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Alabama authorities charge Carlee Russell for fabricating story about kidnapping, finding toddler

In this image taken from video provided by ABC 33/40, Hoover, Ala., Police Department Chief Nick Derzis speaks at a news conference, Wednesday, July 19, 2023, in Hoover. Authorities in Alabama said Monday, July 24, that a woman has confessed to fabricating a story that she was kidnapped after stopping to check on a toddler she saw walking on the side of the interstate. Derzis said Carlee Russell's attorney, Emory Anthony, provided a statement on Monday saying there was no kidnapping. (ABC 33/40 via AP)

ATLANTA (AP) — Authorities in Alabama said Friday they filed criminal charges against a woman who confessed to fabricating a story that she was kidnapped after stopping to check on a toddler she saw walking on the side of an interstate highway.

Carlee Russell was charged with false reporting to law enforcement and falsely reporting an incident, both misdemeanors that carry up to a year in jail, Hoover Police Chief Nick Derzis said. Russell turned herself in to jail Friday and was released on bond, he said.

“Her decisions that night created panic and alarm for 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,” he said. “Numerous law enforcement agencies, both local and federal, began working tirelessly not only to bring Carlee home to her family but locate a kidnapper that we know now never existed. Many private citizens volunteered their time and energy in looking for a potential kidnapping victim that we know now was never in any danger.”

Derzis said he was frustrated that Russell was only being charged with two misdemeanors despite the panic and disruption she caused, but he said the law did not allow for enhanced charges.

Russell, 25, disappeared after calling 911 on July 13 to report a toddler wandering beside a stretch of interstate. She returned home two days later and told police she had been abducted and forced into a vehicle.

Her disappearance became a national news story. Images of the missing woman were shared broadly on social media.

“We don’t see this as a victimless crime,” Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said at a Friday news conference. “There are significant hours spent, resources expended as a result of this investigation.”

Marshall’s office was asked to handle the prosecution because of the attention the case received, Derzis said. Marshall said he intends to “fully prosecute” Russell and said his office will take into account the police investigation to see whether additional charges are warranted.

Russell, through her attorney, Emory Anthony, acknowledged earlier that she made the story up.

In a statement read by police on Monday, Anthony said Russell was not kidnapped, did not see a baby on the side of the road, did not leave the city and acted alone. He said Russell apologized and he asked for prayers and forgiveness as she “addresses her issues and attempts to move forward, understanding that she made a mistake in this matter.”

A message left Friday at Anthony’s office was not immediately returned.

Russell told detectives she was taken by a man who came out of the trees when she stopped to check on the child, put in a car and an 18-wheel truck, was blindfolded and was held at a home where a woman fed her cheese crackers, authorities said at a news conference last week. At some point, Russell said she was put in a vehicle again but managed to escape and run through the woods to her neighborhood.

“This story opened wounds for families whose loved ones really were victims of kidnappings,” Derzis said.

He said police have not determined where Russell went during the 49 hours she was missing. They plan to talk to the attorney general’s office about recovering some of the money spent on the investigation.