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Case of the Missing Bride Was Case of Cold Feet

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 1, 2005; Page A13

She is a runaway bride, after all.

The resurfacing of Jennifer Wilbanks at a 7-Eleven in Albuquerque -- 1,400 miles from her home in Duluth, Ga. -- confirmed it early yesterday.

Wilbanks's disappearance Tuesday -- four days before she was to have been married yesterday in front of 600 guests -- had captured the imaginations of talk show hosts and commentators, and was poised to become the next national scandal.

Under a blanket and heading home, Jennifer Wilbanks is escorted through the airport in Albuquerque, where she surfaced broke and "very upset." (Jake Schoellkopf -- AP)

Initially, she was described by police as a possible "runaway bride," who may have gotten "cold feet." But as a massive, three-day search failed to turn up solid clues or a suspect, the tenor shifted. Police declared the case a criminal investigation and Wilbanks's live-in fiance was asked to submit to a police-administered polygraph.

Wilbanks, 32, called 911 in Albuquerque about 1 a.m. Saturday. She had arrived in the city after a long bus odyssey that took her from Georgia to Las Vegas and on to Albuquerque, where she ran out of money and wandered the streets, police said.

When officers arrived, Wilbanks looked different from the perky, smiling image that had been on the television screen for the past four days. Her shoulder-length brown hair had been trimmed, and she was "very upset," Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz told reporters.

At first, Schultz said, Wilbanks told investigators that she was abducted by a man and a woman, who cut her hair and took her away in a blue van during her regular evening run in Duluth.

The news that she was safe and appeared to be unharmed was greeted joyously in Georgia, where family members had gathered at the home Wilbanks shared with John Mason, 32, after 250 law enforcement officers and volunteers were unable to find her.

But three hours later, Schultz said, Wilbanks changed her story. This time, Schultz said, Wilbanks confessed that she had fled Georgia because of the pressure building before her large-scale wedding, a union between two prominent families that included a municipal judge and former Duluth mayor on her fiance's side and a former fire chief on her side.

She was "scared and concerned" about the wedding, Schultz said, and "needed some time alone." Wilbanks had befriended some fellow bus passengers, Schultz said, but did not appear to have ties to the Albuquerque area. Wilbanks is "very concerned," Schultz said, about the stress she placed on her family. A family pastor said yesterday she was unaware that her disappearance was being tracked by the national media.

Relatives, some of whom had planned to arrive at the church yesterday to pray at 6:30 when the wedding was scheduled to have begun, were empathetic.

"It has been determined that Jennifer has some issues the family was not aware of," said her uncle, Mike Satterfield, a former fire chief in Gainesville, Ga. "We're looking forward to loving her and talking with her concerning these issues."

The discovery of Wilbanks lifted an aura of suspicion that had enveloped Mason, who some in the Duluth area had begun to compare to Scott Peterson, the California man convicted of murdering his pregnant wife, Laci Peterson, and dumping her body in San Francisco Bay. Mason, who passed a private polygraph but was refusing to submit to a police polygraph unless the test was videotaped, gave a victory sign to the reporters who were camped outside his house. "I never worried that they were going to point their fingers at me," he said.

Authorities in New Mexico and Georgia said they do not plan to file criminal charges against Wilbanks, who flew back to Atlanta last night and entered a police car on the tarmac with a blanket over her head to try to avoid reporters in the terminal.

Her fictional tale of abduction did not seem to dampen the affections of her family and friends. The Rev. Alan Jones, a Methodist minister who was to have officiated at a wedding featuring 14 groomsmen and 14 bridesmaids, said the couple spoke and "there's no hostility."

"If you remember all the interviews [Friday], we were praying: 'At this point let her be a runaway bride,' " Jones said.

The couple's future is uncertain. But Wilbanks's father was optimistic, telling reporters that the wedding will be rescheduled.

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