Photo of the Day

Handouts/03.28.07/RJTECH/email from Charlie Moore/APD’s new recruiting/This picture was placed on 10 billboards across the city. It was part of APD’s new recruiting campaign that used the runaway bride as a way to get recruits. Photo: COURTESY APD Albuquerque Police spokeswoman Trish Hoffman appears in a new recruiting ad for the department.

The Bride Who Faked Her Own Kidnapping

Jennifer Wilbanks became something of a folk anti-hero, inspiring an action figure and a grocery store condiment called “Jennifer’s High Tailin’ Hot Sauce,” and numerous other items, even toast…

John Mason and Jennifer Wilbanks had planned a late April wedding with 14 bridesmaids and 14 groomsmen, but the wedding would get postponed when the bride got cold feet. For nearly a week media attention would focus on Duluth, Georgia, a growing city in the suburbs of Atlanta that the two called home.

32-year-old Jennifer Wilbanks disappeared while out jogging four days before her wedding, it sparked one of the biggest missing persons stories in America in 2005. Then the shocking truth emerged.

At roughly 8.30pm on a chilly April night in the small town of Duluth, Georgia, Jennifer Wilbanks told her fiancé, John Mason that she was popping out for a run. Mason, 32, thought nothing of it. She ran marathons – it was one of the many things they had in common. And with their wedding only 4 days away, Jennifer had a lot on her mind – a run would do her good.

But Jennifer, then 31, didn’t return that night. At 10.15pm, Mason went looking for her around Duluth in his car. “I thought maybe she might have turned her ankle and fallen,” he said. “Or someone could have beaten her up… No idea.” He called the police at around midnight and spent a sleepless night by the phone. He had little idea then, that it would be the first of many.

By morning, the first reports had gone out on the cable news services and concerned volunteers began to arrive at his door, many of them strangers, to help with the search. One of the first tasks was to copy up and distribute “Missing” flyers and posters which teams of helpers then plastered throughout town, handing them out to morning commuters in shops and at traffic intersections. The picture on those posters showed the tanned and athletic Wilbanks staring blankly at the camera through huge vacant eyes. It would soon appear on magazine covers and television screens throughout the country. Even before breakfast, reporters were gathering on Mason’s porch. One of the biggest news stories in America was just beginning to unfold.

The hunt for Jennifer was a hellish time for all concerned. Tearful pleas on television by her distraught parents, trepidatious bridesmaids searching through dumpsters terrified of what they might find. But Mason had it worst of all. The last man to see his fiancé alive found himself at the eye of a storm, both emotionally and physically. “Everyone was asking me so many questions and pulling me in so many different directions, I didn’t have time to just sit there and bawl,” he said. “And then meanwhile the FBI comes in: ‘sir, we need to ask you some questions.’ They thought I’d done something. That was tough. That was really tough. They thought they had another Scott Peterson on their hands.”

There many issues that could make a woman sabotage a relationship and become so frightened of intimacy and commitment that she would be overcome by the “fight or flight” syndrome, associated closely with post traumatic stress disorder. By all observations, Jennifer chose to flee. Many of us know people who have experienced “cold feet’ ‘before their wedding day. If there is trauma in their history, they may wrestle internally with feelings of deep unworthiness, fear of judgment, unexplained terror of trust, and the heavy burden of bringing unspoken past secrets into a marriage.

This undated family photo showing Jennifer Wilbanks, 32, of Duluth, Ga., Police in Atlanta say the 32-year-old woman who disappeared just days before her wedding has been found alive. (AP Photo/Family Photo via the Gwinnett Daily Post)

The spectre of Scott Peterson – who was sentenced to death  for the brutal murder of his pregnant wife Laci in December 2002 – haunted this story from the start. As the most reported missing person-turned murder story in America in recent years – certainly the crime to have most captivated the public – perhaps Wilbanks’s disappearance was always doomed to be seen through its prism. But the similarities here were particularly compelling – like the Petersons, Mason and Wilbanks were a young, clean-cut, all-American couple from the suburbs. Like Laci, Jennifer went mysteriously missing just before a milestone in the couple’s life – the birth of her baby, in the Peterson case, and in Wilbank’s case, her imminent wedding.

