The Bride Who Faked Her Own Kidnapping

Marie Claire, Sept 2005

When 32-year-old Jennifer Wilbanks disappeared while out jogging four days before her wedding, it sparked one of the biggest missing persons stories in America in 2005. Then the shocking truth emerged.

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At roughly 8.30pm on a chilly April night in the small town of Duluth, Georgia, Jennifer Wilbanks told her fiancé, John Mason that she was popping out for a run. Mason, 32, thought nothing of it. She ran marathons – it was one of the many things they had in common. And with their wedding only 4 days away, Jennifer had a lot on her mind – a run would do her good.

But Jennifer, 31, didn’t return that night. At 10.15pm, Mason went looking for her around Duluth in his car. “I thought maybe she might have turned her ankle and fallen,” he said. “Or someone could have beaten her up… No idea.” He called the police at around midnight and spent a sleepless night by the phone. He had little idea then, that it would be the first of many.

By morning, the first reports had gone out on the cable news services and concerned volunteers began to arrive at his door, many of them strangers, to help with the search. One of the first tasks was to copy up and distribute “Missing” flyers and posters which teams of helpers then plastered throughout town, handing them out to morning commuters in shops and at traffic intersections. The picture on those posters showed the tanned and athletic Wilbanks staring blankly at the camera through huge vacant eyes. It would soon appear on magazine covers and television screens throughout the country. Even before breakfast, reporters were gathering on Mason’s porch. One of the biggest news stories in America was just beginning to unfold.

The hunt for Jennifer was a hellish time for all concerned. Tearful pleas on television by her distraught parents, trepidatious bridesmaids searching through dumpsters terrified of what they might find. But Mason had it worst of all. The last man to see his fiancé alive found himself at the eye of a storm, both emotionally and physically. “Everyone was asking me so many questions and pulling me in so many different directions, I didn’t have time to just sit there and bawl,” he said. “And then meanwhile the FBI comes in: ‘sir, we need to ask you some questions.’ They thought I’d done something. That was tough. That was really tough. They thought they had another Scott Peterson on their hands.”

The spectre of Scott Peterson – who was sentenced to death in March for the brutal murder of his pregnant wife Laci in December 2002 – haunted this story from the start. As the most reported missing person-turned murder story in America in recent years – certainly the crime to have most captivated the public – perhaps Wilbanks’s disappearance was always doomed to be seen through its prism. But the similarities here were particularly compelling – like the Petersons, Mason and Wilbanks were a young, clean-cut, all-American couple from the suburbs. Like Laci, Jennifer went mysteriously missing just before a milestone in the couple’s life – the birth of her baby, in the Peterson case, and in Wilbank’s case, her imminent wedding. Certainly the news media sensed a potential murder narrative from the start. Within hours, the sky above Duluth filled with choppers, circling like vultures; the area in front of Mason’s home became a forest of camera tripods. The effect on television ratings of a missing middle-class white female has been proven time and again particularly over the last few years – just as the American public rooted for Elizabeth Smart, the 13 year old from Utah who was discovered kidnapped and raped, they were tuning into the Jennifer Wilbanks story in their millions.

If anything, however, all this media attention made the investigating authorities even more careful not to repeat the very public mistakes of previous cases. Scott Peterson, for example, was not even treated as a suspect for months which gave him ample time to cover his tracks. So the speed with which the FBI homed in on Mason was no great surprise. They asked him to take a lie detector test on the second day.

“I thought ‘this doesn’t sound right,’” says Mason. “I’d better talk to my lawyer.” So he took a private lie detector test and informed law enforcement of the result (he passed).

Mason as murderer was just one scenario that investigators considered. Another was that Wilbanks simply had an extreme case of cold-feet.  “It’s a very real possibility,” said the Duluth police chief Randy Belcher. “I mean, how many husbands have gone out for a pack of cigarettes and not come back?” But Mason himself didn’t believe it. “The thought never entered my mind,” he says. “Never in a million years did I think that. She put too much into this wedding.”

Perhaps then the pressure of arranging the wedding had got to her? Mason is the son of a former mayor of Duluth – a prominent family in town – so the arrangements were lavish and Wilbanks was hands-on with all of it. There were 600 invited guests (250 more than Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones had), 14 bridesmaids, 15 groomsmen and an extravagant but alcohol-free reception – both Mason and Wilbanks are Baptist – at the posh Atlanta Athletic Club, a private members club in town. So in the run-up to the wedding, her hectic schedule included meeting caterers and florists, several gown-fittings and 8 different bridal showers. A co-worker told People Magazine that “sometimes she would hang up the phone after talking to someone about the wedding and say ‘aargh, this is so frustrating!’”

There may have been other frustrations – the couple had dated for 18 months without having sex. Though Mason was reportedly a party-animal at college, he since became born-again and insisted that they abstain. So although they spent most nights together at Mason’s home in Duluth, he told Fox TV that “in God’s eyes, our relationship is still very pure”. A friend of Jennifer’s reported that she found this “upsetting”. But she too was a committed Christian – if sex was ever a factor, Wilbanks had never let on.

