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Runaway bride walks away with a light tap on the wrist



Published: Sat, June 4, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Add "scam artist" to the "runaway bride" label Duluth, Ga., resident Jennifer Wilbanks has borne since she hopped a bus and disappeared on April 26, just four days before her planned wedding. Wilbanks' decision to check into a medical facility after her return from her cross-country excursion has obviously struck a responsive chord with a lot of people, including government officials.

On Thursday, Judge Ronnie Batchelor sentenced the 32-year-old nurse with a history of breaking the law to two years probation and 120 hours of community service as part of a plea bargain on a charge of making a false statement.

But that wasn't the only break Wilbanks received for the lies she told of her disappearance that triggered a nationwide search. She is being made to pay only one-third of the $50,000 in public funds it cost local and state governments in their attempt to locate her.

She will pay the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department $2,550 and the city of Duluth $13,250. As for the rest, the runaway bride/scam artist gets a pass.

We're hard-pressed to understand District Attorney Danny Porter's contention that the light tap on the wrist is "a good resolution of the matter." Indeed, Porter refers to "all of the facts of the case and taking into consideration Ms. Wilbanks' prior criminal record" in arguing that probation is justified.

Shoplifting

First, her prior criminal record isn't just about youthful indiscretions. From 1996 to 1998, she was arrested three times in Hall County on shoplifting charges. And each time she walked away with probation and community service.

As for Wilbanks' leaving her fianc & eacute;, John Mason, and the 600 guest who had been invited to the wedding in a lurch, it wasn't just about some young woman getting cold feet and seeking solace from family, friends, a priest or even checking herself into a medical facility so she could discuss her misgivings with a psychiatrist.

No, Jennifer Wilbanks decided to take a trip to Las Vegas and Albuquerque, N.M., and then claim she was the victim of a kidnapping and sexual assault. But her lies didn't stop there. To give her story credence, she alleged that her kidnappers were a Hispanic man and a white woman. That was bound to raise the hackles of the good folk of Georgia and other areas of the country where racial stereotyping abounds.

On Thursday night, a cable television station aired a portion of her call to the police department reporting her abduction. The fake sobbing and the anxiety in her voice certainly does not reflect a woman who had lost her mind, as her defenders suggest.

Making a false statement to the police is a felony; filing a false police report is a misdemeanor. Had she been found guilty of both she could have faced up to six years in prison, fined $11,000 and could have been ordered to reimburse authorities the total cost of the search.

Instead, she pleaded no contest and walked out of the courtroom a free woman. Justice was not served in this case.




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