Runaway Bride? Why Georgia Isn't Letting Her Off the Hook...

Runaway Bride? Why Georgia Isn't Letting Her Off the Hook...

by Michelle Kaminsky, Esq., December 2009

Some little girls begin dreaming of their wedding day from the time they can mouth the words, "I do." Whatever 32-year-old Jennifer Wilbanks of Duluth, Georgia, might have dreamed, surely it didn't involve a bright afghan draped over her head as she returned from a cross-country disappearing act on the morning of what was supposed to be her wedding day.

Alright, so she got cold feet. She was feeling the pressure and needed to escape from the stress for a while. 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?

Maybe, except that she didn't tell anyone of her plan to skip town when she went out for an evening jog without keys, cell phone, money, identification, and, incidentally, her engagement ring. Her family thought she had been kidnapped. Enter the local police, the FBI, and the national media—suddenly, her case of pre-wedding jitters was the scoop of the week.

The country's mind immediately shifted to Wilbanks' fiancé, John Mason. We've cried along with the families of Laci Peterson and Lori Hacking. We know domestic violence statistics and that the most dangerous place for a woman is in her home. So when word got out that Mason had been the last person to see Wilbanks, in many minds he was already convicted. He took a private polygraph test to prove his innocence, but the American public was too wary to blindly believe the results.

A few days later when Wilbanks showed up in a 7-Eleven phone booth in New Mexico, everyone was elated that she was alive and well, even if she had a bad hair cut. But then as the FBI interrogated her, her initial claim—that a Hispanic man and white woman had jumped her and then released her after chopping off her hair—fell apart. Within a few hours, we learned that she had never been kidnapped, and Wilbanks was dubbed "The Runaway Bride." Naming a minority as one of her imaginary abductors certainly didn't win her any points either.

But all's well that ends well, right? Not exactly.

We were fooled. And America doesn't like to be fooled. The story played with our emotions, and since 9/11, our emotions are on a constant high. The American public felt betrayed, toyed with, just plain tricked by Wilbanks' departure. We understand that she probably didn't actually plan to scare her family or her fellow Americans, but she didn't even consider them when she decided to vanish right before the most important day in her life. So what exactly has to happen to set things right by the public?

One option is to take her to court. Unfortunately, the American public can't sue an individual for making fools of them, but Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter can charge Wilbanks with the false reporting of a crime, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail, or the felony of making false statements, which carries a maximum of five years' imprisonment. The D.A. is weighing the evidence and said that if he concludes Wilbanks left spontaneously, he would be less inclined to charge her. Notably, the charges would come from Wilbanks' statements after she was located, and not from her running in the first place.

The disappearance part would fall under the concerns of the city of Duluth, which can seek to recover costs it expended in its search for Wilbanks—and it isn't small change. Between $40,000 and $100,000 in taxpayer money was spent looking for Wilbanks, so there is more to the story than just America's hurt feelings. Wilbanks' nuptial jitters hit us in our hearts and our pockets, and for the latter there is legal recourse.

Duluth wouldn't be the first community to try to recover costs in an abduction hoax. Two years ago, Audrey Seiler, then a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, disappeared from her campus apartment. After a search that cost the local police $100,000, she was found four days later, claiming she had been abducted. Her story quickly unraveled, however, and she was charged with two misdemeanors of obstructing the police. Seiler entered into a plea agreement under which she agreed to pay back $9000, perform 250 hours of community service, and undergo mental health counseling. Seiler's situation, by the way, was more extreme than Wilbanks' in that she actually purchased items she later alleged were used by her abductor.

Reimbursing taxpayers for unnecessary police searches is an interesting proposition, and one can easily argue that it should be applied to other search efforts as well. Many people put themselves in dangerous, arguably preventable situations every day and need to be rescued on the taxpayers' dime. Mountain climbers, skiers, and many other outdoor enthusiasts who head into their pursuits without proper precautions also end up costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. The crucial difference of course is that thrill seekers—no matter how irresponsible—don't deceive the public.

When someone vanishes for days without telling anyone where they are going or why, there are likely underlying issues that most of us can't begin to understand. While Wilbanks and others like her shouldn't simply get off the hook, jail time and tens of thousands of dollars in retribution doesn't seem to strike the right chord either.

Yes, Wilbanks probably owes America a heartfelt apology and a "thanks for thinking of me" speech, but an out-of-court agreement of partial payback, community service, and therapy (which she has already agreed to enter), should be enough to wipe the egg off of our collective faces and move on.

After all, she's got another wedding to plan.