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MISSING PERSON Bride is found in N. Mexico



Published: Sat, April 30, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Jennifer Wilbanks voluntarily fled West as she tried to escape pre-wedding jitters.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- Distressed, out of cash and in disguise, a missing Georgia bride-to-be turned up on a seedy stretch of Route 66 and told authorities Saturday she'd been abducted, then copped to the truth -- she fled the pressure of her looming wedding.

Jennifer Wilbanks, 32, was picked up by police after a cross-country bus trip that took her through Las Vegas to a pay phone outside an Albuquerque 7-Eleven where she called her fianc & eacute;, John Mason, and 911 late Friday and said she had been freed by kidnappers.

As police began searching for the blue van she said her captors drove, an impromptu pre-dawn street party broke out outside the home Mason and Wilbanks shared.

But hours later, under questioning by police, Wilbanks admitted the road trip was voluntary.

She was "scared and concerned about her impending marriage and decided she needed some time alone," Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz said.

Police said there would be no criminal charges, although more than 100 officers led a search that involved several hundred volunteers, including many wedding guests and members of the bridal party.

Her family was en route to New Mexico on Saturday afternoon to meet her.

"She's obviously very concerned about the stress that she's been through, the stress that's been placed on her family," Schultz said. "She is very upset."

Sudden decision

Bill Elwell, an FBI spokesman in Albuquerque, said Wilbanks apparently decided to flee shortly after purportedly leaving for her jog Tuesday without her keys or wallet.

"Based on the information we received, it was a spur of the moment situation," Elwell told The Associated Press.

She had enough money to take a bus to Las Vegas before going to Albuquerque, where she found herself broke. Elwell said that is probably why she called home and authorities when she did.

In her 911 call, Wilbanks sounds frantic and confused, telling an operator she was kidnapped from Atlanta by a man and a woman in their 40s who were driving a blue van.

At one point, the operator asks if Wilbanks knows what direction her captors went after dropping her off in Albuquerque.

"I have no idea. I don't even know where I am," she said.

Wilbanks cut her hair so no one would recognize her, but gave no indication that she had watched news reports of the search or realized the magnitude of the situation, Elwell said.

Mood change

After police reported the hoax, the mood outside Wilbanks' home went from jubilant to somber. Family members ducked inside and the blinds were drawn.

They later expressed relief that she was safe.

"Sure, we were all disappointed, maybe a little embarrassed, but you know what, if you remember all the interviews yesterday we were praying, 'At this point let her be a runaway bride,'" said the Rev. Alan Jones, who was to perform the wedding. "So God was faithful. Jennifer's alive, and we're all thankful for that."

Police said Wilbanks was tired, thirsty and "very, very distressed" but in otherwise good physical condition.

Jones said the family had no idea that Wilbanks had fears about the wedding, and he believed she "probably had no clue how it had been blown out of proportion" while she was traveling across the country.

He said Mason had no hostility toward his fiance & eacute;.

"I have never met such a strong person in all my life," Jones said. "He's an incredible man."

More than 600 people had been invited to the wedding bash, and it was to feature 14 bridesmaids and 14 groomsmen.

Just hours before Wilbanks called her fianc & eacute;, police in Duluth said they had no solid leads in the case and began dismantling a search center. Relatives offered a $100,000 reward for information and were planning a prayer vigil.

Community effort

The hunt for Wilbanks had consumed the tight-knit town. Her picture and newspaper articles about her disappearance were on telephone poles and shop windows. Police also had seized three computers from the home she shared with Mason.

Mason did not speak publicly after Wilbanks said she lied about being abducted. Her uncle, Mike Satterfield, thanked people who had helped in the search.

"Jennifer had some issues the family was not aware of. We're looking forward to loving her and talking to her about these issues," he said.

Ryan Kelly, owner of the Park Cafe a few blocks from Wilbanks' house, which gave out coffee and sandwiches to searchers, said he was glad Wilbanks was alive and healthy.

"But that being said, this is one of the most selfish and self-centered acts I've ever seen. We saw her parents, and you could see the anguish in their eyes. It was terrible," he said.

"I don't care where you are -- unless you're in the Amazon rain forest, you'd know everybody was out looking for you."




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