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Runaway bride: Wedding 'postponed,' not off

Anger follows jubilation in Wilbanks' hometown


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How an apparent runaway bride case unfolded.

Woman claims to have been kidnapped in a 911 call.

Police: Georgia bride-to-be made up kidnapping story
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(CNN) -- Instead of being the center of a lavish wedding Saturday night, Jennifer Wilbanks flew home to Georgia from New Mexico, where she surfaced early Saturday morning after a nationwide missing-person search.

Shortly before the plane touched down in Atlanta Saturday night, a flight attendant handed out a written statement from the Wilbanks family to the media: "She has spoken to her fiance. He cannot wait to see her. She says the wedding is not called off, just postponed."

The flight attendant also said Wilbanks was escorted from the plane by police, was too tired to speak to the media and would make a statement early next week. Wilbanks was wearing a baseball cap with "FBI" on the brim.

Although Wilbanks initially told police in Albuquerque that she had been kidnapped, she admitted after further questioning with police and the FBI that she had fled her suburban Atlanta home voluntarily, because she needed some time alone before the wedding.

Saturday night she walked through the Albuquerque airport -- flanked by police -- her face hidden by a striped towel.

The 32-year-old woman, missing since Tuesday, called fiance John Mason from an Albuquerque 7-Eleven convenience store before dawn Saturday, and he kept her on the line long enough for police there to trace the call.

"I was crying, I was laughing, I was trying to stay calm to talk to her to keep her calm," Mason said.

The bride-to-be also called 911 and reported she had been kidnapped near her home and driven more than 1,000 miles to New Mexico.

"I've got my family and police on the phone," she told the dispatcher. "I was kidnapped from Atlanta, Georgia. My parents said it's been on the news. I don't know."

But it took only a few hours of questioning for authorities to learn the truth: Wilbanks left on her own, just before her wedding, which included 14 bridesmaids and 14 groomsmen. A reception was planned at the swank Atlanta Athletic Club.

Wilbanks told police she took a bus from Atlanta to Las Vegas, Nevada, and then boarded another bus for New Mexico, Albuquerque police Chief Ray Schultz said Saturday.

"Agents and detectives learned that Ms. Wilbanks had become scared and concerned about her pending marriage and decided she needed some time alone," he said.

Wilbanks said she appreciated the "outpouring of prayers and concern that she recently has become aware of," Albuquerque police spokeswoman Trish Ahrensfield said.

Authorities had searched for Wilbanks since Tuesday, when Mason first reported her missing to police. He had told them she went out for an evening jog near their home in Duluth, a suburb northeast of Atlanta, and never returned.

The search later turned into a criminal investigation. Mason hired a lawyer and passed a polygraph test.

Her family posted a $100,000 reward for her return or the arrest and conviction of those responsible for her disappearance.

Family and friends had largely discounted the possibility that Wilbanks had gotten cold feet about the wedding, because she had left behind her keys, money, identification and engagement ring.

Police in New Mexico and Georgia said no criminal charges against Wilbanks were pending, but a prosecutor in Gwinnett County, Georgia, said it was too soon to make that decision.

District Attorney Danny Porter said he first wants to review statements Wilbanks made to police and the FBI.

Wilbanks and Mason were set to be married Saturday. The wedding was to have some 600 invited guests.

"Originally, it appeared she had been kidnapped, but after talking to the FBI, it turns out that Miss Wilbanks basically felt the pressure of this large wedding and could not handle it," Duluth Police Chief Randy Belcher said.

Emergency call, and then an admission

On the 911 tape, Wilbanks is heard telling the dispatcher she had just been freed by two kidnappers who abducted her Tuesday night. She said she was at a 7-Eleven but didn't know where.

In answer to the dispatcher's questions, Wilbanks gave detailed descriptions of her kidnappers, whom she described as a Hispanic man and a white woman. She said they were driving a blue van, whose license plate number she didn't get. She also told the dispatcher, before dissolving into sobs, that her abductors were armed with a small handgun.

She later told police her kidnappers cut her hair before releasing her on an Albuquerque street.

"There were just a lot of holes in her story," Schultz, the Albuquerque police chief, told CNN. "The story kept getting retold and retold -- it was a little bit different each time ... If she'd been with somebody for four days, she would have had a little more information."

Eventually, "they asked her, 'Do we need to look for the blue van anymore?' and she said, 'No' ... It took several hours, but she did the right thing by telling the truth," said Ahrensfield, Albuquerque's police spokeswoman.

Bill Elwell, spokesman for the FBI's Albuquerque office, told CNN that Wilbanks "did not show the signs of a person who had been confined for about three days."

According to Elwell, Wilbanks later admitted to cutting her own hair. "It was an attempt to alter her appearance. She didn't want anyone to recognize her ... her hair was uneven. It did not appear as if it was professionally done."

Police in Duluth said a clump of hair similar to hers was found in a Duluth office complex and was undergoing forensic testing. Authorities said it appeared to have been cut.

Elwell said Wilbanks also told authorities she left Atlanta with about $150 after taking $40 from an automatic teller machine.

Wilbanks said she did not plan the departure but left on the spur of the moment, he said. After she finished jogging near her home, she caught a taxi to the bus station, he said.

After her arrival in Albuquerque, Elwell said, she got another taxi and told the driver she needed a hotel room.

Schultz said she apparently spent a few hours wandering aimlessly and was out of money when she made the phone calls home and to 9-11.

Jubilation turns to 'Why?'

The announcement that Wilbanks had been found set off a celebration in Duluth, where anxious relatives and friends had gathered. The joy turned to shocked silence about six hours later, when word came from Albuquerque's police chief that cold feet -- not kidnappers -- were responsible for her disappearance, and that she had lied to police. (More hometown reaction)

"We're absolutely delighted that this young woman is alive and has not been hurt, and the worst has not happened," said Duluth Mayor Shirley Fanning-Lasseter. "But everyone is very emotional and has many different emotions about the deceptions and the untruths. And just the thought of her mother and what her mother has gone through these last three days makes me want to cry."

The owner of Linda's Restaurant, Sandy Hall, said, "I'm very angry at her for doing that to her family and to the city of Duluth."

"We feel betrayed. Nobody's talked to Jennifer. We don't know what kind of feelings, what she was feeling or emotions she had," said the Rev. Alan Jones, who was to marry the couple and had been counseling them ahead of the wedding. "I'm amazed at the response of (fiance) John Mason. He's been calm, he's peaceful, he wants to see her, he wants to talk to her again."

A friend of Wilbanks and Mason, Melinda Larson, had a different spin. "Having cold feet is a joy compared to what the alternative could have been," she said.

CNN's Charles Molineaux, Peter Viles and Rich Phillips contributed to this report.


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