Certainly the news media sensed a potential murder narrative from the start. Within hours, the sky above Duluth filled with choppers, circling like vultures; the area in front of Mason’s home became a forest of camera tripods. The effect on television ratings of a missing middle-class white female has been proven time and again particularly over the last few years – just as the American public rooted for Elizabeth Smart, the 13 year old from Utah who was discovered kidnapped and raped, they were tuning into the Jennifer Wilbanks story in their millions.

If anything, however, all this media attention made the investigating authorities even more careful not to repeat the very public mistakes of previous cases. Scott Peterson, for example, was not even treated as a suspect for months which gave him ample time to cover his tracks. So the speed with which the FBI homed in on Mason was no great surprise. They asked him to take a lie detector test on the second day.

“I thought ‘this doesn’t sound right,’” says Mason. “I’d better talk to my lawyer.” So he took a private lie detector test and informed law enforcement of the result (he passed).

Mason as murderer was just one scenario that investigators considered. Another was that Wilbanks simply had an extreme case of cold-feet.  “It’s a very real possibility,” said the Duluth police chief Randy Belcher. “I mean, how many husbands have gone out for a pack of cigarettes and not come back?” But Mason himself didn’t believe it. “The thought never entered my mind,” he says. “Never in a million years did I think that. She put too much into this wedding.”

Perhaps then the pressure of arranging the wedding had got to her? Mason is the son of a former mayor of Duluth – a prominent family in town – so the arrangements were lavish and Wilbanks was hands-on with all of it. There were 600 invited guests (250 more than Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones had), 14 bridesmaids, 15 groomsmen and an extravagant but alcohol-free reception – both Mason and Wilbanks are Baptist – at the posh Atlanta Athletic Club, a private members club in town. So in the run-up to the wedding, her hectic schedule included meeting caterers and florists, several gown-fittings and 8 different bridal showers. A co-worker told People Magazine that “sometimes she would hang up the phone after talking to someone about the wedding and say ‘aargh, this is so frustrating!’”

There may have been other frustrations – the couple had dated for 18 months without having sex. Though Mason was reportedly a party-animal at college, he since became born-again and insisted that they abstain. So although they spent most nights together at Mason’s home in Duluth, he told Fox TV that “in God’s eyes, our relationship is still very pure”. A friend of Jennifer’s reported that she found this “upsetting”. But she too was a committed Christian – if sex was ever a factor, Wilbanks had never let on.

By the end of day three, on the eve of the wedding, the media spotlight on Wilbanks’s disappearance had reached a point where few expected to find her alive. Even the police called off their search, leaving Mason, his family and Wilbanks’s parents only with their prayers and their sapping strength. Mason was feeling particularly depleted by the process. Along with the intense panic and anguish he felt himself, he suffered sleepless nights and an endless barrage of questions from well wishers and investigators and the demands of the media. “I went from sheer panic to anger at people pointing the finger at me,” Mason told People magazine. “One minute I was on my knees crying, the next minute I was mad and lashing out at whoever was near me.”

Then in the early hours of Saturday morning – at 1.30am on his wedding day – the phone rang. Jennifer’s stepfather was first to the phone… It was Jennifer, calling from a payphone outside a 7-11 in Albuquerque, some 1400 miles away. She was alive!

When the news reached the hushed and weary crowd of 150 gathered on the lawn in front of Mason’s bungalow in Duluth, the celebration was intense – people exploded into laughter and tears, cheering and hugging each other, thanking God that their prayers were answered. According to the pastor Alan Jones, who would have officiated the couple’s wedding, “it was the most adrenaline I have ever felt.”

But the mood was short-lived. Wilbanks first told Mason that she had been kidnapped in Duluth and raped. Then she called 911 in Albuquerque and embellished the story –  her attackers had been a Hispanic man and a Caucasian woman, they drove a blue van and the man was in his 40s, of medium build. He didn’t use foreplay.

In Wilbanks’ first account for Albuquerque police, she wove a torrid tale of abduction and sexual assault by a Hispanic man with bad teeth and his heavyset white female companion.

She told police investigators that she was abducted while jogging in Duluth, Ga., and bound with rope in the back of a van before being raped by the Hispanic man and forced to perform sexual acts on the blonde woman. According to two officers’ reports, Wilbanks went into great detail about her position on the floor in the back of the van and her surroundings, including what she could see out of the van windows and the Spanish music playing.

