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Missing bride found in New Mexico

| Saturday, April 30, 2005

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - A Georgia bride-to-be who vanished days before her wedding turned up in New Mexico, claiming at first that she had been abducted, then admitting she had gotten cold feet and "needed some time alone," police said Saturday.

Jennifer Wilbanks, 32, was in police custody more than 1,420 miles from her home on what was supposed to be her wedding day.

"It turns out that Miss Wilbanks basically felt the pressure of this large wedding and could not handle it," said Randy Belcher, the police chief in Duluth, Ga., the Atlanta suburb where Wilbanks lives with her fiance. He said there would be no criminal charges.

Wilbanks, whose disappearance set off a nationwide hunt, called her fiance, John Mason, from a pay phone late Friday and told him that she had been kidnapped while jogging three days before, authorities said. Her family rejoiced that she was safe, telling reporters that the media coverage apparently got to the kidnappers.

But Wilbanks soon recanted, according to police.

Ray Schultz, chief of police in Albuquerque, said Wilbanks "had become scared and concerned about her impending marriage and decided she needed some time alone." He said she traveled to Las Vegas by bus before going to Albuquerque, where she found herself broke.

"It looks like she had enough money to get from Vegas to Albuquerque and this is where she ran out and ended up at," the chief said.

"She's obviously very concerned about the stress that she's been through, the stress that's been placed on her family," he said. "She is very upset."

The mood outside Wilbanks' home went from jubilant to somber after Wilbanks changed her story. Family members ducked inside and the blinds were drawn, but they later expressed relief that Wilbanks 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."

Jones said the family had no idea that Wilbanks had fears about the wedding, and he believed she "probably had no clue how it had been blown out of proportion" while she was traveling across the country.

He said Mason had no hostility toward his fiancee.

"I have never met such a strong person in all my life," Jones said. "He's an incredible man."

The wedding was to have been a huge bash. The couple had mailed 600 invitations, and the ceremony was to feature 14 bridesmaids and 14 groomsmen.

Bill Elwell, an FBI spokesman in Albuquerque, said Wilbanks, who is a nurse, apparently decided shortly after purportedly leaving for her jog Tuesday night that she was going to run away.

"Based on the information we received, it was a spur of the moment situation," Elwell told The Associated Press.

She was picked up by police after the call to her fiance was traced to a pay phone in Albuquerque. During initial questioning, Wilbanks held to her story that she had been kidnapped. But there were inconsistencies as the interview wore on and at about 4 a.m. she told the truth.

"There were just a lot of holes in her story," Schultz said.

She was disheveled, tired and thirsty, but was not complaining of any injuries, officials said. Her hair, which was long in pictures released by her family, was shoulder-length.

Authorities will "get her showered, get her something to eat and then reunite her with her family," Albuquerque police spokeswoman Trish Ahrensfield said. Elwell said Wilbanks' relatives were en route to New Mexico and were expected to pick her up in the afternoon and head back to Atlanta.

Just hours before Wilbanks called her fiance, police in Duluth 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 Duluth, a tight-knit town. Her picture and newspaper articles about her disappearance were on telephone poles and shop windows. Police had also seized three computers from the home she shared with Mason.

Mason had become a target of suspicion and agreed to a private polygraph test, which Wilbanks' family said he passed. He had been negotiating with authorities for another test.

"That's been the hardest part for me," Mason said after Wilbanks called from Albuquerque. "It gives you a feeling like you can't walk outside your home."

Mason did not speak publicly after Wilbanks said she lied about being abducted. Her uncle, Mike Satterfield, thanked people who had helped in the search.

"Jennifer had some issues the family was not aware of. We're looking forward to loving her and talking to her about these issues," he said.

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. We saw her parents, and you could see the anguish in their eyes. It was terrible," he said.

"I don't care where you are -- unless you're in the Amazon rain forest, you'd know everybody was out looking for you."

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