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On Eve of Wedding, Ga. Bride-to-Be Still Missing

By Melanie Lasoff Levs and Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 30, 2005; Page A02

DULUTH, Ga., April 29 -- Jennifer Wilbanks was supposed to marry Saturday, walking down the aisle of a Methodist church before 600 guests -- the event of a lifetime. Instead, her family has been pleading for help finding her, and a national audience, drawn to the compelling tale of her last-minute disappearance, has been waiting for answers.

Since Wilbanks vanished Tuesday night in this Atlanta suburb, police have variously speculated that she could be a runaway bride who got "cold feet" or a crime victim. On Friday, a day after police declared the case a criminal investigation, hopes of finding Wilbanks in time for her wedding waned. Police called off a three-day search that had sent bloodhounds, as well as 250 law enforcement officers and volunteers, into the woods near her home.

Jennifer Wilbanks of Duluth, Ga.

Wilbanks's fiance, John Mason, has appeared at her family's side for news conferences, and family members have told reporters that he has passed a private polygraph test to clear any suspicion that he might be involved in the disappearance.

But police, who say Mason is cooperating with the investigation, are not satisfied. They want him to take another polygraph test, this one administered by Georgia State Police, though they are refusing to meet a condition set by Mason's lawyer, who wants the test videotaped.

Wilbanks's face has flickered across television sets for three days, her suddenly familiar wide-eyed, smiling countenance displayed time and again on cable newscasts. The spotlight was trained on the same suburb where seven weeks ago similarly intense media attention focused on the capture of the man suspected of killing four people, including a judge, in a rampage that began in an Atlanta courthouse.

Family members have said Wilbanks and Mason, both 32, were not having relationship problems. They lived in a wood-framed house near the town square in Duluth. Mason reported Wilbanks missing after she did not return from a run Tuesday night.

No suspect has been publicly identified. A clump of hair found in the woods is being analyzed, and three computers from the couple's home are being checked for clues. Police said they are interviewing former boyfriends of Wilbanks, and residents wondered aloud if the disappearance was connected to a continuing problem with violent gangs.

Wilbanks's family, who gathered at her home Friday while volunteers set folding chairs on the lawn next to coolers filled with refreshments, has offered a $100,000 reward for information about her disappearance.

"We would give our lives and everything we own to have her returned," her uncle, Mike Satterfield said at a news conference as family members sobbed behind him. Many wedding guests still plan to be at the church in Duluth on Saturday where the wedding was scheduled to take place, if only to pray.

Wilbanks and Mason both come from prominent families. Wilbanks's mother is the longtime owner of a sporting goods store in Gainesville, Ga., and Satterfield is a former fire chief. Her fiance's father, Claude Mason, is a former Duluth mayor and now a municipal judge. Claude Mason was going to be the best man Saturday. He was to have been surrounded by 14 groomsmen and 14 bridesmaids.

Roig-Franzia reported from Miami. Lasoff Levs is a special correspondent.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company