Video: Why the 'runaway bride' ran

NBC News
updated 6/21/2005 11:47:07 PM ET 2005-06-22T03:47:07

So what could she possibly have been thinking? Eight weeks ago, bride-to-be Jennifer Wilbanks hopped on a Greyhound bus. She certainly would not have been the first young woman to get cold feet on her way to the altar. But she disappeared without a trace. And the search that followed gripped the nation.

Now, Jennifer and her fiancé, John Mason, finally tell their side of the story. Jennifer has received sympathy from some quarters. But she's also been mocked and ridiculed. And many people are just plain furious about her escapade. Now, speaking out for the first time, Jennifer Wilbanks gives compelling details about the wedding that never was.

Now undergoing psychiatric treatment Jennifer Wilbanks is confronting the issues she says turned her into the "Runaway Bride". An avid marathon runner, she now admits she's been running from her problems most of her life.

Jennifer Wilbanks: And ironically, you know, when I told john I was going to run, that's what I was doing. I was running away. Because that's what I've always done. That's what's comfortable to me.

Why would Jennifer Wilbanks take off just days before her wedding and without telling a soul? And what would prompt her to bring untold agony and heartache to so many people, including her fiancé, John Mason, who has remained by her side?

Wilbanks: First of all, that night, my running had absolutely nothing to do with this wonderful man sitting right here beside me. 

She says there are no easy explanations. But there might have been clues and warning signs of trouble, deep in Jennifer Wilbanks' past.  

Her story starts in Gainesville, Georgia, a town that could have doubled as the set for Andy Griffith's Mayberry, about an hour's drive from Atlanta. 

By all appearances, hers seemed an idyllic southern upbringing. She had a twin brother. Jennifer's mother co-owned a sporting goods store. Her father handled land sales for the Georgia Department of Transportation. Life seemed good.

But there had been some tough times as well. Her parents divorced when Jennifer was just six. Her mom remarried. From first grade until the end of high school, she alternated living each week between her mom and dad.

Later, her childhood home was destroyed by a tornado. But through it all, Jennifer says her love for her family stayed intact.

Wilbanks: I still kiss my dad on the lips, you know. Every phone call we end with, "I love you." I had a great life, Katie. My parents, fortunately, were able to provide for me and my brother. I grew up in an honest home. We went to church. We had our faith.

Jennifer was an honor student and varsity athlete at North Hall High school. But college, at the University of Georgia, about 40 miles from home, became one of the first challenges Jennifer would run from.

Wilbanks: And you know, there, I was just a number. And that was hard for me. It was very overwhelming.

Couric: What did you study there?

Wilbanks: I started off pre-med with biology. But then I didn't finish that. I got very overwhelmed. And very caught up in the social scene.

Couric: Everybody obviously dreams about what they want their lives to be like. What did you dream about?

Wilbanks: I dreamed of, I mean, if you want to know the truth, my mom has said this. She thinks that I was put on this earth to be a mom. 

She dropped out of college after two years and came home to take a medical assistant's position in a Gainesville hospital in the labor and delivery unit.

Wilbanks: Oh, I loved it. I used to kid around, joke around, and tell everybody that they better check my bags before I leave to make sure I didn't have any of the babies with me. 

By her twenties, Jennifer Wilbanks appeared to be a successful, happy young woman. But she says for most of her life she struggled with being a perfectionist, trying to please everyone all the time.

Wilbanks: To me, in my mind, it meant admitting that I wasn't perfect. I wasn't about to admit that I needed help.

It would be a while before trouble surfaced in public. In the mid-1990s, Jennifer Wilbanks was a popular figure in Gainesville, and had frequent dates.

Couric: Had you had any serious boyfriends before you met this guy?

Wilbanks: Yes. I have.

Couric: But were you ever engaged or ultra-serious about anybody or--

Wilbanks: I've been engaged before, yes. But we were engaged just for a few months before the wedding was called off. But the wedding was over a year away.

John Mason: That was, what, 10 years ago?

Wilbanks: Yeah.

After the broken engagement, though, some serious problems spilled out into the open. In the 1990s, she was arrested twice for shoplifting and once for theft.

