It was just hours before what was supposed to be Jennifer Wilbanks' wedding, an elaborate affair in suburban Atlanta with 600 guests, 14...
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It was just hours before what was supposed to be Jennifer Wilbanks’ wedding, an elaborate affair in suburban Atlanta with 600 guests, 14 bridesmaids and 14 groomsmen.
Instead, the would-be bride was sobbing into a pay phone late Friday outside an Albuquerque 7-Eleven, alone and broke, as she concocted a story about kidnappers and a blue van. She later admitted that prewedding jitters led her to leave home without her keys and wallet, creating a mystery that left her family in anguish for days.
Wilbanks, 32, was picked up by police after a cross-country bus trip that took her through Las Vegas to Albuquerque.
She was “scared and concerned about her impending marriage and decided she needed some time alone,” Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz said yesterday.
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Police said there would be no criminal charges, although more than 100 officers led a search that involved hundreds of 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,” Schultz said. “She is very upset.”
Wilbanks arrived at Albuquerque’s main airport yesterday afternoon for a flight back to Atlanta with her head covered by a striped blanket and about 10 police escorts. She did not respond to reporters’ questions.
She arrived last night in Atlanta, where she was picked up in a squad car on the tarmac to avoid the media that had gathered inside the terminal.
There were no family members at the airport to greet her, but her stepfather and an uncle had flown to Albuquerque to escort her home, authorities said.
Bill Elwell, an FBI spokesman in Albuquerque, said Wilbanks apparently decided to flee shortly after purportedly leaving for her jog Tuesday. “Based on the information we received, it was a spur-of-the-moment situation.”
After finding herself broke in Albuquerque, Elwell said Wilbanks, a medical assistant from Duluth, Ga., called her fiancé, John Mason, and 911 with the story about the kidnapping.
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.
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.
Jones said the family had no idea that Wilbanks had fears about the wedding. He said Mason had no hostility toward his fiancée.
“I have never met such a strong person in all my life,” Jones said. “He’s an incredible man.”
Duluth police yesterday had 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.
The hunt for Wilbanks had consumed the tightknit town. Her picture and newspaper articles about her disappearance were on telephone poles and shop windows. Police had seized three computers from the home she shared with Mason.
Mason did not speak publicly. Her uncle, Mike Satterfield, thanked people who had helped in the search. “Jennifer had some issues the family was not aware of,” he said. “We’re looking forward to loving her and talking to her about these issues.”
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,” he said. “We saw her parents, and you could see the anguish in their eyes. It was terrible.”
Associated Press reporters Kristen Wyatt and Harry Weber contributed to this report.