I want to believe that Carlee Russell’s actions – faking her own abduction – created a victimless crime, but they didn’t. And as with any crime, there should be consequences.
Russell’s false report is punishable by up to a year in jail.
But I don’t believe she needs jail time. She needs accountability.
A quick internet search for “Carlee Russell” will yield hundreds of articles, videos and online commentary about the 25-year-old Alabama woman who disappeared from a highway near her home following a 911 call she made. The call prompted a manhunt that became a modern anomaly: the nation, including mainstream media, appeared to show collective concern for a missing Black woman.
Russell returned home safely two days later, claiming that she had been kidnapped. She described being blindfolded and generally in fear for her life.
And women everywhere, despite the obscure details, exhaled at her safe return.
Then Russell admitted in a statement, via her lawyer, that it was made up. She had never been kidnapped. She was never held hostage. She never feared for her life.
Why Russell’s case is significant
At the end of 2022, more than 15,000 Black women were missing in the United States, according to the National Crime Information Center. In most of their cases, the media showed little concern, if they covered the women at all.
Because of “missing white woman syndrome” – a term used to describe the media’s endless fascination with endangered or missing white women – a Black woman’s disappearance is rarely cause for concern.
Russell’s case was different. Within hours of her “abduction,” internet users organized to share photos and details of her disappearance, making the case a trending topic and catching the mainstream media’s attention. Russell’s disappearance was featured everywhere, from local news to national networks, including CNN.
Coverage of Russell’s case gave Black people hope that maybe other missing Black women would receive similar attention, that maybe their cases would matter too.
Finding out that it was all a lie was disappointing; it felt like a betrayal of trust.
People were hurt
Because of the resources wasted in the search for Russell – which included private citizens, the Hoover Police Department, the FBI and other agencies – people were hurt to learn the truth, specifically Russell’s loved ones and the parents of other missing women and girls.
People like Angela Harris, whose daughter, Aniah Blanchard, disappeared in Alabama in 2019, advocated for the authorities to find Russell and became active in the search for her.
Elijah Blanchard, Aniah Blanchard’s father, told a news station in Hoover, Alabama, that old wounds had been reopened by Russell’s situation. “Aniah did fight for her life,” he said, noting Russell’s family’s claim that she had fought for her life. “It brings up terrifying, horrifying feelings within me.”
Consequence over punishment
I’ve always believed that consequences are more effective than punishment. Consequences are meant to bring about accountability and teach lessons for growth. Punishment, on the other hand, generally imposes authority and encourages shame or guilt, neither of which will serve Russell or the community overall.
And Russell is already experiencing some natural consequences. One of which, reportedly, is having been fired from her job.
Another consequence, though controversial, is being the butt of internet memes. There’s a certain irony about the idea that the same online communities concerned for Russell’s safety – and largely the cause for national attention – have found comedic relief in the details of her hoax.
Some would argue that these two things – unemployment and public ridicule – are enough consequences for her actions, but I disagree.
Russell needs to understand the greater context of her choices.
Her consequences should match the severity of her actions.
Some people believe serving time in jail would fit the situation, but in other cases where women made false reports, long terms in jail wasn’t the outcome. Breana Harmon, who faked being raped and kidnapped by a group of Black men in 2019, was sentenced to probation and restitution after admitting she lied. And Katie Sorenson, who implicated two people in a lie about kidnapping children, was sentenced to 90 days in jail – 60 of which were part of work release.
Russell doesn’t appear to be a danger to the community, so being jailed would serve no purpose.
She needs context, not jail.
Russell should be made to work with organizations dedicated to women and girls who actually are missing – organizations like Black and Missing, From the Bottom Up, and the Girls Like Me Project. She should learn the names and circumstances of women in her state who are actively missing and get involved in searching for them.
She should attend counseling. It’s impossible to speculate what led up to her decision to go missing, but she should explore the role her mental health may have planned in those decisions and seek treatment for anything unresolved.
And last, but not least. She needs to take responsibility – and not by statement or proxy. She needs to be honest about why she did what she did and speak about her experience. This can happen in her own time, but staging something like this and never having to address it personally feels like escaping accountability. Eventually, the public should hear from her.
Understanding her “why” might help someone else make better choices.
I believe Carlee Russell made a series of poor decisions that likely snowballed out of her control. For that, I have empathy.
But two things can be true simultaneously: Russell is not a villain, and she also should be held accountable for her actions.