Bride To Be Lied About Kidnapping
Jason Braverman  /  Zuma Press
A billboard seen in Duluth, Ga., on May 2 pokes fun at runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 5/3/2005 8:36:15 AM ET 2005-05-03T12:36:15

The jilted groom whose bride-to-be ran away four days before their wedding still wants to marry Jennifer Wilbanks, saying, “Haven’t we all made mistakes?”

“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,” John Mason said Monday in an interview with Fox News.

It was Mason’s first public statement since he learned on Saturday morning, the day of his scheduled wedding, that his fianceé was not kidnapped, but instead had cold feet.

As her family and friends feared the worst, police say the bride-to-be cut her hair, took a Greyhound bus to Las Vegas and didn’t call her family to say she wanted to back out of the lavish 600-guest wedding planned for Saturday. The disappearance triggered a huge manhunt and requests from police that Mason take a polygraph test.

Mason said he has given the 32-year-old Wilbanks her ring back — she’d left it at the house — and said they still planned to marry.

Possible charges
Even though Mason is ready to forgive the jittery bride, authorities are still peeved.

Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said he will conduct a thorough investigation before deciding whether to charge Wilbanks for falsely claiming she had been kidnapped. That could take weeks.

Porter said 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.

Weighing legal options
On Monday, discussing whether Wilbanks would be prosecuted, Porter told MSNBC's Dan Abrams: “I don’t want to sound coy, but it is really too early to tell about that. We’re still in the fact-gathering stage, … and I want to know what happened while she was out west.

“It’s really clear that in Georgia the jurisdiction or the venue for the crime of false statement is where the report is received, not necessarily where it originates,” said Porter, who appeared on MSNBC's “The Abrams Report.”

“Now we get into the harder question: Is it the right thing to do under the circumstances?” Porter said.

Hours later, at a press conference, Porter and other authorities elaborated on the timeline of Wilbanks' disappearance — including its possible origins — and the legal options police are entertaining.

Duluth police Chief Randy Belcher said that on April 19, a week before her absence, Wilbanks bought a bus ticket at a Greyhound bus station in Georgia. Belcher said the trip was scheduled for April 26. Belcher said Wilbanks told authorities that “a Hispanic man and a white female jumped her from behind” and abducted her.

From Georgia to Las Vegas
“At this point, she did violate Georgia law by advising [us] of that information that she was kidnapped,” Belcher said.

Wilbanks later said she took a cross-country bus trip to Las Vegas to avoid her wedding, and then went on to Albuquerque, N.M.

“The city of Duluth is looking at its options,” Belcher said, including how to recover the cost of undertaking a search for Wilbanks — "from $40,000 to $60,000 of taxpayer money that we spent to search for her,” he said.

We feel a tad betrayed’
Earlier, Duluth Mayor Shirley Lasseter estimated that the city had spent as much as $100,000 searching for her, and said the city might sue Wilbanks to recover. “We feel a tad betrayed, and some are very hurt about it,” the mayor said.

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.”

Carter Brank, an agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said Wilbanks “cried a little bit, showed some emotion. She appreciated the fact that a lot of people were trying to find her.… She didn’t come to a full apology, but she was somewhat remorseful.”

“We believe Georgia law will permit a prosecution in this case,” Porter said. “I have the complete discretion to decide whether the case will be prosecuted.”

Key factor: ‘Criminal responsibility’
“If there’s criminal responsibility, that’s something I have to do something about,” Porter said. “I think it’s really going to depend on the circumstances on how this was done.”

Porter also said authorities have evidence that Wilbanks’ disappearance “was not just a spur-of-the-moment thing.”

Speaking Monday to ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Porter pointed to the fact that she had cut her hair and said there was evidence she bought the bus ticket ahead of time and secretly set some cash aside.

Albuquerque reluctant to charge
Despite angry calls from some residents, authorities in Albuquerque said they had no plans to charge Wilbanks, though they haven’t ruled out the possibility.

“We don’t have to charge everybody,” said Albuquerque police spokeswoman Trish Ahrensfield. “We have discretion. We are human beings. We have feelings, and we are professional at the same time.”

By all accounts, authorities in Albuquerque befriended the woman.

Wilbanks boarded her plane wearing a new FBI hat, blazer, polo shirt and pants and carrying a new tote bag and teddy bear, a gift from the aviation police chief. She flew first-class — thanks to tickets bought by her parents — and said she planned to name the bear “Al,” for Albuquerque.

“Law enforcement is really making a major move to deal with people in crisis,” Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schulz said Sunday. “Miss Wilbanks was definitely a person in crisis.”

But in Georgia, the Gwinnett County district attorney noted that vast law-enforcement resources were used to look for the missing bride for more than three days.

Church service
On Sunday, members of Peachtree Corners Baptist Church, where Mason, Wilbanks’ fiancé, is a member, said prayers and expressed concern for the couple. Wilbanks, who is thought to be with her parents, and Mason did not attend services Sunday morning.

The Rev. Bob Horner thanked church members who had helped in the search and provided support for family members.

“No. 1, we are so thankful that Jennifer has been found,” Horner told the congregation. “No. 2, I want to publicly thank all of you who prayed and you who went to Duluth to be with the family.”

Video: Bridesmaid interview After she disappeared last week without her keys, wallet or diamond ring, more than 100 officers led a search that involved several hundred volunteers, including many wedding guests and members of the bridal party.

Porter said he had no jurisdiction over the woman’s initial 911 call in Albuquerque, in which she told an operator she was kidnapped by a man and a woman in their 40s who were driving a blue van. Through sobs, she told the dispatcher they had a small handgun. But Porter said Wilbanks could be charged for reporting her kidnapping story over the phone to Duluth Police Chief Randy Belcher.

After being questioned by the FBI, Wilbanks confessed that she had not been abducted. They say she instead had cold feet about her wedding and left Georgia on a bus to Las Vegas. She then took a bus to Albuquerque soon before her call.

Last year, a Wisconsin college student who faked her own abduction and turned up curled in a fetal position in a marsh was given three years probation for obstructing police and was ordered to repay police at least $9,000 for their search.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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