Couric: A $37 theft from Wal-mart. Later that year, $1,740 worth of merchandise from a shopping mall. In April of 1998, you were charged with taking $98 worth of merchandise from still another store. I know that time you spent two weekends in jail.

Wilbanks: Right.

Couric: They often say, Jennifer, and I'm sure you both know this, that this kind of behavior or committing this kind of crime isn't about the stuff.

Mason: Cry for help.

Wilbanks: Right.

Couric: Was that a cry for help? And was anyone listening?

Wilbanks: Maybe it was a cry for help. But no one was listening.

Couric: Your mom and dad knew, right, that you had shoplifted?

Wilbanks: Oh, yes. I mean, after the fact, yes, they knew.

Couric: But did they say, "Honey, you need to get some help," or what's going on here? Or did they just sort of brush it under the carpet in a way, too?

Wilbanks: Mmm-hmm.

Couric: That $37 theft from Wal-mart. What was that about? What did you steal for $37? I'm just curious.

Wilbanks: Funny enough, a bridal magazine. And I don't even--

Couric: Well, that didn't cost $37.

Wilbanks: No. I think a video--

Mason: DVD.

Wilbanks: A DVD. I think that's something else-- I never had to steal.

Couric: But looking back on it--

Wilbanks: I could've got… I could've--

Couric: Can you figure out: “what was I thinking, why did I do that” or was this just impulsive?

Wilbanks: It was definitely impulsive. Um, I am thinking, what in the world was I doing? What was I thinking, why?

Jennifer says the largest theft in question occurred when she was a department store employee and allowed friends to take merchandise. She says she actually turned herself in. Jennifer says she paid back the money to all the stores involved.

For the next several years, her life seemed on track. And in late 2003, it got even better. She had met Mr. Right. In the fall of 2003, eight years after her first engagement was broken, Jennifer Wilbanks was about to meet the perfect guy. She was 31.

Wilbanks: I think I was that person growing up that everybody thought would be the first one to get married and have children, and, you know, the white picket fence. I think they all knew and expected that when I did do it, it was going to be big.

Like Jennifer, 31-year-old John Mason, an office manager, had been waiting for just the right person to come along. He also had a small town Georgia upbringing. His father, an attorney, had served as mayor of Duluth, Georgia, in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Mason: Loving families, well known, well respected. Yeah, we had-- I'm trying to think of the right word u-- very privileged, I would think.

Couric: And wholesome?

Mason: Very, very much so.

Couric: I understand though, speaking of wholesome, mister, that you were kind of wild when you were younger. Is this true?

Mason: Yes, unfortunately.

Couric: Tell me, why you've gotten that reputation in your youth as being a bit of a party animal.

Mason: Why I got that reputation? 

Couric: Because you earned it?

Mason: Because it's true.

But about six years ago, John became a born-again Christian. Jennifer and John's paths crossed when Jennifer's aunt noticed that like Jennifer, John was also a runner.

Mason: She called me at the office. And said, you know, I got a niece I'd love for you to meet. She's a runner like you are. She's a Christian. I think you two would really hit it off. Y'all go run sometime or something like that. Alright, Shirley, give me her phone  number, that's fine.

He called right away. And they spoke for six hours. 

Couric: What did you talk about? Everything?

Mason: Everything under the sun. I found out she has a love for football and Georgia football and the Falcons and all stuff that I loved. I was like--

Wilbanks: The Braves...

Mason: Oh my gosh. If this girl's pretty, she's perfect.

Couric: And what did you think when you all met each other, finally?

Mason: I was like, wow, yes. 

Wilbanks: That's sweet.

Mason: Yes, I said, thank you, Lord.

Couric: So, pretty soon after you all met, you knew that this was the real deal?

Mason: Oh, I knew before I met her. I just knew she was going to be beautiful. I didn't have any doubt in my mind. We talked about-- I mean-- Jennifer told me that either the day before or the day of, she's like, you know you might be coming to meet your wife. I just kind of-- but it was, once I met her, it was really easy. It was just-- everything about it was easy, I thought.