Wilbanks’s story began to crumble when FBI investigators entered the fray of officials questioning Wilbanks, she recanted on the tale, saying “she left Georgia because of the pressures of the wedding.”

Finally one detective asked her “we can stop looking for the van, right?” And Wilbanks quietly confessed. The truth was out – Jennifer Wilbanks faked her own kidnapping. Wilbanks then told officers she wasn’t abducted at all. She simply withdrew $40 from her checking account before hopping a greyhound out of town.

What’s more: The man and woman she conjured for investigators might be modelled after a couple she told at least one officer she met on the bus to New Mexico.

John Mason celebrates in front of his home in Duluth, Ga., early Saturday, April 30, 2005 to news that his bride-to-be, Jennifer Wilbanks had been found alive. (AP Photo/Ric Feld)

With the last of her money Wilbanks had 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.

This is the phone booth at a 7-11 convenience store, in Albuquerque, N.M., Saturday, April 30, 2005 where Jennifer Wilbanks, the Georgia , called home from late Friday night according to police. Wilbanks says she was released by her abductors near the store in Albuquerque. (AP Photo/Jake Schoellkopf) Photo: JAKE SCHOELLKOPF

As detailed by The New York Timesshe told him a false abduction story, claiming that a “Hispanic man” and his white female accomplice had kidnapped her in a van and released her four days later, half a country away.

Her racially-loaded invocation of a Hispanic kidnapper drew particular commentary and controversy after the hoax was revealed. The whole thing didn’t hold up when things got more serious, however in spite of Wilbanks’ extensive level of detail. According to CBS News, she claimed that she’d been sexually assaulted by both of her kidnappers, and that she remembered hearing Spanish music playing over the van’s radio. But this story crumbled once the FBI got involved, and she confessed to investigators that she’d fled Georgia of her own volition.

Since this story had become nationally newsworthy as a search for a possibly kidnapped or murdered bride, it lost some of its importance when it was discovered that Wilbanks had merely run away. However, the coverage by some reporters and news outlets continues, discussing issues such as:

  • editorializing upon her choice of a fictional Hispanic man for her accusation
  • reporting on the gratuitous details of her lies to the police
  • speculating about what should be done to people who exact a cost on public services when they run away
  • reporting on biographical details including her previous record of petty crimes and her entry into psychological counselling.

Certainly the media got its money’s worth. An Albuquerque radio station KAGM  offered Wilbanks a $30,000 job to co-host their morning talk show. Ebay entrepreneurs have hosted offers to sell everything from T-shirts to Runaway bride kits. The “Missing” posters with Wilbanks’s creepy eyes have disappeared as quickly as they were put up. And Katie Couric got her exclusive TV special in the midst of Wilbanks’s psychiatric treatment.

Since destroying the wedding, Wilbanks suffered a furious backlash. For weeks afterwards she stayed confined to her parents’ basement in Gainesville, Georgia and issued apologetic statements through her lawyer and the reverend of her local church. Mason, however, remained loyally by her side throughout. He accompanied her to court in Duluth where she pleaded no contest to lying to police.

Wilbanks’ stunt left many in her hometown feeling similarly betrayed, leading to calls for authorities to press charges against her. Some wedding guests apparently turned on Wilbanks as well; eBay bidding on her wedding invitations hit as high as $300.

Herobuilders, a manufacturer of action figures, rushed to produce a doll representing Wilbanks, wearing a jogging suit bearing the slogan “Vegas baby”. It came with a small towel, to put over the doll’s head, to model how she appeared on TV when in the custody of Albuquerque Police.

Wilbanks has inspired a “Runaway Bride” action figure and a hot sauce called “Jennifer’s High Tailin’ Hot Sauce”. An auction on eBay of a slice of toast carved with a likeness of Wilbanks closed with a winning bid of $15,400.

Bride to Be Toast. Perry Lonzello, 48, of Newton, says he carved a rudimentary drawing of Wilbanks on a piece of toasted Wonder Bread and posted it on eBay on a whim. “I just carved it on there real quick and put it on there as a joke.” The toast is still a long way from equaling the grilled cheese sandwich with an image of the Virgin Mary that sold for $28,000 on eBay in 2004.

