- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 1, 2005

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 yesterday she’d been abducted, then admitted the truth — she had fled to escape the pressure of her looming wedding.

Jennifer Wilbanks, 32, was picked up by police after a bus trip that took her through Las Vegas to a pay phone outside an Albuquerque 7-Eleven where she called her fiance, 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 Mr. Mason and Miss Wilbanks shared.

But hours later, under questioning by police, Miss 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.

“She’s obviously very concerned about the stress that she’s been through, the stress that’s been placed on her family,” Chief Schultz said. “She is very upset.”

Miss Wilbanks, wearing a blue blazer and a pink striped blanket that completely covered her head, arrived at Albuquerque’s main airport yesterday afternoon escorted by about 10 police officers to catch a flight back to Atlanta.

A throng of cameras and reporters shouted questions, but she did not respond. She kept her head down and moved briskly through a security checkpoint.

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

“Based on the information we received, it was a spur-of-the-moment situation,” Mr. Elwell told the Associated Press.

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

In her 911 call, Miss 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 Miss 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 says.

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

After police reported the hoax, the mood outside Miss 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 Miss Wilbanks was tired, thirsty and “very, very distressed” but in otherwise good physical condition.

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

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