Wilbanks: It was.

So easy that they got engaged last August, 10 months after their first date. They were preparing dinner at John's house.

Mason: You know, I had the ring in my pocket. And I turned and showed it go her, and she started crying. And I got down on one knee. And she's just crying. And I was like, you know, will you marry me? And she's just crying. And I said, I asked you a question. It'd be nice for you to answer it please. And she did.

They eventually began living together at his place. But in stark contrast to John's younger, wilder days, they decided pre-marital sex was out of the question.

Couric: Why was it important for both of you to remain chaste or to not have intimate relations before your marriage? Sorry, I feel like Dr. Ruth here.

Mason: It was very important to both of us. Soon as that happened, actually, during our first conversation. She was asking me what kind of relationship we would have. And I said the relationship, if you and I ever have one would be honoring God. And what I mean by that is we would be pure until marriage.

Couric: And people are skeptical, John, about that to you.

Mason: What do you mean, skeptical? Most people didn't ask me that because they knew how I've lived, how I was living my life. And how I had changed my life. Or how God had changed my life. And knew that that wasn't going to be an issue with me regardless of who I was with.

This spring, as their big day drew closer and closer, Jennifer Wilbanks and john mason were in the final planning stages. The date on the invitation: Saturday, April 30.

No one had a clue, but Jennifer would soon be making other plans. As she kept up appearances, she dealt with caterers, gown fittings, eight different showers. It was hectic, but it was what she always wanted.

Wilbanks: I've talked about this day for a very long time. People that have grown up with me and that have just come into my life as an adult know that I have always dreamed of that fairy tale wedding. And that it was just going to have to happen for me. Or I don't think I would have been happier any other way.

The ceremony would be at a church near the couple's home. The reception at the posh Atlanta Athletic Club in Duluth.   

Couric: Fourteen bridesmaids, is that right?

Wilbanks: Yes.

Couric: Fourteen groomsmen, 600 invited guests, right? By standards of your friends and other weddings, was it unusually large?

Wilbanks: I think some of the bridesmaids, groomsmen, part of it probably was a little bit.  Because we are older and we couldn't decide where to draw the line. And then, for me, it would break my heart even to have to draw a line. Because, you know, this is a big day for me. This is the most important day, thus far, of my life. And I wanted everybody that I loved and was a part of my life to be there and witness it.

Couric: That's a lot of planning, lots of logistics. Did you feel overwhelmed, nervous that, gee, I want everything to go--

Wilbanks: Perfect.

Couric: --perfectly? And did you feel under tremendous pressure during that period of time?

Wilbanks: Absolutely. I wasn't feeling pressure from everyone. Because it was exactly what I wanted. But obviously, I was stressed, because I am a perfectionist. And I want everything perfect. And that was the hard part for me.

Jennifer had registered for Lenox china, her pattern – solitaire. And Lismore tall crystal by Waterford, and the grand baroque pattern by Wallace for her silver. Family members, especially Jennifer's mom, were excited. Wedding gifts arrived and plans progressed, but as the day drew closer, fears and anxieties that Jennifer had suppressed for years started to bubble to the surface. Could she somehow escape?

Wilbanks: I would see John. And I would talk to Vicky, his mom. And she was, you know, they'd tell me about the flower arrangement that she had, you know, was working on for the centerpieces. My mom was all excited. And, you know, my dad and I remember, my dad and I were joking about walking down the aisle together and, you know, not tripping one another. So you know, during those moments, it would just be so-- take the edge off the pressure a little bit. But not the pressure that I was feeling internally, not pressure from the wedding.

Couric: Pressure to run.

Wilbanks: Right. So, you know, it kind of pacified me for the moment, you know, temporarily.

Jennifer says she handled things the way she always did. She kept them inside.

Couric: Did you ever talk to anyone, Jennifer, about how you were feeling? It sounds as if you've got great friends and a loving family.

Wilbanks: I'm very lucky I have wonderful friends and a wonderful family. But, you know, what I'm going to say to those people is it's not their fault. I wouldn't have come to you under any circumstances. No matter what.

