By Katherine Donlevy
An Alabama woman vanished Thursday night after stopping to help a toddler she spotted wandering along a busy highway.
Carlethia “Carlee” Nichole Russell, 25, had already called 911 and was talking with a family member as she pulled off I-459 to check on the child when the line mysteriously went silent — but remained open, according to Hoover police.
When officers arrived just minutes later, they found Russell’s running car, cell phone and purse but no sign of her or the child.
“Hoover police had not received any additional calls of someone missing a small child,” Lt. Daniel Lowe said at a press conference.
The woman’s mother believes someone took advantage of Russell, whose guard was lowered in the moments after calling 911 and felt secure being on the phone with her brother’s girlfriend.
“My son’s girlfriend heard her asking the child, ‘Are you Ok? She never heard the child say anything but then she heard our daughter scream,’’ Talitha Russell told AL.com.
Russell had just finished her shift at The Woodhouse Day Spa in Birmingham and stopped to pick up food for herself and her mother when she spotted the child, which she estimated to be 3 or 4 years old, Talitha said.
One witness told police they saw a gray vehicle parked near the scene and saw a “light-complexioned male” standing outside Russell’s car, according to Lowe.
She was just a few minutes from the family’s Hoover home when she disappeared.
“Her car door was open, the engine was running, and they found her phone on the ground, along with her wig and her hat,’’ Talitha said. “Her purse was still in the car. Her Apple watch was in her purse and her Air Pods as well.”
Police said an anonymous donor offered a $20,000 reward for Russell’s safe return and another $5,000 reward is available through Crime Stoppers.
Investigators are not committing to any theory surrounding Russell’s head-scratching disappearance, including the possibility that someone may have used the child as bait.
“No piece of information is too small in this investigation,” Lowe said.
“We currently are investigating every possibility in this case, we’re certainly leaving nothing off the table.”