fine if convicted.
Russell apologized for her actions – though her motive is still unknown.
Stipulations and Appeals
Prosecutors wanted Russell to be punished to the full extent of the law, including a year in jail. Russell's attorneys believed that was excessive given the misdemeanor charges and it being Russell's first offense. Alabama's municipal courts do not have jury trials, which Russell's lawyers feel would give her a better chance, so they opted to stipulate and appeal the case
Choosing to stipulate and appeal the case essentially meant that Russell would acknowledge the state's evidence against her and accept a guilty decision in municipal court with the stipulation that they would immediately appeal the decision and move the case to a circuit court, this time with a full jury.
As expected, Hoover Municipal Court Judge Brad Bishop found Russell guilty of both counts. Bishop ordered Russell to pay $831 for each misdemeanor charge, $17,874 in restitution to repay the city for the resources wasted in searching for her — as well as six months of jail time for each offense. Russell and her attorneys filed an appeal immediately and plan to have the case tried in a circuit court as soon as possible.
Russell's fate remains uncertain. It's anyone's guess how her eventual jury trial will turn out, and it's hard to say what kind of punishment the circuit court will recommend if she is convicted on one or both charges. Her actual motives behind her self-kidnapping are similarly unclear. Only one thing is for certain: You really shouldn't do stuff like that.
- Filing a False Police Report (FindLaw's Learn About the Law)
- Kidnapping (FindLaw's Learn About the Law)
- Why Faking Your Own Kidnapping is Always a Bad Idea (FindLaw's Law and Daily Life)
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