"A man and a woman had me," a sobbing Runaway Bride, Jennifer Wilbanks, told her jilted fiance when she finally phoned home. But not just any man: It was specifically a Hispanic man -- abetted by a white woman -- who supposedly had snatched her from the mean streets of Duluth, Ga., on the eve of her wedding. She told police a graphic tale of horrifying sexual abuse at the hands of this Hispanic beast, whose mobile den of iniquity was a blue van.

It was all a bunch of lies, of course. That Wilbanks and her patience-of-Job boyfriend will pocket a half-million dollars for her flakiness and mendacity (the poor guy has earned his share, in my view) would be a good subject for a future column. But this one has a different purpose: to welcome my Latino brethren into the fraternity of those eligible to be falsely accused of ravishing the delicate flower of white American womanhood. (Bienvenidos, guys.)

For the nation to become hooked on the story of a Damsel in Distress, certain ingredients are apparently essential -- the woman at the center of the story has to be young, white, attractive and preferably middle class or better. But another spice is often added to the stew -- not always, to be sure, but often -- to make it irresistible: the specter of a brutish, dark-skinned villain.

When Wilbanks was reporting her imaginary crime, what made her pin the blame on a Hispanic man? Down in South Carolina a few years ago, when Susan Smith was trying to talk her way out of having murdered her two sons, why did she tell police that a black man had done it? Is it coincidence that the first suspects arrested in Natalee Holloway's disappearance in Aruba were two black hotel security guards, whose innocence is now believed to be as pure as the driven snow?

One of the most notorious cases was that of Charles Stuart, the Boston man who killed his wife in 1989 and blamed it on a generic black man. Boston police rounded up the usual suspects, and when Stuart picked the "assailant" out of a lineup, the man was promptly arrested. Who knows what would have happened if Stuart's brother hadn't ratted him out?

I have to think that there's something at work, perhaps at a subconscious level, that draws television cameras, baying legal analysts and rapt cable news viewers to the myth of the dark intruder and the innocent white female victim. I think liars resort to it because it feels credible to them, and so they believe it will be credible to others.

But it is largely a myth.

First, we're all safer than we used to be -- the overall violent crime rate has plunged by more than half over the past decade, according to Justice Department figures. And as a group, white women are much less likely to be victims of violent crime than black women (or men of any color); only Hispanic women are less likely to suffer, or report, violent crime. Black women are twice as likely, for example, to be victims of aggravated assault as white women.

Some whites are victims, of course, and I don't mean to minimize those crimes. But whites who are victims of rape or other sexual assault are overwhelmingly likely to have been attacked by white assailants.

In the 2002 Justice Department crime survey, only 13.1 percent of white victims identified their attackers as black. The vast majority of white victims of rape or sexual assault -- 76 percent -- reported that the attacker was white.

Yes, I know that African Americans and Latinos are far overrepresented in this nation's prisons. And forget history and sociology for the moment: Violent, predatory criminals should be locked up. As Richard Pryor used to say, "Thank God they got penitentiaries!"

This should be, for us, a source of individual and collective shame and a spur to action. But it's also true that the victims of the crimes those men committed are disproportionately African American and Hispanic. That's the real tragedy: Black and Latino criminals are victimizing black and Latino communities at rates that we should find horrific and unacceptable -- not that they are out prowling for Damsels in Distress.

Fortunately, in Albuquerque, where Jennifer Wilbanks finally ran out of money in her desperate flight from matrimony, the police didn't waste a lot of time and effort looking for her phantom Hispanic rapist or his imaginary blue van. Before she even finished telling them her story, they had a pretty good idea she was making the whole thing up.

Maybe they knew the odds.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com