HOOVER, Ala. - The parents of Carlethia "Carlee" Nichole Russell say their daughter "fought for her life" after the 25-year-old Alabama woman went missing when she pulled over on the interstate to check on a child.
Talita Robinson-Russell and Carlos Russell spoke to Priscilla Thompson on the TODAY show about their daughter's disappearance and the moment she returned home safe.
While acknowledging they couldn't share many details about what Carlee has told them due to the investigation, they say that they believe she was "absolutely" abducted and the person who did it is still out there.
"Carlee has given detectives her statement so they can continue to pursue her abductor," Robinson-Russell read from a brief prepared statement.
When asked about what Carlee went through in those 48 hours that she was missing, the parents say that "There were definitely moments where she fought for her life."
"There were moments she had to physically fight for her life and there were moments she had to mentally fight for her life," Robinson-Russell said.
The family is now pushing back against speculation from strangers interested in the case, asking people to please just let the investigation go forward.
"She's having to deal with the trauma with people making false allegations about her," Robinson-Russell said.
Russell's boyfriend Thomar Latrell Simmons has also commented on the speculation surrounding his girlfriend's disappearance.
Writing on Facebook after Russell was found, Simmons called out what he said were "false allegations and assumptions about me having something to do with her abduction.
"She was literally fighting for her life for 48 hours, so until she’s physically and mentally stable again, she is not able to give any updates or whereabouts on her kidnapper at this very moment," he wrote.
Carlee Russell's disappearance
The search began for Russell on Thursday night. That night, she called 911 and then spoke to a family member, saying that she saw a young child walking on the side of Interstate 459 South near Mile Market 11 in Hoover, Alabama.
Carlee's mother said her daughter was on the phone with a family member when she pulled over to check on the child.
"My daughter-in-law could hear her ask if the child was OK, and the child didn't respond - at least she didn't hear her respond," Robinson-Russell said. "Then she heard our daughter Carlee scream."
While the family lost contact with Carlee Russell, the line remained open.
When officers arrived at the location, they found Russell's red Mercedes still running by the interstate, but they were unable to find her or a child in the area.
"Her car door was open," Robinson-Russell said. "They have found her wig and her hat, and her cell phone."
Investigators say no children had been reported missing in the area.
Police say a witness reported seeing a man standing beside Russell’s vehicle just before officers arrived at the scene.
"A single witness has reported possibly seeing a gray vehicle with a light-complexioned male standing outside Carlee's vehicle," Hoover Police Lt. Daniel Lowe said at a press conference.
Carlee Russell found safe
Police say at around 10:45 p.m. Saturday, two days after her disappearance on Interstate 459, Russell showed up at the front door of the home in Hoover she shared with her parents.
"She walked up, banged on the door, and that was her," Hoover Police Chief Nicholas Derzis told FOX affiliate WBRC.
Speaking to TODAY, Robinson-Russell described the moment they got to see their daughter for the first time since she disappeared.
"We tried to hug her as best we could, but I had to stand back because she was not in a good state. We had to stand back and let medical professionals help her," Talitha Robinson-Russell said before becoming too emotional to speak.
Russell was taken to a local hospital for evaluation and has since been released and is back with her family.
The Hoover Police Department says detectives have spoken to Russell and are continuing their investigation.
Investigators are now working to trace Carlee's actions from when she disappeared to see if they can determine where she was in that 48-hour period.
"The details of that statement are a part of the ongoing investigation which is expected to continue over the next few days," a spokesperson for the department said in a statement. "During the initial portion of the investigation, detectives were able to retrace nearly all of Carlee’s steps until the point she went missing and are confident that will continue to be the case."
Carlee Russell (Hoover Police Department)
Who is Carlee Russell?
Investigators believe Russell got off work around 8:20 p.m. from a business at The Summit in Birmingham, picked up food and then drove towards Hoover, where she lives with her parents.
The day she disappeared, Russell went to Harpersville, where officials say she briefly interacted with members of the city's police department.
"We were honored to spend time with this smart, courteous and honoring young woman yesterday. She was handling some business in the Town of Harpersville yesterday and we were so impressed by her respect, poise, good attitude and her drive to become a nursing student and help others," the Harpersville Police Department wrote on Facebook. "When this news broke, so did our hearts. This world needs many, many more young women and young men like her."
AL.com reports that Russell is a student at Jefferson State Community College and is studying to be a registered nurse.
Jefferson State wrote on Facebook that it was "praying for her safe return" and that they were "extremely concerned" for her safety.
After news of her disappearance spread, a private donor came forward to offer a $25,000 reward, in addition to the $5,000 being offered by Crime Stoppers of Metro Alabama. That reward eventually increased to $55.,000
This story is being reported out of Atlanta.