ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It was supposed to be Jennifer Wilbanks’ wedding day — an elaborate affair in suburban Georgia with 600 invited guests and 14 bridesmaids and 14 groomsmen.
Instead, the bride-to-be was sobbing into a pay phone outside an Albuquerque 7-Eleven, alone and broke, as she concocted a story about kidnappers and a blue van. She later admitted that pre-wedding jitters led her to leave home without her keys and wallet, creating a mystery that left her family in anguish for days.
Wilbanks, 32, was picked up by police after a cross-country bus trip that took her through Las Vegas to Albuquerque, where she eventually admitted her disappearance was voluntary.
‘Needed some time alone’
She was “scared and concerned about her impending marriage and decided she needed some time alone,” Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz said Saturday.
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.”
‘Spur of the moment situation’
Wilbanks returned later Saturday by plane to Atlanta, where she was picked up in a squad car on the tarmac — with a towel covering her head — to avoid the media that had gathered inside the terminal.
There were no family members at the airport to greet her, but her stepfather and an uncle had flown to Albuquerque to escort her home, authorities said.
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,” he said.
After finding herself broke in Albuquerque, Elwell said she decided to call her fiance, John Mason, 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.
Roller coaster of emotions
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.
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.”
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.
Search consumed tight-knit town
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.”
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.