So five days before the last shower, 11 days before the wedding, on April 19, she sneaked away and bought a Greyhound bus ticket, which was good for a week.

For the next several days, Jennifer wavered. Then, on the day the ticket would expire, Tuesday the 26, just four days before the wedding, she made up her mind.

Couric: What was it that made you reach that breaking point where you said I have got to get out of here?

Wilbanks: I know everybody wants this great answer to that but it wasn't one certain thing. Or I--  there was one moment when I said I cannot do this. I don't want to do this anymore. 

It was 8:30 on the night of April 26. Jennifer told John she was going to go for a run. It wasn't quite a lie. She did run. Just much farther than anyone thought she would.

On the night of Tuesday, April 26, just four days before her wedding, bride-to-be Jennifer Wilbanks told her fiancé John Mason she was going out for a run. It was around 8:30. In fact, it was a "cut-and-run." She had chopped off her shoulder-length hair.

Couric: You'd brought some scissors with you and just decided you were going to cut it all off.

Wilbanks: Yeah.

Couric: Any reason?

Wilbanks: I didn't want to be found. 

Jennifer says she had only $140 on her. She then took a taxi to catch a Greyhound bus at the Atlanta airport.

Couric: Why didn't you get on an airplane? Did you think you could be traced because the manifest and ID?

Wilbanks: I wasn't thinking anything like that at the time. For whatever crazy reasons, it just seemed like it would be safe for me to be on a bus. Just seemed like I could hide out better on a bus.

It was around 10:15 that night, back at the house, that Jennifer's fiancé John Mason first got concerned.

Mason: Was like whoa, she's been gone a long time. Should I go look for her? I drove all around Duluth looking in all the ditches that I could find.

Couric: You said you were looking in ditches.

Mason: I was looking all over the place. I didn't know, she could've turned an ankle and fallen or somebody could've beaten her up. I didn't know what to expect at that point. No idea.

He had no idea that Jennifer felt besieged. That she would run away never occurred to him. But, at 10:30 that night she was gone. She was scared, lonely and absolutely desperate.

Wilbanks: That night, in that moment, it really became a life or death decision for me.

Why she felt that way wouldn't be known until later. At that moment, all Jennifer says she could do was flee. She got on the bus and began her odyssey on the interstate....

Couric: What was going through your mind? All sorts of things must've been?

Wilbanks: All sorts of things. I was very, very scared. I think those first several hours, I didn't sleep. I just sat in the window seat by myself. And I just stared out the window.

Couric: When you're on that bus at any point in time did you think my family is sick with worry? My fiancé is probably so undone by this? I think some people feel that this was extraordinarily selfish of you to not consider how devastating this was to put your poor mom and dad and step-parents through this. Did that enter your mind at any point?

Wilbanks: Not before I left. I didn't think about what it would do to other people.  

Couric: Did you try not to think about them?

Wilbanks: I tried not to. But only because I didn't care. It's just that's my way.

Couric: What do you mean?

Wilbanks: I was running from that. I mean it I knew that I had hurt them. So I just pushed it down, you know, tried not to think about it. And I know that sounds so harsh.

But as the bus rumbled through the night, she says she cried about what she was doing to her family and fiancé, her thinking so frazzled she barely had a destination. She decided on Austin, Texas, because days earlier, while planning her get-away, she saw the city in a documentary featuring actor Matthew McConaughey.

Wilbanks: I wasn't going there to find Matthew McConaughey. I was watching that. I was, like, oh, I'll go to Austin, Texas. It just seemed like it wasn't out of reach. I could get there. You know, could find something to do when I got there.

But she never did get there. The next morning, after more than 10 hours on the bus, it all began to hit her:

Wilbanks: And I was, like, oh my gosh. I really did it. You know, I didn't go home. You know, I've run away. And I panicked from that moment on. I panicked.

Meanwhile, that first night back in Duluth, Jennifer's fiancé, John, was panicking as well.

Mason: I was just in a fog. I didn't know what to think.

John called the police around midnight, about three and a half hours after he'd last seen Jennifer. By the next morning, his house was packed with friends and neighbors, a huge response from the people of Duluth and neighboring communities.

