Runaway bride case
The runaway bride case was the case of Jennifer Carol Wilbanks (born March 1, 1973), an American woman who ran away from home on April 26, 2005, in order to avoid her wedding with John Mason, her fiancé, on April 30. Her disappearance from Duluth, Georgia, sparked a nationwide search and intensive media coverage, including some media speculation that Mason had killed her. On April 29, Wilbanks called Mason from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and falsely claimed that she had been kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a Hispanic male and a white woman.
Jennifer Wilbanks gained notoriety in the United States and internationally, and her story persisted as a major topic of national news coverage for some time after she was found and her safety was assured. Many critics of the mass media attacked this as a "media circus". Howard Kurtz, an influential media critic for the Washington Post and CNN-TV, wrote that the runaway bride had become a "runaway television embarrassment," and he compared the story to a TV soap opera.
Wilbanks's repeating of the false claims to investigating police officers resulted in a felony indictment against her of giving false information to the police, a charge that could have resulted in up to five years of imprisonment. On June 2, 2005, Wilbanks pleaded no contest to this charge. As part of her plea bargain, she was sentenced to two years of probation and 120 hours of community service, and she was also ordered to pay $2,250 in restitution to the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department. As part of the plea bargain, a misdemeanor charge of filing a false police report was dismissed. Wilbanks's criminal record was expunged after she successfully completed her period of probation.
On March 15, 2008, Wilbanks's ex-fiancé, John Mason, married another woman, Shelley Martin, in a quiet ceremony at his parents' home in Duluth, Georgia.
- April 26, 2005 — Mason notified police that Wilbanks was missing two hours after she failed to return from her evening jog.
- April 27 — 250 people took part in the search for Wilbanks. Local police speculated publicly that Wilbanks' disappearance might be "a case of the premarital jitters," but the search continued. The mayor of Duluth later reported the city spent between $40,000 and $60,000 in the search.
- April 27 — Police received numerous pieces of evidence that later turned out to be false leads, including large clumps of dark brown hair in an area next to a retention pond, a variety of clothing, and purported murder weapons.
- April 28 — Major Donald L. Woodruff of the City of Duluth's Police Department announced that because there were no other explanations, Wilbanks' disappearance was being handled as a criminal investigation. The FBI and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation were now involved in the case.
- April 29 — Wilbanks' relatives offered a $100,000 reward and planned vigils. Later that day, Wilbanks called Mason from a pay phone and told him that she had been kidnapped, but had just been released. She also called 911, declaring in a frantic voice that she had been kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a Hispanic man and a Caucasian woman in their 40s driving a blue van. When asked if she knew what direction her captors went after setting her free, she said, "I have no idea. I don't even know where I am." The calls were traced to a pay phone at a 7-Eleven convenience store in Albuquerque, where she was picked up by local police. Her family publicly thanked the media for getting through to the kidnappers. Later, during police interrogation, Wilbanks admitted that she had not been abducted, but needed time and space to escape the pressures of her upcoming wedding.
- May 17 — Wilbanks canceled her engagement to her fiancé.
- May 25 — Wilbanks was charged with making false statements.
- May 31 — Wilbanks reached an agreement with the city of Duluth to repay more than $13,000 in costs incurred by the city in their search.
- October 10, 2006 — Wilbanks filed a lawsuit against her ex-fiancé for $500,000, claiming it is her share of a home the ex-fiancé purchased with the proceeds to a book deal he negotiated for them when she was medicated, plus punitive damages.
Since this story had become nationally newsworthy as a search for a possibly kidnapped or murdered bride, it lost some of its importance when it was discovered that Wilbanks had merely run away. However, the coverage by some reporters and news outlets continues, discussing issues such as:
- editorializing upon her choice of a fictional Hispanic man for her accusation
- reporting on the gratuitous details of her lies to the police
- speculating about what should be done to people who exact a cost on public services when they run away
- reporting on biographical details including her previous record of petty crimes and her entry into psychological counseling
Major Donald L. Woodruff of the City of Duluth's Police Department was the department's Public Information Officer who kept the press advised on the events surrounding the case.
Aftermath and lawsuit
On May 22, 2006, People magazine reported that Wilbanks and Mason had officially called off their engagement.
According to the BBC, Jennifer Wilbanks sold the media rights to her story to a New York City company for $500,000. Wilbanks did not offer to repay the whole cost of the search for her, which totaled almost $43,000.
In September 2006, Wilbanks filed a lawsuit against her ex-fiancé, claiming that while she was hospitalized and under medication, she granted Mason power of attorney to negotiate the sale of the couple's story to a publisher in New York. According to her, Mason negotiated a deal for $500,000 and then used the money to buy a house, in his name only, from which he later evicted Wilbanks. She claimed $250,000 as her share of the house, and another $250,000 in punitive damages. Mason countersued, claiming emotional distress from being left at the altar. In December 2006, both of the parties dropped their respective lawsuits. In June 2010, Wilbanks announced via Facebook that she had been dating twice-divorced landscaper Greg Hutson since early in 2009.
Impact of the events
Wilbanks has inspired a "Runaway Bride" action figure and a hot sauce called "Jennifer's High Tailin' Hot Sauce." An auction on eBay of a slice of toast carved with a likeness of Wilbanks closed with a winning bid of $15,400.
Nearly two years after Wilbanks ran away, the incident was used by the Albuquerque Police Department as a means of attracting new recruits to the police force. This police department used the image of a bride in a white wedding dress and veil being apprehended by Police Officer Trish Hoffman, posted on a billboard with the advertisement reading "Running away from your current job? Call APD Recruiting" followed by the police department's telephone number. Hoffman was the officer who was pictured in the media leading Wilbanks through the Albuquerque, N.M., airport after being taken into custody. The Police Department's reasoning for using the image was the fact that many people would recognize the reference to the incident and that people still talked about Ms. Wilbanks.
A musical play based on the story of Jennifer Wilbanks opened on March 13, 2008 at the Red Clay Theater in Duluth, Georgia.
- Kurtz, Howard (May 8, 2005). "It's to Laugh (or Cry) About: Tragedy or Farce?". Washington Post. (page B01)
- "Runaway Bride's Former Fiance Marries Another Woman". WSB TV. March 19, 2008.
- "'Runaway bride' charged with making false statement". CNN.com. May 26, 2005.
- "Wilbanks Agrees to Pay $13,000 in Costs". ABC News. May 31, 2005.
- "'Runaway Bride' sues ex for $500,000". MSNBC. October 10, 2006.
- "US runaway bride sells her story". BBC News. 2005-06-16. Retrieved 2007-01-12.
- "Runaway Bride, Groom Drop Lawsuits". 11Alive.com (The Associated Press). 2007-01-12. Retrieved 2007-01-12.[dead link]
- "Runaway Bride Jennifer Wilbanks Finds Love". National Ledger. Jun 23, 2010. Retrieved June 24, 2010.
- "Runaway bride toast attracts auction bread". CNet News. May 7, 2005.
- "Runaway bride inspires police recruiting billboard". Retrieved 2007-03-30.[dead link]
- "Runaway Bride Remembered In New Musical". Retrieved 2008-03-13.
- http://www.apple.com/trailers Apple Movie Trailers