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Woman who vanished after reporting child on interstate said she was abducted; police investigating

HOOVER, Ala. — Police said an Alabama woman who vanished last week after calling 911 to report a toddler on an interstate told investigators that she had been abducted, though officials have been unable to verify the claim.

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Police Chief Nicholas Derzis said Wednesday that investigators have yet to conduct a full interview with Carlee Russell, 25. He said her parents have told authorities that she is grappling with trauma from her experience and is not yet ready to talk to police.

“We’ve been unable to verify most of Carlee’s initial statement made to investigators and we have no reason to believe that there is a threat to public safety related to this particular case,” the chief added.

Russell vanished after she called 911 on Thursday night to report seeing a diaper-clad toddler on the side of Interstate 459. Her disappearance kicked off a massive search that ended Saturday night when Russell returned home.

Officials said surveillance video from Russell’s neighborhood in Hoover showed her walking down the sidewalk alone before she arrived home. She gave police a brief statement after she was taken to a hospital.

Russell said that on the night of her disappearance, a man emerged from nearby trees after she got out of her vehicle to check on the baby on the side of the road, Derzis said.

“She claimed that the man then picked her up, and she screamed,” Derzis said. “She stated he then made her go over a fence. She claimed he then forced her into a car, and the next thing she remembers is being in the trailer of an 18-wheeler.”

Russell told investigators that she also heard a woman’s voice and the crying of a baby. She said she managed to escape from the 18-wheeler but that she was caught and put into a car. Later, she said she was blindfolded and taken to a home where she was forced to undress. She told officials that she was not sexually assaulted.

The next day, she said she was fed cheese crackers and put back in the vehicle again. She said she was able to escape and ran through the woods until she came out near her home. Police noted she had a small injury to her lip and complained of head pain.

“As you can see, there are many questions left to be answered,” Derzis said Wednesday.

Among other questions, Derzis highlighted search queries Russell made before her disappearance. Among other things, she looked for information on the maximum age for an Amber Alert, how to take money from a cash register without being caught and bus tickets from Birmingham to Nashville for the day of her disappearance. She also looked up the 2008 film “Taken,” which centers on an abduction.

Surveillance footage from the interstate showed someone getting out of Russell’s vehicle — presumably Russell — but no one else. Investigators said they found no sign of a child in the area. No children fitting the description given by Russell have been reported missing.

Derzis said that while Russell was on the phone with 911, records indicated that she traveled about 600 feet.

“I’m not saying it couldn’t happen,” the chief said Wednesday at a news conference, “(but) to think that a toddler, barefoot, that could be 3 or 4 years old is going to travel six football fields without getting into the roadway, without crying … it’s just very strange.”

Authorities said they have asked to speak with Russell in detail.

“This investigation is not over,” Derzis said. “We’re still working this case, and we’ll be working this case until we uncover every piece of evidence that helps us account for the 49 hours that Carlee Russell was missing.”