Carlee Russell, A Wandering Baby, And The Politics Of A Tall Tale

Opinion: Even if she is lying, it shouldn’t distract from the very real issue of Black women remaining in danger of abduction.

As of Friday morning, the Carlee Russell saga continues to unfold. What we’ve seen already is wildly compelling: a tale of phantom toddlers, missing wigs, Cheez-Its, and Jussie Smollett managing to trend for the fourth year in a row despite minding his business.

But it also involves more exigent issues involving the connection between racism and abduction in America, the perception of Black woman credibility and loyal parents willing to put their reputations on the line for their baby.

A brief-ish recap: 25-year-old Hoover, Ala., resident Carlethia Russell made a call to 911 on July 13, claiming that she saw a white male toddler walking alone on Interstate 459. The dispatcher asked Russell to keep an eye on the kid, which Russell agreed to do before they disconnected.

When officers arrived, Russell was nowhere to be found – her wig, purse, phone and Apple Watch left in and near her Mercedes. The story, now about two potential missing persons, made national headlines – rare for a non-blonde-haired-blue-eyed woman. Hoover Police commenced a search for Russell, along with friends and neighbors. A GoFundMe was established. Social media was effusive with prayers and well-wishes.

But then Russell showed back up at her parents’ house 49 hours later on July 15, seemingly unharmed. That’s when eyebrows raised.

When questioned by police, Russell said an orange-haired white man snuck out of the trees, kidnapped her and held her captive, stripping her and taking nude photos before she managed to escape.

Following her return, Russell’s parents gave an interview on NBC News’ TODAY on Tuesday (July 18), in which her mother Talitha Robinson-Russell rode hard for her daughter, while dad Carlos Russell could generously be described as only being there so he doesn’t get fined.

Details of the case bringing Russell’s story into question slowly unraveled, but it was a Wednesday press conference from the Hoover Police Department that blew everything up.

As of press time, the investigation remains ongoing. But Hoover Police Chief Nick Derzis made clear that he believes Russell is playing in everyone’s face.

Before the alleged kidnapping, Russell’s search engine results included “How to take money from a register without being caught,” “one-way bus ticket from Birmingham to Nashville,” and information about the Liam Neeson abduction film Taken. All of which confirm that Russell simply must not be into Netflix true crime documentaries.

“It’s highly unusual the day someone is kidnapped that they Google the movie ‘Taken,’ about an abduction,” Derzis said. “I find it very strange.”

There’s also the fact that Russell moved 600 yards during the 911 call when she was supposed to be watching the child, which means she was likely in a moving vehicle carrying on with her life or she’d found a Guinness-level speed demon of a child.

She also took a robe and toilet paper from her spa job and purchased Cheez-its and granola bars from a Target…none of which were recovered in her car.

At this juncture, it seems most of the country joins Derzis in incredulity: “Damn Carlee” and “Now Carlee” were trending on Twitter Wednesday afternoon. As the week closes, everyone is asking the same question: Why?

We likely won’t be talking much about this in a couple weeks. However, Russell’s motivations notwithstanding (there are several I won’t honor here since they’re entirely hearsay), the incident is a perfect powder keg for a slow news week.

Black Twitter (or Black Threads, or Black Spill or whatever) users were pitted against each other in the middle of our ongoing (and exhausting) war of ideology that is typically split between genders. Those who expressed disgust at people who publicly questioned Russell before Wednesday are now, in their concession, doubling down on their insistence that people are trash for questioning Black women in general. Sound familiar…?  (*cough*Jussie*cough*)

Meanwhile, right-wingers (and their Black marionettes) are rejoicing in a Black woman getting dragged, while insisting that she be locked up for life like she shot up a school or something. They’re frothing at the mouth to vote for Donald Trump again despite his flowing river of lies, but a powerless young Black woman from Alabama...? Throw the book at her!

The best part of an otherwise sad situation, and that which convinces me I’m headed straight to Hell by way of laughter, are the memes rattling off like machine gun fire. There’s also a chef’s kiss of a Kevin Hart stand-up clip doing the rounds.

I’m cautiously optimistic that the incident will shine a light on the fact that Black people are overrepresented in missing persons in the United States. I don’t think that Russell “set us back” or that the world will now pay less attention to missing Black women, but the apparent hoax has us looking into cases like that of Kierra Stubbs, a 23-year-old who went missing more than nine years ago in Birmingham, Ala., just a few miles up the road from Hoover.

The late Patrice O’Neal’s bit on missing white women is hitting hard right now – it’s a crying shame that the one missing Black woman story that captured the world has turned into this. As of press time, Russell hasn’t made any public comments, which is wise: Speaking now would likely only do Smollett levels of additional damage.

The scope of the whole affair and the number of people who became invested demand that Russell suffer some legal consequences. But the “victims” of her crimes don’t really extend past misallocation of taxpayer-paid manpower – society wouldn’t benefit from Russell rotting away in a prison cell.

Considering the impact of the incident on Russell’s family, the fact that it’ll be a little while before she can come back outside and that it will follow her for every job application and interview for the rest of her life… she might already have been punished enough.

Dustin J. Seibert is a native Detroiter living in Chicago. He loves his own mama slightly more than he loves music and exercises every day only so his French fry intake doesn’t catch up to him. Find him at

Latest News

Subscribe for BET Updates

Provide your email address to receive our newsletter.

By clicking Subscribe, you confirm that you have read and agree to our Terms of Use and acknowledge our Privacy Policy. You also agree to receive marketing communications, updates, special offers (including partner offers) and other information from BET and the Paramount family of companies. You understand that you can unsubscribe at any time.