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Missing case turns into criminal probe

Hope dwindling that bride-to-be disappeared intentionally


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Jennifer Wilbanks has been missing since she went jogging Tuesday evening.
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Police official discusses missing bride-to-be.
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Atlanta (Georgia)

DULUTH, Georgia (CNN) -- Hope is "dwindling" that a bride-to-be, missing since she went jogging two nights ago, disappeared intentionally, a police official said Thursday.

Duluth Police Chief Randy Belcher said the possibility that 32-year-old Jennifer Wilbanks developed "cold feet" before her wedding this Saturday had mostly been ruled out.

"The longer this investigation continues and she hasn't shown up, that theory is dwindling quickly," he said.

Earlier Thursday police classified the search as a criminal investigation.

"We decided to make it criminal simply because 24 hours has passed. We have not located her in a hospital or any place of that nature. Since she has not returned ... there has to be another reason for her not being here," Belcher said.

Belcher said while there is no indication a crime was committed, more resources are available in a criminal probe.

Wilbanks is 5-foot-8 and 120 pounds, with brown hair and brown eyes. She was last seen wearing a gray sweat shirt, blue sweat pants and blue New Balance running shoes, police said.

Belcher said volunteers had been pulled off the search in northeast Georgia because dogs and law enforcement officers can more easily tread new terrain being covered, like kudzu and uneven ground.

Belcher said searchers face another problem: Wilbanks, a marathon runner, did not have a usual jogging route, although her fiance, also a runner, had some idea of her different routes.

"We don't really know how far to search out," he said.

The search area that covered more than five square miles Wednesday had expanded to several more miles Thursday, Belcher said. About 100 law enforcement officers were involved, and more K-9 officers and bloodhounds were joining the search, Belcher said.

Included in the search were the banks of the Chattahoochee River north and south of Duluth, he said.

Belcher said searchers found some hair and a jogging outfit. These items were being tested to see if they are relevant to the disappearance. Duluth Police Maj. Don Woodruff emphasized they could belong to anyone and may not be related to Wilbanks' disappearance.

Police said Wilbanks' fiance, John Mason, had told them she went out for a run around 8:30 p.m. Tuesday and told him she would return in about 40 minutes.

Mason told police that after an hour went by, he went looking for her on foot and then began checking hospitals.

When he found no trace, police said, he called them.

Woodruff told CNN that authorities immediately treated the situation as a missing person case and took search dogs to the residential area where Wilbanks was last seen. But the dogs were unable to pick up a scent because it was too windy, he said.

Police have no suspects or solid leads, Belcher said. Authorities were checking into about five registered sex offenders living in the Atlanta suburb, as well as friends, past boyfriends and co-workers, he said.

Mason has offered to take a polygraph test and will give police his final response Friday, Belcher said.

Mason said Wednesday he didn't believe she got cold feet over their upcoming marriage because "she left her car, her money, her phone, her keys, her diamond ring." The couple have been engaged since August.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution identified the fiance as the son of former Duluth Mayor Claude Mason.

Belcher said that the missing woman's family is also "very cooperative."

They released a statement Thursday morning thanking the searchers, media and community.

"At this time our family remains hopeful that Jennifer will be brought home safely," the statement said. "We beg anyone who has any knowledge of the circumstances surrounding Jennifer's disappearance to contact the police.

"The family is devastated at this time and is praying, begging and pleading for information," it said, ending with "Jennifer, we love you and will bring you home!"

Belcher said police had received tips from as far away as California. No claim of a sighting had been confirmed, and the FBI is investigating the out-of-state information, he said.

CNN's Sara Dorsey and Marylynn Ryan contributed to this report.


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