By the end of day three, on the eve of the wedding, the media spotlight on Wilbanks’s disappearance had reached a point where few expected to find her alive. Even the police called off their search, leaving Mason, his family and Wilbanks’s parents only with their prayers and their sapping strength. Mason was feeling particularly depleted by the process. Along with the intense panic and anguish he felt himself, he suffered sleepless nights and an endless barrage of questions from wellwishers and investigators and the demands of the media. “I went from sheer panic to anger at people pointing the finger at me,” Mason told People magazine. “One minute I was on my knees crying, the next minuUte I was mad and lashing out at whoever was near me.”

Then in the early hours of Saturday morning – at 1.30am on his wedding day – the phone rang. Jennifer’s stepfather was first to the phone… It was Jennifer, calling from a payphone outside a 7-11 in Albuquerque, some 1400 miles away. She was alive!

When the news reached the hushed and weary crowd of 150 gathered on the lawn in front of Mason’s bungalow in Duluth, the celebration was intense – people exploded into laughter and tears, cheering and hugging each other, thanking God that their prayers were answered. According to the pastor Alan Jones, who would have officiated the couple’s wedding, “it was the most adrenaline I have ever felt.”

But the mood was short-lived. Wilbanks first told Mason that she had been kidnapped in Duluth and raped. Then she called 911 in Albuquerque and embellished the story –  her attackers had been a Hispanic man and a Caucasian woman, they drove a blue van and the man was in his 40s, of medium build. He didn’t use foreplay. But as the questioning continued, Wilbanks’s story began to crumble. Finally one detective asked her “we can stop looking for the van, right?” And Wilbanks quietly confessed. The truth was out – Jennifer Wilbanks faked her own kidnapping.

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On what should have been her wedding day, then, Wilbanks was not escorted to the altar by her bridesmaids but to Duluth police station by her lawyer. A lurid jacket rather than a veil hid her face from photographers. And she faced not a congregation of wellwishers, but a town whipped up by a storm of mixed emotions – relief and sympathy tainted by betrayal and anger. Her bridesmaids were outraged. The mayor Shirley Lasseter, was busy adding up the costs of the extra policing that she owes the city. And residents made no effort to conceal their disgust for her to the news cameras, all of them demanding an explanation as to why, to where and how the so-called “Runaway Bride”, or the “Flee-ance” ran.

In the short term, Wilbanks simply hid in the basement of her mother’s house in Gainesville, Georgia, saying nothing. Her only statements were profuse apologies issued through her local family priest. It took nearly 8 weeks before Wilbanks spoke openly about her disappearance, on an NBC TV special with Katie Couric. She sat hand in hand with Mason – who incredibly, still wants to marry her – and spoke of repaying her debt to the city of Duluth, and undertaking an intensive course of psychiatric treatment. (The interview was scheduled on her weekend off).

“When I told John I was going to run, that’s what I was going to do,” she told Couric. “I was running away. That’s what I’ve always done. That’s what’s comfortable to me… But my running that night had nothing to do with this wonderful man sitting beside me.”

If not cold-feet then what was it?

“Obviously I was stressed because I am a perfectionist,” she said. “But I’ve talked about this day for a very long time. I have always dreamed of a fairy tale wedding. I don’t think I could be happy any other way.”

But if the pressure of organising the perfect wedding was to blame, then her behaviour ought to suit someone who suddenly snapped under the pressure. Instead, she had planned her escape a full week before that fateful run. Eleven days before her wedding, and 5 days before her last bridal shower, she sneaked off to buy a Greyhound Bus ticket which was good for a week. It was the last night of the ticket’s validity when she went running that night. She took a cab to the bus stop, $140 cash and a pair of scissors so that she could cut her hair short along the way – “I didn’t want to be found,” she says.

That first night, while her fiancé, her family and the police were frantically combing the neighbourhood, Wilbanks was on her way to Austin, Texas for no reason other than she had seen the city a few days earlier on a documentary about the actor Matthew McConnaughey. “I wasn’t going to find Matthew McConnaughey,” she laughs, “I just thought, ‘I’ll go there, it’s within reach. I’ll be able to find something to do there…’”

The gravity of what she had done only started to hit home in the morning, after 10 hours on the bus. She had no idea what a huge news story she had become because “there aren’t any TVs on buses,” but it dawned that people back home would be worried about her, and the thought panicked her. She had reached the point where the longer she was away, the harder it became for her to go back. So she just kept running – she switched buses at Dallas and bought an overnight ticket to Las Vegas, and then another from Vegas to Albuquerque where finally, she ran out of money. There was nowhere further to run to. So she called home. And the way she tells it, she didn’t plan to concoct a story – it just happened.

