Jennifer Wilbanks
By MSNBC analyst & former FBI profiler
updated 10/10/2005 9:25:51 AM ET 2005-10-10T13:25:51

I was a young FBI agent in a strange town and I hadn't taken my gun with me. 

I wasn't familiar with the street, but my legs keep pumping as I knew I had to run as hard as I'd ever run in my life.  I could hear the footsteps growing louder and louder behind me as I ran.  No matter how hard I ran,  someone kept coming up from behind me, forcing me to run even faster. 

As I rounded the corner, I could hear his heavy but measured breathing as he rapidly closed the distance between the two of us.  “Come on legs!” I demanded, but he was right behind me now, and his hands were grasping and reaching out, pulling at the air and bringing him directly even with me. 

“Hang in there, it's not far now” he said as he pulled ahead of me. Like many of the other runners in this particular race, he crossed the 10K finish line in front of me.

That's what runners do; they run.  If you're not feeling well, you run; if it's lousy weather, you run, and if you're under stress, you obviously go for a run.  You run to clear your head.  You run to ease the ache in your muscles, and you run just so you can breathe a little fresh air. 

No matter what else is going on, there's always time for a run.

Jennifer Wilbanks ran
32-year-old Jennifer Wilbanks was to be married last Saturday in an expensive and lavish wedding, the social event of the year for the small Georgia town of Duluth, and one that would include 14 bridesmaids and hundreds and hundreds of guests.  She had known her fiancé for over a year, thereby passing my litmus test (that anyone getting married should know the person they're marrying for at least four seasons prior to becoming engaged), but the many wedding showers thrown in her honor and the momentum that carried her like a giant surfing wave toward the altar must have seemed totally unstoppable to her. 

Jennifer had the wedding jitters and apparently had no one to express her concerns, her consternations and her doubts to.  Every emotional sign from her friends and every street sign in the town of Duluth seemed to point her toward the First United Methodist Church where her fate and future would be combined with that of her smiling fiancé, the successful son of the town's former town mayor and now its judge.  All she had to do was make it until Saturday afternoon and then her destination (and her fate) would be sealed.

At least 50 percent of all people getting married get a case of either cold feet or seem to have feet that want to run away from the altar. Although a proposal is usually followed by “yes!” there later may come a time for “no,” or “whoa,” or even “stop the world, I want to get off!”  Most of us are familiar with the Holmes-Rahe Social Stress Scale that assigns points to life changing events. The more points you accumulate, the greater the level of stress and chance of illness in your life. A marriage carries 50 points, slightly less than that assigned to the death of a spouse or a divorce. It's not too hard to accumulate 100 or more points and to have your stress cup quickly overflowing. 

Some will speculate that Jennifer Wilbanks may have been experiencing a post traumatic stress reaction, or that she had a manic-depressive disorder, or maybe a generalized anxiety disorder, the latter of which could be the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain and/or the result of a highly stressful event in your life. What her actual reason was for literally running away from her nuptials has yet to be reported, (we're told that she has “issues” her family was previously unaware of), but what ever the reason, she had choices other than to simply run away.

But as a runner? Well, that's what runners do.

What to do about pre-wedding day jitters
Jennifer's choices could have included any of the following: Talk to a friend who's recently been married – someone who can help you differentiate between a real change of heart and mind concerning the relationship and simple jitters about the overwhelming wedding process itself.  Recall why you said “yes” in the first place and see if your reasons are still valid.  Think about what you like, what you love about your future spouse and why these aspects of his or her personality are so special to you.  Think about what you look forward to in marriage and focus on the positive.  Ask yourself, “Has my fiancé(e) changed since I said ‘yes,' and if so, has it been for the good or the bad?”

If you're a runner, go for a run and think things out for yourself; but stay in town.  Talk to a counselor to help you identify your feelings and your concerns and rank them appropriately.  Talk to your parents about your impending marriage and identify your issues to them.  Talk directly and honestly to your betrothed. 

If he or she is the right person for you, they'll understand. If they don't, well your instincts are probably right to call a halt to your impending marriage.

Know that the activities leading up to the wedding, including the wedding ceremony itself, and your life thereafter will not be perfect. Wedding books and movies focus on the fantasy of perfection, one that is not achievable in the real world.  There will always be compromise and you can not be perfectly happy all of the time, but you can work toward a good life and toward the things that are truly important to you and your spouse.  Know that both you and your soon to be partner in life are fatally flawed; you're human.  Know that you need to maintain your own identity while adopting that of your intended. 

We may be from Mars and Venus, but we're in the same solar system and we share ideas, hopes and dreams, as well as mortgages, colds, and dirty diapers— that's what helps us to know we're really alive and know that life is always about change and the ability to adapt to it, otherwise we'd have died off like the dinosaurs.  Marriage is a true leap of faith, one that half of us question before and immediately after the marriage (“What have I gotten myself into?”); and that almost half of us, unfortunately, will later walk away from.

In some cases, as in Jennifer Wilbanks', the wedding day was rapidly approaching, and the option of a cross country run with Forest Gump looked better than something she'd rather do than get married.

Do you feel trapped like a rat? Have you considered all the options that you have and marriage has not come out on top (in fact, it's the last thing that you really want to do)? The invitations have been sent out, the cake has been ordered, you have been fitted for your dress (or your tux), and the presents have already begun to arrive (some of which you even like).  For the sake of argument we'll concede that you've been through all the options, and even if you love your fiancé(e), you're definitely not ready to be married, at least not here and not now. 

