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Law

'Runaway bride' pleads no contest, apologizes

Wilbanks gets 2 years' probation, plus community service


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Jennifer Wilbanks arrives at court Thursday to appear before a judge in Lawrenceville, Georgia.
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"Runaway bride" pleads no contest and apologizes.

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LAWRENCEVILLE, Georgia (CNN) -- Choking up before a judge Thursday, a Georgia woman who became known as the "runaway bride" pleaded no contest to a felony charge of making false statements to police.

"I'm truly sorry for my actions," Jennifer Wilbanks, 32, told Gwinnett County Superior Court Judge Ronnie Batchelor.

Wilbanks' disappearance before her wedding in April prompted local authorities to conduct a massive hunt and led to national TV coverage. She turned up four days later in New Mexico, fabricating a tale of abduction.

The judge sentenced the suburban Atlanta woman to two years of probation, 120 hours of community service and ordered that she continue mental health treatment. She also must pay the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department $2,500 in restitution.

The arrangement apparently was a plea deal in which a misdemeanor charge of making a false police report was dismissed. That charge was not brought up in court Thursday.

Batchelor denied a request from Wilbanks' attorney, Lydia Sartain, that the charge of making false statements be reduced to a misdemeanor.

After Thursday's court hearing, Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said that Wilbanks received a sentence under Georgia's First Offender Act, meaning the felony will be expunged from her record if she successfully completes probation.

But Porter said that Wilbanks would go back before a judge if she fails to complete probation and then could face the maximum punishment -- up to five years in prison.

Wilbanks was booked at about 10:30 a.m. ET Thursday and then released, listing a Gainesville address, according to Gwinnett County sheriff's records.

In a statement in court, Wilbanks thanked the city of Duluth and Gwinnett County authorities. Local authorities said the search for the woman cost thousands of dollars.

She also told the judge she was taking prescription medication but did not elaborate.

"The decision [to enter the plea] is Ms. Wilbanks', and she wants to go forward," her attorney told Batchelor.

Accompanied by her fiance, John Mason, and wearing her engagement ring, Wilbanks faced TV cameras as she prepared to enter the Gwinnett County Courthouse on Thursday morning.

"How are you guys holding up?" someone ask Wilbanks, who replied, "OK." She nodded when asked if she and Mason were "happy this whole thing is wrapping up."

The couple had been scheduled to marry April 30 at a lavish wedding with 600 guests and 28 attendants.

On April 26, Wilbanks failed to return to a home she shared with Mason in Duluth, an Atlanta suburb, after telling him she was going for an evening jog.

On what was to have been her wedding day, Wilbanks called her fiance from an Albuquerque, New Mexico, convenience store, and Duluth Police Chief Randy Belcher got on the line.

In the call, Wilbanks reportedly said a Hispanic man and white woman had abducted her and driven her to the store. Wilbanks initially told police and FBI agents she had been sexually assaulted before being released, according to the Albuquerque police report.

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 later told officers that before going jogging she had called a taxi to take her to a Greyhound bus terminal in Atlanta. She traveled by bus to Las Vegas, Nevada, and then Albuquerque, she said.

In court Thursday, her attorney, Sartain, told the judge that Wilbanks had not called the police. "There could be an issue whether she realized who she was talking to," Sartain said.

A grand jury indicted Wilbanks on charges last month.

Earlier this week, Sartain delivered a check for nearly $13,250 to the city of Duluth, a payment meant to cover overtime pay to city workers and any other out-of-pocket expenses such as water and sandwiches during the search for the woman.

Sartain said Tuesday that the payment ended any possibility of a lawsuit from the city. Duluth initially had demanded $40,000 but apparently decided to settle.

After returning to Georgia, Wilbanks voluntarily entered an inpatient treatment program "to address physical and mental issues," according to a public relations firm for her church.

"This is a good resolution of the matter under all of the facts of the case and taking into consideration Ms. Wilbanks' prior criminal record," the Gwinnett district attorney said in a statement. "Other than the overwhelming press scrutiny, this was a routine case handled in a routine manner."

Wilbanks was arrested three times on shoplifting charges in 1996 and 1998. One of the 1998 charges was a felony -- involving more than $1,700 in merchandise taken from a mall -- but the charge was dropped after Wilbanks completed counseling and diversion programs, performed community service and paid restitution.

CNN's Tristan Smith contributed to this report.


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