Nearly two years after Wilbanks ran away, the incident was used by the Albuquerque Police Department as a means of attracting new recruits to the police force. This police department used the image of a bride in a white wedding dress and veil being apprehended by Police Officer Trish Hoffman, posted on a billboard with the advertisement reading “Running away from your current job? Call APD Recruiting” followed by the police department’s telephone number. Hoffman was the officer who was pictured in the media leading Wilbanks through Albuquerque International Sunport after being taken into custody. The Police Department’s reasoning for using the image was the fact that many people would recognize the reference to the incident and that people still talked about the incident.

Jennifer Wilbanks, center, is escorted through the Albuquerque International Sunport toward her flight to her home in Georgia.

Instead of a giddy newlywed, Jennifer Wilbanks was in 2005 the butt of jokes at water coolers across the nation. Photographs of the thin, wide-eyed Georgian that were printed on missing persons posters in 2005 adorned running shoes, “Runaway Bride” kits, T-shirts and — it was only a matter of time — toast.

The first items poking fun at the jogger who fled on her cold feet appeared on auction site eBay less than 24 hours after Wilbanks admitted ditching her pending nuptials.

Antiques dealer Harry Lonzello, 48, of Newton, N.J., said he could not resist carving Wilbanks’ image on a piece of toasted bread and placing it for sale on eBay. Lonzello’s called the auction item “Jennifer Wilbanks found on my morning breakfast toast.”

“I still think her fiance did it,” he continued in his description. “This is the one and only toast depicting the scam artist of the year, Jennifer Wilbanks. Look at the eyes, it’s her. Don’t be fooled by others.”

 Those commenting on the auction item couldn’t help but be, well, “punny.”

“No matter how you slice it, I think what you are doing is crummy,” one respondent wrote. “I don’t mean to sound stale but you should try to do more with your time besides loafing off at your computer.”

“I thought it would be a goof to put it on the site because I thought the story was so funny,” he said. When asked what he would do if put in Wilbanks’ fiancé’s shoes, he laughed: “I’d list her on eBay and sell her.”

But the story of Wilbanks’ disappearance did not start out funny.

A dearth of clues led authorities to fear the worst. The search for Wilbanks turned into a criminal investigation and her family offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to her return.

By Friday, the search for Wilbanks took a darker turn. Police found a clump of hair near the home Wilbanks shared with Mason, and Mason’s attorney began negotiating with authorities over a lie detector test.

Wilbanks’ disappearance evoked two recent, high-profile murders — Laci Peterson of California and Lori Hacking of Utah, both of whom were killed by their husbands. So when she turned up in New Mexico, spun a phony kidnap tale to both her fiancé and police and then later admitted she had really just run away, the concern over her safety quickly turned to anger.

Lonzello said he initially followed Wilbanks’ disappearance to see if things turned out OK. When it became apparent his concern was based on a lie, his sympathy evaporated.

“Everybody watched the news coverage and was worried something would happen to this girl. To put people through all this — I’d be behind bars if I did that,” Lonzello said.

Not surprisingly, many Duluth residents are sceptical. Particularly after the couple sold their story rights for $500,000.

On June 2, 2005, Wilbanks pleaded no contest on charges over the abduction hoax, according to the AP, although she got off pretty easy in the final tally — she had to pay the Gwinnett Sheriff’s Department just a fraction of what they spent searching for her, and she got two years probation. She sued her former fiancé for half a million dollars in 2006, partially over a book it was rumored Mason was writing, although the lawsuit was ultimately dropped and the book never appeared, either.

Both Mason and Wilbanks ended up finding happiness with other people. Mason married a woman named Shelley Martin in 2008, and in 2010, Wilbanks was gushing about her new relationship on Facebook: “Everybody needs someone to love … I’m so glad I have that someone!” Not much has been heard of her since then, but rest assured, her story won’t soon be forgotten. After all, when you’ve had your name slapped across bottles of hot sauce and seen a musical inspired by you, you know you’ve really made it.

Runaway_bride and doll

What influence did Jennifer Wilbanks “Runaway Bride” have on the wedding industry? What happened to Jennifer?

The Runaway Bride Timeline

April 19, 2005: Jennifer Wilbanks purchases a Greyhound bus ticket from Atlanta, Georgia to Austin, Texas.

April 26, 2005: Jennifer Wilbanks does not return from an evening jog. She is scheduled to get married on April 30.

April 27, 2005: Duluth, Georgia police, assisted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, state police and FBI, along with friends of Jennifer Wilbanks and concerned citizens, begin search a 5.5 square mile area for the missing woman. Among those searching are members of the wedding party.