Mason: Literally before lunchtime that day, there were hundreds of people come by to make flyers. Everybody was asking me so many questions and pulling me in so many different directions, I didn't have time to really just sit there and just bawl. But I was, “All right we need to make this flyer, we got to get this passed out, we need to see if anybody's seen her here or there or anywhere." And then in the meanwhile the FBI comes in. "Sir, we need to ask you some questions."

At first, many of the friends, family, and volunteers searching for Jennifer didn't know it, but John had become "a person of interest" in her disappearance.

Couric: Meanwhile, you were being questioned because--

Mason: They thought I'd done something. Yeah. That was tough. That was really tough. They thought they had another Scott Peterson on their hands.

Within a day and a half, the story of bride-to-be Jennifer Wilbank's disappearance had exploded into a huge national story. Was she dead or alive? Was her fiancé somehow involved? While hundreds searched, millions watched, all the while, Jennifer was far from home, tucked away in a greyhound bus.

Couric: Did you have any clue at any point, Jennifer, that your story, your whereabouts, had become a national obsession?

Wilbanks: I had no idea.

Couric: None?

Wilbanks: None. I had not seen. There are no TVs on buses.

Jennifer changed buses in Dallas because she says, she feared being out alone at night. She bought a ticket to Las Vegas, which would be another long overnight trip.

Wilbanks: And it was 30-something more hours on the bus. I don't know anybody-- I've never been to Vegas.

Meanwhile, 2,000 miles away in Georgia, her loved ones were grief-stricken, her fiancé and the mother of the bride inconsolable.

Couric: Did you think it was possible that she had gone out on her own?

Mason: No way. No, I never-- that thought never entered my mind.

Couric: Never?

Mason: Nope.

Couric: That she was the runaway bride.

Mason: Right. Yeah. Never in a million years would I have thought that. She put too much into this wedding to just run away. I mean really.

John, with some of Jennifer's family by his side, made appeals for help in the frantic search. but at the same time, police and the F.B.I. pressed him to take a lie detector test.

Mason: I said something-- this don't sound right. So I talked to my lawyer, and he's like, "No we're going to do a private one, then we'll tell them about it." So that's what we did, and that was hard.

Couric: You're dealing with an awful lot of stuff in that point in time.

Mason: Yeah I didn't get two or three hours of rest. I could not get. I would try to sit down in the afternoon, and really couldn't. 

The search fanned out across a wide area. But not, it turns out, wide enough, because Jennifer was actually on the other side of the country, spending her third night on the run at the Las Vegas bus depot.

Couric: What were you eating? And you had no change of clothes, right? So you were wearing--

Wilbanks: The same clothes the whole entire time. I had taken a few little snacks with me, just some little candy bars and things.

Jennifer says she cried when she thought of the anguish she must be causing.

Wilbanks: It hurt me so bad to think that. And because it hurt so bad, it made it harder for me to think about going back. Because I knew obviously how hurt they were going to be.

Couric: So the longer it went on, in a way, the harder it was to face what you had done and face them and John.

Wilbanks: Right.

With the last of her money she bought one last ticket, this time to New Mexico. She denies reports that she was headed there to see an old boyfriend. Arriving in Albuquerque Friday night, her fourth night on the run, she wandered around Albuquerque's east side and picked up a payphone outside a 7-11.

Back in Georgia it was already the early morning hours of Saturday, April 30, the day she was to be married. She finally called John at home:

Wilbanks: Where's John? Where's John?
Stepfather: Right here.

Wilbanks: My stepfather answered the phone. And I mean he was just screaming with excitement and joy and he told me at that point, he said: "You don't know how many people are out there looking for you. You don't know, you know, what-- this has been a national search." And at that moment, I was like oh my gosh. And I just felt kind of backed into a corner at that moment. 

Jennifer says she no idea the search had been so big:

Mason: Baby, where are you?
Wilbanks: I don't know. (sobbing)

By the time John picked up the phone, Jennifer had concocted a cover story. As Georgia police listened in, she described how she had been kidnapped:

Wilbanks: A man and a woman had me.