“[My stepfather] was screaming with excitement and joy,” says Wilbanks. “Straight away he told me ‘you don’t know how many people are out there looking for you, this has been a national search…’ And at that moment I was like ‘oh gosh’, I felt kind of backed into a corner.” By the time Mason came to the phone, she had begun to fabricate – how a man and a woman had kidnapped her in Duluth. That they were Hispanic and Caucasian respectively is down to the fact that such a couple befriended her on one of her buses.

The emerging picture of Jennifer Wilbanks suggests a troubled and psychologically damaged young woman. And admittedly, as she entered her 20s, there were warning signs of what was to come – the wedding wasn’t the only challenge she ran from. But it wasn’t always the way. Wilbanks’s story begins with a comfortable southern upbringing in which her mother owned a successful sports shop and her father worked for Georgia’s department of transportation. Though her parents split up when she was six, she remained close to them both, staying a week with each alternately until she graduated from high school as an honors student and star distance runner.

Then the faultlines began to show. After two years she pulled out of her pre-med course at the University of Georgia, because she “got very overwhelmed.” Taking a job as a medical assistant in a labour ward, she went from boyfriend to boyfriend until finally she found someone she wanted to marry. But she pulled out of that first engagement – though at much longer notice than the second time.

This first broken engagement sent her into a spin. That year she was twice arrested for shop lifting and then later on for theft. She stole $37 worth of goods from Walmart – “a bridal magazine, funnily enough, and a DVD” – then $1740 worth from a mall. Her last offence was in April 1998, when at the age of 25, she stole $98 from another store and served 2 weekends in jail. Wilbanks has no explanation for her stealing, just as she hardly understands why she ran. “I didn’t have to steal. It was definitely impulsive,” she has said. “Maybe it was a cry for help, but no one was listening.”

These aberrations were behind her when she met Mason in 2003. Her aunt brought them together. She discovered that Mason was a runner too – a nice born-again boy who worked as the manager of his family’s medical clinic – so she gave him Jennifer’s number and told him to call. Their first conversation lasted hours. ”I was like oh my gosh!” said Mason. “If this girl’s pretty she’s perfect!” Ten months later Mason was holding out a 3-carat diamond on bended knee.

Since destroying that wedding, Wilbanks has suffered a furious backlash. For weeks afterwards she stayed confined to her parents’ basement in Gainesville, Georgia and issued apologetic statements through her lawyer and the reverend of her local church. Mason, however, has remained loyally by her side throughout. He accompanied her to court in Duluth where she pleaded no contest to lying to police. To pay back the $66,000 the city of Duluth spent on law enforcement specific to her search, the court put her on 2 years probation and demanded 120 hours of community service. She will pay $2500 more to the sheriff’s office.

But then this is a growing hazard for authorities in an age of 24 hr cable news. All too often, sensational media coverage forces law enforcement to hurl resources at cases that turn out to be hoaxes. Last year a Wisconsin student faked her kidnapping and forced a $97,000 investigation. A few months later, a runaway bride in Ohio prompted a search complete with bloodhounds and helicopters, only to be found at her friend’s house a few days later. In another era, says James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, “the Wilbanks case might not have been covered at all. A lot of people have criticized her, but of course we’re the ones who called on the dogs.”

Certainly the media got its money’s worth. An Albuquerque radio station KAGM has offered Wilbanks a $30,000 job to co-host their morning talk show. Ebay entrepreneurs have hosted offers to sell everything from T-shirts to Runaway bride kits. The “Missing” posters with Wilbanks’s creepy eyes have disappeared as quickly as they were put up. And Katie Couric got her exclusive TV special in the midst of Wilbanks’s psychiatric treatment.

But still there are many unanswered questions. Firstly, why did the Runaway Bride run? To this day, Wilbanks has been unable to properly explain her actions. In the week immediately after her return, she released a statement through the reverend of her local church that “my running away had nothing to do with cold feet, nor was it ever about leaving John.” Now she claims to have contemplated suicide that night, and that running became a life or death decision. “I had a bottle of pills or I had the bus ticket,” she says. “And I decided not to play God that day.”

But what were the pills and where did she get them? And what did she mean when she told Katie Couric that she still kisses her father on the lips? Wilbanks won’t say. She’s finished with the media for now. She won’t discuss her psychiatric condition in any detail. All she knows is she has had it from birth and that “we’re not supposed to put labels on it. I’ve just got to be happy with myself so that I can have confidence that others can be happy with me.”

All that is left intact, it seems, is her relationship with John Mason whose reaction to her plight has been extraordinary. “When the truth came out,” he said, “I was angry for about 5 minutes. Then I realised, well, that’s the best possible outcome. This was what we were all praying for – for God to bring her home. And He did.” Today, he hopes to one day marry Wilbanks, once her psychiatric treatment is through. Still today, their wedding gifts remain unopened in a spare room at home in anticipation of that day – they say they’ll return them otherwise. (The couple registered for $20,000 worth of Kate Spade stainless, Wallace silver, Waterford crystal and Lenox china).

Not surprisingly, many Duluth residents are sceptical. Particularly after the couple sold their story rights for $500,000.