April 28, 2005: Duluth police announce they are conducting a criminal investigation into the disappearence of Jennifer Wilbanks.

April 29, 2005: Police suspend the search for Jennifer Wilbanks. They also want John Mason, whom Wilbanks was to marry on Saturday, to take a lie detector test to prove he is not a suspect.

April 30, 2005: At 1:30 am Jennifer Wilbanks calls her fiance John Mason and tells him she has been kidnapped. Authorities trace the phone call to a 7-11 in Albequerque, New Mexico. Local enforcement agents pick her up and take her to the Albequerque PD station, where she is questioned by the FBI and released. They had determined that no kidnapping took place.

May 25, 2005: A grand jury in Gwinnett County, Georgia indicted Jennifer Wilbanks with one felony charge of making a false statement to police and one misdemeanor charge of filing a false police statement.

May 31, 2005: Jennifer Wilbanks agrees to reimburse the city $13,000 for the money it spent searching for her

June 2, 2005: Jennifer Wilbanks is sentenced to 2 years probation following a no contest plea to felony charges that she made a false statement to police

August 8, 2005: Jennifer Wilbanks began her community service work, part of her sentencing agreement with Gwinnett County.

September 13, 2006: Runaway bridge Jennifer Wilbanks sues her ex-fiance over the money they made selling rights to their story.

Runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks mowed the lawn of a government building as part of her court-ordered community service for lying to police after she ran off days before her scheduled wedding. Wearing an orange community service vest, a ballcap that said “Life is good” and running shoes, Wilbanks seemed upbeat as she pushed a powered mower by a swarm of reporters and photographers in Lawrence, Georgia. She briefly spoke when the mower’s engine died in some tall grass.”I’m doing well,” said Wilbanks. She admitted with a laugh that it had been a long time since she had mowed a lawn. “I need to get back to work. I don’t want to get into trouble,” she added. But her mower kept sputtering out, prompting her to repeatedly yank on the pull cord to get it started again. After the eighth time, she let out a huge sigh.

Wilbanks shared that she was driven by forces she could not speak about, did not understand, and is still struggling to make sense of. She stated: “At this time, I cannot explain fully what happened to me. I had a host of compelling issues, which seemed out of control … In my mind, I was simply running from myself and from certain fears controlling my life.”

Because of Jennifer Wilbanks’s fraudulence, Wilbanks received a lot of blame and anger for ditching her wedding and claiming she was kidnapped. She was publicly shamed because those in positions of power were embarrassed by their own hysterical response. Their natural reflex was to punish her. As for Wilbanks, after pleading no contest to faking her story to police about an abduction and sexual assault, she was sentenced to two years’ probation and performed 120 hours of community service (she picked up trash, washed state cars, cut grass and did office work) for making false statements about the kidnapping and has paid back nearly $15,000 to cover the cost of the police search.

But still there are many unanswered questions. Firstly, why did the Runaway Bride run? To this day, Wilbanks has been unable to properly explain her actions. In the week immediately after her return, she released a statement through the reverend of her local church that “my running away had nothing to do with cold feet, nor was it ever about leaving John.” Now she claims to have contemplated suicide that night, and that running became a life or death decision. “I had a bottle of pills or I had the bus ticket,” she says. “And I decided not to play God that day.”

Katie Couric interviews ‘Runaway bride’ | NBC News

10 years later: Remember the Runaway Bride? | WSB-TV

Runaway Bride’s Sordid Sex Tale – CBS News

‘Runaway Bride’ Sues Her Ex for $500,000 – People

Whatever Happened To “Runaway Bride” Jennifer Wilbanks? It’s Been …

Runaway bride Wilbanks broke | Page Six

Jennifer Wilbanks, The Runaway Bride – Our Georgia History

Runaway bride lied: Cold feet, no kidnap – WND.com

Runaway Bride: The Official Portrait | The Smoking Gun

Runaway Bride’s Hubby Runs Off – Outside The Beltway

The Bride Who Faked Her Own Kidnapping 

Runaway Bride Toast Is Missing – Postcards from the Pug Bus

Man carves runaway bride on toast | chronicle.augusta.com

Run, bride, run! – Salon.com

Slate’s Explainer: Runaway Brides and Cold Feet : NPR

 


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