Her stepfather told Jennifer to call police in Albuquerque to report the crime. Within moments, Jennifer had embellished her tale:

Wilbanks: It was a Hispanic man and a Caucasian woman. It happened in Duluth.
Dispatcher: And the man, was he black, white, Hispanic or Native American?
Wilbanks: Hispanic.
Dispatcher: About how old?
Wilbanks: About, I mean, I would say in their 40s maybe
Dispatcher: And what was his weight, do you think, approximately thin, heavy, medium build?
Wilbanks: It was medium build.

Back in Georgia, at first there was jubilation. She had been the victim of a kidnapping but released alive. By then though, Jennifer had told police even more disturbing details. She had been forced into a blue van and raped -- a heartbreaking story, but not a word of it was true. At Albuquerque police headquarters her story collapsed.

Wilbanks: I think that it just sort of clicked with me and it clicked with them that I wasn't telling the truth. I got really scared. I knew that I couldn't keep that up. I thought, there's going to be this manhunt out there for these people, and you know there's going to be this people that are wrongly accused because of me, and I felt horrible about that. 

Couric: At one point I know one of the detectives reportedly said, "We can stop looking for the van, right?" And you said yes… You know, how did you come up with that story?

Wilbanks: How? Maybe I watched too many cops and robbers movies. It is scary that it came so easy for me. That scares me to death. And I'm trying to figure out why it was so easy for me. 

Within a few hours, the truth became public.

Couric: How did you feel when you found out that Jennifer had made the whole thing up?

Mason: I was angry for about five minutes, and then I realized, well that's the best possible outcome. Because Wednesday morning, I guess, when everybody was gathering, we're like, all right. There's four outcomes to this. We either find her dead, we find her raped, we find her beat-up, or we found out she's just run away. I got the best one. We were all praying for God to bring her home, and he did.

But instead of walking down the aisle, Jennifer was soon walking the media gauntlet. It was April 30, what was supposed to be her wedding day.

Couric: Meanwhile, you're flying back from Albuquerque with a very different kind of veil.

Wilbanks: Yes.

Couric: What were you thinking? Were you terrified to face your fiancé and your family and all those people and the police and everyone who'd been searching high and low for you?

Wilbanks: I was terrified. I was humiliated. Hence, that's why I kept my face covered. And quite frankly, I didn't want to face them. I didn't want to. I was so ashamed. I just wanted to run away again, you know. If I could've gotten away, I probably would have.

But she says her running days are over. Now she's facing up to what happened and lifting the veil on what might have caused it.

When she returned to Georgia, Jennifer Wilbanks got some sympathy, but also faced tremendous anger. The media pursuit continued.

Wilbanks: I more or less just shut down. I went back to my parents' house, went down into the basement, and stayed there. I didn't want to see anybody. I asked my parents not to allow even my brother to come in and see me. I really shut down.

And it was during that time that I knew that I was going to -- I needed help and I was going to have to absolutely get help. I couldn't fight these battles anymore by myself.

To the amazement of millions, Jennifer's fiancé, John Mason, who was put through the wringer in the bizarre episode, still wanted to be at her side. John, who says he is thinking of becoming a preacher one day, went with her to court when she pleaded no contest to lying to police about her fabricated abduction. They had been reunited a few days after she got home:

Wilbanks: And I wanted to say so much. But I couldn't say anything at all. I don't think I did say anything to him.  We just hugged one another. I was crying. He said, "Are you okay?" And I said no, but I will be. 

At an undisclosed location near Atlanta, Jennifer is now undergoing in-patient psychiatric treatment, but was given a weekend pass, during which she sat down for this interview. She says she's finally confronting issues that threatened to destroy her.

Couric: You, meanwhile, John, asked Jennifer to marry you all over again, didn't you, when she came back? I mean, you never wavered in your commitment to her.

Mason: Never even thought twice about it.

Couric: You didn't think, whoa, wait a second. My fiancée just split on me. There's a wedding planned for 600 people. She's in a Greyhound bus traveling around the country. She makes up this cockamamie story about being kidnapped. You didn't for one second say, hmm, hold on, maybe this isn't the girl for me?