Alright then, “Just say no.”

I remember the night that a young bride to be (and friend) called me and my wife just hours before her wedding. The three of us worked through all of the appropriate questions and issues and why her “yes” now seemed to be “no.”  She was right.  She was not ready to be married to this man at this time.  The overall idea of marriage was wonderful to her, only she had said yes to the wrong man.  The marriage was called off the next morning. 

Were the bride, the groom and their parents embarrassed? Of course they were, but they all had to concede that the bride had thought through this entire matter, abed at the 11th hour. Her decision was, well, her decision.  The husband-no-longer-to-be was angry and stormed away with high pitched words concerning his former fiancée's sanity— something that confirmed that she had made a good call, one better late than never. 

A crime or  a cry for help?
But back to last week's Runaway Bride.  From a Profiler's Perspective, it seemed the timing was too good to be a real abduction. Everyone who knew her said she'd never just run away, but it just didn't feel right— it didn't track like a legitimate kidnapping. The police and the FBI, to their credit, ran a two-track investigation with track (1) she's a legitimate missing person – reason unknown, and (2) she's a victim of herself, a true “run away bride.” 

No matter the reason for her change of heart and her subsequent cross-country odyssey, it was still her call. We might all have hoped that she would have found another way to call a time out in her apparent plunge into matrimony other than by staging her own kidnapping, but it sure gave cable TV something to talk about last week.  The yellow ribbons have now come down from the trees in the town square in Duluth, the candles have been extinguished in the church, and the bride's dress sits in the back of the bridal shop, possibly with a sale sign on it.  Time will tell if the relationship between Jennifer and her former (?) fiancé John can survive this trial by fire. 

Jennifer violated no law by running away from the altar (other than the law of common sense), but she crossed the line when she reported herself as an interstate kidnap victim— a story that quickly fell apart.  Her 1,500 mile jaunt from Georgia to New Mexico cost law enforcement thousands of dollars and put her friends and family through hell, but love can withstand challenge— and you and I can pay the bill. 

But what about Audrey Seiler, the Wisconsin college student who last year was prosecuted for faking her own kidnapping?  Wouldn't this type of action be just punishment for poor Jennifer?  Some say she needs counseling, not punishment; while others suggest she needs to go to jail, after all, she's not some teenager. She's an adult in her 30s and she known the difference between right and wrong.  Don't we need to set an example for her and future run away brides (and grooms)? 

Others will suggest that both she and John now have a second chance with life.  They can both continue together and work out their personal challenges or they can choose to move on with their individual lives, running off on their own separate jogging trails. 

I personally don't think that Jennifer belongs in jail, but she needs to accept ownership and responsibility for what she did. She owes a lot of people a deep and sincere apology, this so that the emotional healing process can begin.  From the investigative side of the house, we're told that she took a Greyhound bus to Albuquerque via Las Vegas.  Greyhound buses don't leave from Duluth.  The closest city to Duluth that has Greyhound service is Norcross, Ga.—a distance of 6 miles. With a bus leaving at 9:00 p.m. at night (she left for her jog at 8:30 pm) that could take her to Las Vegas for a price of $172, with a ticket from Las Vegas to Albuquerque costing $72, a total of $244+. 

Questions to be answered
How did Jennifer get to Norcross; how did she pay for her bus tickets (her wallet and her credit cards were supposedly left in her apartment)?  When did she cut her hair and where did she get the scissors; what did she use for spending money from Tuesday to Saturday?

Most importantly, when did she buy her bus ticket from Georgia to Las Vegas? 

Answers to these and other questions will help Gwinnett County, Ga., District Attorney Danny Porter decide if Jennifer's 1,500 mile “run” was the result of a last second, unplanned and unanticipated panic attack, or evidence of a premeditated act on her part.

Lessons learned
Notwithstanding the above, we have all learned some interesting lessons from this emotional marathon: 

  1. Not all boyfriends, husbands, and grooms-to-be have something to do with their significant other's disappearance, (so much for the OJ Simpson, Scott Peterson, Mark Hacking and the Robert Blake syndrome). 
  2. Your initial or qualified refusal to take a law enforcement polygraph test doesn't make you guilty; and finally,
  3. Life does imitate the movies (Remember Julia Roberts, “Run Away Bride,”1999?).

Finally, take it from me and my wife— we both woke up the morning after our wedding saying (or at least thinking), “What have we done?”

It's something we now laugh about almost four decades later.  Wedding jitters; we all have them. Just think before you run, do what your heart tells you to do and hold no one but yourself responsible for your actions.

Oh, and when you run at night, try to run with a partner, and if not, be sure someone knows the route you'll take and the time that you should return.  We care about all of you!

Downloadable information on other personal, home, family, travel and child safety issues, as well as free access to all known state and local sexual predator data base lists, can be found at: Click here:

Clint Van Zandt is an MSNBC analyst. He is the founder and president of Van Zandt Associates Inc. Van Zandt and his associates also developed, a Website dedicated "to develop, evaluate, and disseminate information to help prepare and inform individuals concerning personal and family security issues." During his 25-year career in the FBI, Van Zandt was a supervisor in the FBI's internationally renowned Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He was also the FBI's Chief Hostage Negotiator and was the leader of the analytical team tasked with identifying the "Unabomber."


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