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'Runaway bride' charged with making false statement

'You just can't lie to the police,' DA says


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Jennifer Wilbanks
Georgia

LAWRENCEVILLE, Georgia (CNN) -- Jennifer Wilbanks, the Georgia woman who fled the state and faked her own kidnapping and sexual assault before her wedding, was indicted Wednesday by a grand jury, the Gwinnett County district attorney said.

Wilbanks, 32, is charged with one count of making false statements, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, and one count of making a false report of a crime, a misdemeanor punishable by a year in jail, District Attorney Danny Porter said.

"I think it's appropriate," he said at a news conference. "If there's a message, [it's] that at some point, you just can't lie to the police."

"The next step in the process would be the issuance of the bench warrant for her arrest," Porter said. "I feel confident that arrangements can be made for her to turn herself in, and then we will take the next step from there."

The medical assistant from the Atlanta suburb of Duluth, had been scheduled to marry in April at a lavish wedding including 600 guests and 28 attendants. Just days before the ceremony, she disappeared, prompting a massive, three-day search that local authorities said cost thousands of dollars.

Eventually Wilbanks called authorities from a pay phone in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and said two people had abducted her, then recanted her story during questioning by the FBI and police.

Albuquerque police have said they will not file charges.

Duluth Mayor Shirley Lasseter said the jurors surprised her.

"I think I was a little stunned they went for both the felony as well as the misdemeanor," Lasseter said. "But we don't underestimate the grand jury. They are very thorough and do what they believe is to be justice."

Local authorities are negotiating a possible settlement with Wilbanks' attorneys over the cost of the search for her. The mayor said officials are asking for $43,000. Wilbanks' attorneys "have countered back with $13,000 plus, which actually covers the overtime hours and out-of-pocket expense for food and clothing -- or food and gas and things like that," Lasseter said.

Porter said Wilbanks would likely appear in court within 30 days. He said he didn't know her location.

Wilbanks has voluntarily entered "a highly regarded, inpatient treatment program ... to address physical and mental issues," according to a statement released by her church's public relations firm shortly after she returned to Georgia.

Porter said he had not spoken with Wilbanks but had been in contact with her attorney, Lydia Sartain. Sartain is out of town until next week and would not be issuing a statement, her office said. She previously has said she does not believe Wilbanks committed a crime, but restitution for the expense her disappearance caused will be forthcoming.

On April 26, Wilbanks failed to return to a home she shared with her fiance, John Mason, after telling him she was going for an evening jog.

On April 30, which was to have been her wedding day, Wilbanks called police and then her fiance from an Albuquerque convenience store.

A copy of an Albuquerque police report says she initially told police and FBI agents she had been abducted and sexually assaulted before being released at the store.

When an FBI agent told her that her story did not seem credible, "Jennifer admitted she had lied about the kidnapping and the sexual assault," the report said. "She had left Georgia because of the pressures of her wedding. The list of things she needed to get done and no time to do it made her feel overwhelmed."

Wilbanks told officers that before going jogging she had called a taxi, which took her to a Greyhound bus terminal. She went by bus to Las Vegas and then Albuquerque, she said.

Wilbanks has issued a public apology through her family's pastor. Although the statement made no mention of her plans to marry Mason, both of them separately have said the marriage is still on.

"Later recantation doesn't excuse you from the criminal behavior, under Georgia law," Porter said. "That would be like stealing something and then putting it back. It doesn't help you to say, 'Oh, I put it back.'"

The charges were based on evidence presented to the grand jury, which included a statement Wilbanks made to Duluth Police Chief Randy Belcher by telephone from New Mexico, Porter said.

That statement was Wilbanks' claim that she had been abducted, as well as descriptions of the perpetrators, Porter said. Belcher, who was near Mason's home when Wilbanks called him, drove to the home and got on the line during the call, which Porter said was recorded.

Both Porter and Lasseter were asked whether they felt any sympathy for Wilbanks. The mayor said she had "mixed emotions. I think most of the world now would like to see this over, but I also think they know that for every behavior, there's going to be some type of justification."

She said she hoped Wilbanks would avoid serving any time in jail.

Porter said his feelings had no role in the case. "I don't think sympathy plays into the decisions that I make," Porter said. "On a personal level, I'm glad we're not investigating a murder-kidnapping. I'm glad she's home. I'm aware of some of the issues that are involved in this. But in terms of making the decision, I have to follow the evidence and follow the law."


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