Mason: Not really, no. When she got back, we talked about alright, what do we do now? I said, "Well, you got to get some help, first and foremost." Maybe we will get married one day. But we don't know the answer to that question yet.

Couric: Would you like to? Are you hoping to? Are you--

Mason: Very much.

Couric: --waiting to see what happens?

Mason: Well very much, that's what we want.

Wilbanks: We hope to.  We just—

Mason: Yeah.

Couric: Maybe a justice of the peace this time?

Mason: Right.

Wilbanks: We'll play it by ear.

Mason: Yeah.

Wilbanks: I don't want to give myself to John until I feel like I'm the right person for him. And right now, I don't.

Jennifer says her treatment, which has been going on for six weeks now,  will help her understand how a seemingly happy bride-to-be would disappear without a word  days before the wedding and take off on a Grey hound bus:

Couric: I guess the question everyone wants to know the answer to is a very simple one. Why?

Wilbanks: Honestly, I wish I could give you and everybody else that answer. Because I know that they want to hear that.  And they deserve to hear that.  But I honestly, I don't know.

All Jennifer can say for sure right now is that this was much more serious than just a bride-to-be panicking about wedding plans.

Wilbanks: And this is the part a lot of the people don't know. I had a bottle of pills. Or I had the bus ticket. And I decided not to play God that day. And decided when it was time for me to go. So I got on that bus. Were there other alternatives? Sure there were. But that's all I knew at that moment, Katie. And you know I'm so ashamed. And feel so guilty for the people that I have hurt. And how, you know, how this has affected many people's lives. But at the same time, it's the best mistake I ever made. It allowed me to realize that I desperately needed help. And that was what I did. And that's what I'm getting now.

Couric: You say you had a bottle of pills. Were you seriously considering suicide?

Wilbanks: Yes.

Couric: Clearly, these demons don't kind of show up over night.

Wilbanks: Exactly.

Couric: How long had you been wrestling with this?

Wilbanks: This is the sad part about it for me. Since birth.  

Couric: Have they told you it's depression or panic disorder or anxiety?

Wilbanks: All of the above.

Couric: Have they-- so, they've diagnosed you with anything specifically or--

Mason: No.

Wilbanks: We're not supposed to put labels on it.

Couric: Ammunition?

Wilbanks: Yeah. And that hurts.

Couric: Some people are furious about this, livid, that you concocted this story, that you misled your family and friends and the general public. What would you say to those people right now, who are watching this and are still hopping mad about this?

Mason: I tell them, please be patient.

Wilbanks: I have got to first of all, learn to be happy with myself so that I can have confidence that others will be happy with me. And that's a work in progress.    

The court has determined Jennifer should make amends for all the grief she's caused. She's been put on two years probation and will do 120 hours of some kind of community service. Over four days, $66,000 worth of law enforcement resources were dedicated to her search. She has paid the city of Duluth more than $13,000 dollars for their share of overtime and extra expenses and will pay $2,500 more to the sheriff's office.

But there are those who say it isn't enough. And many people in Duluth are angry at reports she and John have sold the rights to their life story for a possible movie or book deal.

Couric: Someone I know said she just wanted to be famous. I think a lot of people have all sorts of theories and explanations for why you did what you did. When you hear that, what do you think?

Wilbanks: How can anybody think that that's what I was trying to gain out of this?

Mason: I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy.

Wilbanks: You know, I wish you were interviewing me because I had won “American Idol.” You know? Not because of this. Who in the world wants all their secrets out there? Not me. Not like this, anyway.

Jennifer Wilbanks hopes that when people learn her full story they will come to see her as she sees herself, as a real person with real problems, not as a headline.

Couric: What do you hope people take away from this interview, Jennifer?

Wilbanks: I hope that people, will allow me to learn who I truly am. So I hope that as I go through this healing process and start to learn more about myself, accept myself, love myself for who I am, then everybody else will, too. And that I will no longer be the runaway bride. Then maybe a lot of these people could call me "friend," or call me by my real name, Jennifer.

© 2013  Reprints


Discussion comments