DULUTH, Ga. — The now-famous runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks issued a statement on Thursday saying she disappeared just days before her wedding because of "certain fears" controlling her life. Her failure to return home from jogging created a mystery that left her family in anguish for days and sparked a massive search.
She turned up on Saturday, on what would have been her wedding day — an elaborate affair in suburban Georgia with 600 invited guests and 14 bridesmaids and 14 groomsmen. The bride-to-be sobbed into a pay phone outside an Albuquerque 7-Eleven, alone and broke, as she concocted a story about kidnappers and a blue van.
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.
"I cannot fully explain what happened to me last week," she said in a statement read by Tom Smiley, pastor at Lakewood Baptist Church, where her family attends services. "I was simply running away from myself and certain fears controlling my life," she said, without specifying.
"Running away had nothing to do with cold feet, nor anything to do with leaving John," her statement said, a reference to John Mason, her fiancé. She apologized to family and friends and others and said she was receiving professional treatment.
‘Looking at options’
Wilbanks hasn’t been charged with a crime, but prosecutors have said they are investigating the matter. And the mayor of her hometown has suggested Wilbanks could be sued for the cost of the search effort.
Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said earlier this week that it could be weeks before he decides whether to charge Wilbanks for falsely claiming she had been kidnapped.
Wilbanks could face a misdemeanor charge of false report of a crime or a felony charge of false statements. The misdemeanor carries a penalty of up to a year in jail; five years in prison is the maximum sentence for the felony.
The city of Duluth, for its part, is "looking at its options" for recovering the cost of the manhunt for Wilbanks, Police Chief Randy Belcher said on Monday. He estimated the cost at "$40,000 to $60,000 of taxpayer money that we spent to search for her.”
Groom still wants to marry
The jilted groom, meanwhile, said he still wants to marry Wilbanks.
“Just because we haven’t walked down the aisle, just because we haven’t stood in front of 500 people and said our ‘I do’s,’ my commitment before God to her was the day I bought that ring and put it on her finger, and I’m not backing down from that,” Mason said Monday in an interview with Fox News.
Mason said he had given Wilbanks her ring back — she had left it at the house they shared — and that they still planned to marry. She was wearing the engagement ring during questioning Monday, authorities said.
Took taxi to Atlanta
On Monday, Belcher provided a chronology for Wilbanks’ disappearance. He said Wilbanks bought a Greyhound bus ticket to Austin, Texas, a week before running away April 26. That day, she cut her hair and had a taxi pick her up at the local library and take her to the bus terminal in Atlanta.
She never made it to Austin, instead getting off in Dallas and buying a ticket to Las Vegas. She spent some time there, mostly hanging out at the bus station, before going to Albuquerque, N.M., authorities said.
It was in Albuquerque that she called Mason and police from a pay phone, saying she had been kidnapped.
Belcher said Wilbanks told authorities that “a Hispanic man and a white female jumped her from behind” and abducted her.
“At this point, she did violate Georgia law by advising [us] of that information that she was kidnapped,” Belcher said.
Mason appealed to the prosecutor not to bring charges. “Her cutting her hair and getting on a bus and riding out of here ain’t none of Danny Porter’s business,” Mason said. “And that’s not criminal as far as I’m concerned.”
Lasseter said city officials would like to hear from Wilbanks’ family to see if “we should work with this lady on some recourse other than legally.”
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