Runaway bride case

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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.[1] Her disappearance from Duluth, Georgia, sparked a nationwide search and intensive media coverage, including 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 man 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 unharmed. Many critics of the mass media attacked the coverage as a "media circus". Howard Kurtz, an influential media critic for The Washington Post and CNN-TV, and Fox News wrote that the runaway bride had become a "runaway television embarrassment", comparing the story to a TV soap opera.[2]

Wilbanks repeated the false claims that fell apart under FBI interrogation resulting in a felony indictment of providing false information to law enforcement, a charge that could have resulted in up to five years of imprisonment.[3] 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.[4] Wilbanks and Mason's original wedding was to have had 600 guests and 28 bridesmaids.[1]


  • 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 FBI 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.[3]
  • 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.[5]
  • 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.[6]
  • June 2010 – Wilbanks declares bankruptcy.[7]

Aftermath and lawsuit[edit]

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.[8] Wilbanks did not offer to repay the whole cost of the search for her, which totaled almost $43,000.[3]

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.[9] In June 2010, Wilbanks announced via Facebook that she had been dating twice-divorced landscaper Greg Hutson since early in 2009.[10]

Impact of the events[edit]

Herobuilders, a manufacturer of action figures, rushed to produce a doll representing Wilbanks, wearing a jogging suit bearing the slogan "Vegas baby".[11] It came with a small towel, to put over the doll's head, to model how she appeared on TV when in the custody of Albuquerque Police.

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.[12]

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.[13] The 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 Albuquerque International Sunport 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 the incident.

A musical play based on the story of Jennifer Wilbanks opened on March 13, 2008, at the Red Clay Theater in Duluth, Georgia.[14]

A photo of Wilbanks appears in the trailer of the 2008 movie about professional poker, The Grand, as one of the many women Woody Harrelson's character has been married to in the past.[15]

Wilbanks' case is frequently used as an example, in both scholarly and popular articles and books. In 2012 Psychology Today wrote an article about cold feet that cited Wilbanks as an example.[16] Diana M. Concannon textbook Kidnapping: An Investigator’s Guide began its chapter on staged kidnappings by using Wilbanks' case as an example.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Michelle Fabio (December 2009). "Runaway Bride? Why Georgia Isn't Letting Her Off the Hook..." LegalZoom. Retrieved 2016-04-07. Lots of brides are overwhelmed with wedding preparations. And considering Wilbanks' nuptials were to be a 600 guest affair at the lavish Atlanta Athletic Club, complete with 28 bridal attendants, well, it's understandable, right?
  2. ^ Kurtz, Howard (May 8, 2005). "It's to Laugh (or Cry) About: Tragedy or Farce?". Washington Post. (page B01)
  3. ^ a b c "'Runaway bride' charged with making false statement". May 26, 2005.
  4. ^ "Runaway Bride's Former Fiance Marries Another Woman". WSB TV. March 19, 2008. Archived from the original on March 20, 2008.
  5. ^ "Wilbanks Agrees to Pay $13,000 in Costs". ABC News. May 31, 2005.
  6. ^ "'Runaway Bride' sues ex for $500,000". NBC News. October 10, 2006.
  7. ^ "Runaway bride Wilbanks broke". Page Six. 2010-06-22. Retrieved 2016-04-07. The infamous, bug-eyed wedding bolter claimed in papers for her recently completed bankruptcy that she’s unemployed and has racked up $30,000 in debt — most of it on credit cards to stores like Victoria’s Secret, Old Navy, Kohl’s and Wal-Mart.
  8. ^ "US runaway bride sells her story". BBC News. 2005-06-16. Retrieved 2007-01-12.
  9. ^ "Runaway Bride, Groom Drop Lawsuits". The Associated Press. 2007-01-12. Retrieved 2007-01-12.[dead link]
  10. ^ "Runaway Bride Jennifer Wilbanks Finds Love". National Ledger. Jun 23, 2010. Archived from the original on June 26, 2010. Retrieved June 24, 2010.
  11. ^ John Bell (2005-05-14). "Cashing in on runaway bride: Dolls, hot sauce — even toast". USA Today. Retrieved 2016-04-07. He's not the only one cashing in:, a Danbury, Conn.-based manufacturer, has sold out of its first batch of 250 Runaway Bride action figures at $24.95 each.
  12. ^ "Runaway bride toast attracts auction bread". CNet News. May 7, 2005. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
  13. ^ "Runaway bride inspires New Mexico billboard". Albuquerque: CTV News. 2007-03-30. Retrieved 2016-04-07. Jennifer Wilbanks, the bride-to-be who skipped town just days before her planned wedding in Georgia, has a new starring role in New Mexico -- as the inspiration for a police recruiting billboard.
  14. ^ "Runaway Bride Remembered In New Musical". WSB-TV. Archived from the original on 2012-04-18. Retrieved 2008-03-13.
  15. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-01-07. Retrieved 2008-01-09.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) Apple Movie Trailers
  16. ^ Romeo Vitelli (December 2012). "Can Cold Feet Predict Marital Breakdown?". Psychology Today. Retrieved 2016-04-07. Although the "cold feet" phenomenon is commonly experienced by most couples engaged to be married, extreme cases such as that of Jennifer Wilbanks remain rare.
  17. ^ Diana M. Concannon (2013). "Kidnapping: An Investigator's Guide". Newnes. p. 123. ISBN 9780124080539. Retrieved 2016-04-07.

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