Alabama Woman Who Went Missing After Claiming to Help a Child on a Highway Is Found

Missing Carlethia “Carlee” Nichole Russell has been found alive and safe.

via: New York Times

The 25-year-old woman in Alabama who was reported missing on Thursday night after telling a 911 dispatcher that she saw a toddler walking along the side of an interstate and would pull over to help was found late Saturday, according to the police.

The woman, Carlee Russell, showed up at her family’s front door on Saturday night, knocked and was greeted by her stunned relatives, said Nicholas Derzis, the police chief in Hoover, a suburb of Birmingham.

He said he was not sure how Ms. Russell got there, but nobody was with her when she arrived. She was taken to a hospital for evaluation.

Hoover 911 received a call at 10:45 p.m. on Saturday that said Ms. Russell had returned home, the police said in a statement. “Additional information will be provided when it becomes available,” the police said.

Her return ended a sprawling statewide search that had captured national attention and caused widespread speculation about what might have happened before her disappearance.

The circumstances of her sudden vanishing remained unclear on Sunday morning.

The case began on Thursday night when Ms. Russell told the dispatcher about the child around 9:35 p.m., called a family member to report the same details, and then pulled over on I-459 South near mile marker 11 to check on the toddler, the Hoover Police Department said.

The family member “lost contact” with Ms. Russell, but the line remained open, the police said.

When officers arrived at the site in Hoover, they found Ms. Russell’s vehicle and some of her belongings nearby, “but were unable to find her or a child in the area,” the police said in a statement.

The Hoover Police Department said it had not received any calls of someone missing a child.

Talitha Russell, the mother of Carlee Russell, said in an interview on Saturday night — hours before the younger Ms. Russell was found — that her daughter, who is known as a “kindhearted” soul and is always “the life of the party,” was having a busy and meaningful summer, working a part-time job at the Woodhouse Spa in Birmingham and taking nursing classes at Jefferson State Community College.

Talitha Russell did not immediately respond to a text and calls seeking a follow-up interview after her daughter was found.

On Saturday, she described being flooded with tips about her daughter’s possible whereabouts, which she was sharing with the police. Each new buzz on her phone ushered a jolt of anxiety, Talitha Russell said.

“We want everyone to do what they can to be relentless in searching for her, leaving no stones unturned and just getting the word out there,” she said. “Not just in Alabama or in Birmingham, but in every state.”

On Thursday night, Ms. Russell — who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Auburn University at Montgomery — finished her shift at the spa around 8:20 p.m., drove to a Mediterranean restaurant to pick up a chicken roll-up for her mother and was on her way home in Hoover when she noticed what appeared to be a small child on the side of an interstate, Talitha Russell said.

Ms. Russell first called the dispatcher who, according to Talitha Russell, told her to stay with the child until the police arrived. Ms. Russell then called her brother’s girlfriend, whose name was not shared. The girlfriend remained on the phone and listened as Ms. Russell got out of the car and called to the child, Talitha Russell said.

There was no response, but then the girlfriend heard a scream from the phone that appeared to come from Ms. Russell.

It sounded like the phone was dropped, and then all that could be heard was background noise of vehicles rolling by on the highway, Talitha Russell said.

The girlfriend immediately told the family what had happened, prompting Talitha Russell and her husband to use a phone feature that showed them Ms. Russell’s location.

They rushed to the spot on the interstate and saw their daughter’s car, its driver-side door open and engine still running. Her hat and wig were on the ground beside the car, and her phone was in a different nearby spot, Talitha Russell said.

Police officers were already at the scene. They used drones to search for Ms. Russell in the surrounding area that night as her family drove across other suburbs, looking for their daughter.

The mysterious disappearance prompted widespread concern in the state in recent days, with police officers combing through dozens of tips and potential leads.

Among the most puzzling details about the case is how no other driver on the heavily traversed interstate managed to spot a toddler walking on the side of the road that night, an image that would have surely prompted more 911 calls than just Ms. Russell’s.

“That is a little unusual,” Chief Derzis said in an interview on Saturday night, before Ms. Russell was found. He added, “The thing that we do know is that her car was on the interstate, and she was not when we got there, and that’s what we’re trying to figure out.”

There are some wooded areas near where Ms. Russell pulled over her car, but tracking dogs had combed those parts, and no consequential evidence turned up, Chief Derzis said.

The Hoover Police Department obtained traffic footage that appeared to show the moment that Ms. Russell flashed her back emergency taillights on the interstate, called 911 to report the child and pulled over her red Mercedes-Benz, Chief Derzis said, noting that the video was very grainy and investigators were working on clarifying it.

“From the time that she stopped to the time that the first officer hits the blue lights and gets to the scene — we do not see another vehicle pull over or anything like that,” Chief Derzis said.

An early tip about a gray vehicle with a man standing outside of Ms. Russell’s vehicle was discounted after the footage review, the chief added.

The Harpersville Police Department said Friday on Facebook that Ms. Russell had been in the town, about 30 miles east of Hoover, on Thursday “handling some business.” Talitha Russell said her daughter had been in Harpersville to speak with a judge about a minor traffic ticket that was ultimately dismissed.

The department said that Ms. Russell was a “smart, courteous and honoring young woman” who had impressed others that day with her “respect, poise, good attitude and her drive to become a nursing student and help others.”

Talitha Russell said she had spent her recent days praying that Ms. Russell would be found. She yearned to see her daughter’s jubilant smile, her big eyes and the Bible scripture tattooed on her left shoulder.

“God is within her,” it reads. “She will not fail.”

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