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Carlee Russell pleads guilty, avoids jail after falsely reporting her own kidnapping

Carlee Russell admitted in court on Thursday that she lied about being abducted in Alabama in July 2023 and about seeing a toddler walking alongside an interstate.<a href="https://www.facebook.com/sharer/sharer.php?u=https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/carlee-russell-pleads-guilty-fake-kidnapping-alabama-rcna144376&cid=article_social_share_facebook" target="_blank"></a>
Hoover Police Department
Carlee Russell admitted in court on Thursday that she lied about being abducted in Alabama in July 2023 and about seeing a toddler walking alongside an interstate.

Carlee Russell, the former Alabama nursing student who went missing for two days last July after telling 911 she found a stranded toddler, has pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to falsely reporting her own kidnapping.

Russell has admitted that she was not kidnapped and did not see a young child on the side of an interstate.

In a Jefferson County, Ala., circuit court Thursday, Russell pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts for filing a false police report. She was ordered to pay nearly $18,000 in restitution and was sentenced to 12 months of supervised probation, community service and evidence of continued mental health counseling.

During the sentencing, Judge David Carpenter also suspended Russell's two six-month sentences, as said it would be a "waste of government resources" to put her in jail.

"One of the most expensive things the government does is incarcerate people ... we need to reserve our jail for people who are genuinely a threat to the community," he said. "Although we are very upset about what you've done, you're not a threat to the community."

For the first time, the 26-year-old spoke in court as she tearfully apologized to the community for her actions last summer.

"I made a grave mistake while trying to fight through various emotional issues and stress," Russell said, while addressing the judge. "I'm extremely remorseful for the panic, fear and various range of negative emotions that were experienced across the nation."

"I want to to specifically acknowledge and take accountability for the pain and embarrassment that I inflicted upon my family, my church family, friends, neighbors, community, and all of those who were directly involved in search efforts for me," she added.

Russell was ordered to attend a review hearing in October, which will follow up on the amount of restitution that has been paid and the community service she has served.

State prosecutor Clark Morris argued during the sentencing that Russell should be given jail time, despite the charges being misdemeanors.

"This case has always been about respect for law enforcement and respect for this community as a whole," Morris said.

"Ms. Russell faked a kidnapping, duped the community, and contrived this situation. We, judge, still don't know, to this day where she was, how she got there, what she was doing, and with whom she was doing it," she said.

Russell initially told authorities that she was abducted

Russell went missing on July 13, 2023, after telling a 911 dispatcher that she found a toddler wandering on the side of an interstate highway, according to the police. Once officers arrived on the scene, Russell and the child were nowhere to be found.

Her car, wig and cellphone were found on the roadway.

It remains unclear why she fabricated a story about a stranded child and why she went off the grid for 49 hours.

Russell's disappearance and the mysterious circumstances surrounding it made national headlines before she returned home two days later on July 15.

At the time of the incident, Russell told detectives that she was kidnapped by a man who emerged from the trees near her car when she got out to check on the toddler. She also told detectives that she was blindfolded and taken to a house where she was forced to get undressed.

Russell told detectives that she managed to escape the next day and ran through the woods until she emerged near her house.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jonathan Franklin is a digital reporter on the News desk covering general assignment and breaking national news.