Missing bride only a victim of cold feet
Published: Sunday, May 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 30, 2005 at 10:27 p.m.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Distressed, out of cash and in disguise, a missing Georgia bride-to-be turned up on a seedy stretch of Route 66 and told authorities Saturday she'd been abducted, then copped to the truth - she fled the pressure of her looming wedding.
Jennifer Wilbanks, 32, was picked up by police after a bus trip that took her through Las Vegas to a pay phone outside an Albuquerque 7-Eleven where she called her fiance, John Mason, and 911 late Friday and said she had been freed by kidnappers.
Family members began celebrating outside the couple's home in Duluth, Ga., but hours later, Wilbanks admitted her disappearance was voluntary.
She was "scared and concerned about her impending marriage and decided she needed some time alone," Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz said.
Police said there would be no criminal charges, although more than 100 officers led a search that involved several hundred volunteers, including many wedding guests and members of the bridal party.
"She's obviously very concerned about the stress that she's been through, the stress that's been placed on her family," Schultz said. "She is very upset."
Wilbanks, wearing a blue blazer and a pink striped blanket that completely covered her head, was en route to Atlanta Saturday evening after being escorted to Albuquerque's main airport by about 10 police officers. She did not respond to reporters' questions.
Marshall Katz, the airport police chief who escorted Wilbanks to her plane, said was met aboard the aircraft by her stepfather and an uncle.
"Arms out, big hugs, alligator tears," he said, describing the reunion.
Katz said he gave her a foot-tall white teddy bear, which she clutched for support. She planned to name it, "Al from Albuquerque," she told him.
Bill Elwell, an FBI spokesman in Albuquerque, said Wilbanks apparently decided to flee shortly after purportedly leaving for her jog Tuesday without her keys or wallet.
"Based on the information we received, it was a spur of the moment situation," Elwell told The Associated Press.
After finding herself broke in Albuquerque, Elwell said she decided to call her fiance and 911 with the story about the kidnapping.
In her 911 call, Wilbanks sounds frantic and confused, telling an operator she was kidnapped from Atlanta by a man and a woman in their 40s who were driving a blue van.
At one point, the operator asks if Wilbanks knows what direction her captors went after dropping her off in Albuquerque.
"I have no idea. I don't even know where I am," she says.
Wilbanks cut her hair so no one would recognize her, but gave no indication that she had watched news reports of the search or realized the magnitude of the situation, Elwell said.
After police reported the hoax, the mood outside Wilbanks' home went from jubilant to somber. Family members ducked inside and the blinds were drawn.
They later expressed relief that she was safe.
"Sure, we were all disappointed, maybe a little embarrassed, but you know what, if you remember all the interviews yesterday we were praying, 'At this point let her be a runaway bride,' " said the Rev. Alan Jones, who was to perform the wedding. "So God was faithful. Jennifer's alive and we're all thankful for that."
Police said Wilbanks was tired, thirsty and "very, very distressed" but in otherwise good physical condition.
Jones said the family had no idea that Wilbanks had fears about the wedding, and he believed she "probably had no clue how it had been blown out of proportion" while she was traveling across the country.
He said Mason had no hostility toward his fiancee.
"I have never met such a strong person in all my life," Jones said. "He's an incredible man."
More than 600 people had been invited to the wedding bash, and it was to feature 14 bridesmaids and 14 groomsmen.
Just hours before Wilbanks called her fiance, police in Duluth said they had no solid leads in the case and began dismantling a search center. Relatives offered a $100,000 reward for information and were planning a prayer vigil.
The hunt for Wilbanks had consumed the tight-knit town. Her picture and newspaper articles about her disappearance were on telephone poles and shop windows. Police had also seized three computers from the home she shared with Mason.
Mason did not speak publicly after Wilbanks said she lied about being abducted. Her uncle, Mike Satterfield, thanked people who had helped in the search.
"Jennifer had some issues the family was not aware of. We're looking forward to loving her and talking to her about these issues," he said.
Ryan Kelly, owner of the Park Cafe a few blocks from Wilbanks' house, which gave out coffee and sandwiches to searchers, said he was glad Wilbanks was alive and healthy.
"But that being said, this is one of the most selfish and self-centered acts I've ever seen. We saw her parents, and you could see the anguish in their eyes. It was terrible," he said.
"I don't care where you are - unless you're in the Amazon rain forest, you'd know everybody was out looking for you."
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