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Vigil for missing woman to replace wedding

Family offers $100,000 in missing bride-to-be case

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Police official discusses missing bride-to-be case.
Missing Persons
Atlanta (Georgia)

DULUTH, Georgia (CNN) -- Instead of celebrating a grand wedding, relatives and friends of a missing suburban Atlanta woman will attend a vigil Saturday at the church to pray for her safe return, the bride and groom's minister said Friday night.

At least 600 guests were invited to the wedding of Jennifer Carol Wilbanks and John Mason at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the First United Methodist Church of Duluth, northeast of Atlanta.

There were to have been 14 bridesmaids and the reception was to have been at the swank Atlanta Athletic Club.

Wilbanks, 32, has not been seen since Tuesday night, when she left the Duluth home she shares with Mason, also 32, for a run about 8:30 p.m. She left behind her keys, identification, cell phone and engagement ring.

The couple became engaged in August. Both are marathon runners and it was that mutual interest that brought them together, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

Police have nearly given up the possibility that Wilbanks, a medical assistant at a clinic in nearby Gainesville, disappeared because of pre-wedding jitters, or "cold feet."

On Thursday they declared the case a criminal investigation and called off a search unless new evidence surfaces.

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

In an emotional plea on CNN Headline News' "Nancy Grace" Friday night, Jennifer's father, Harris Wilbanks, pleaded for his daughter's safe return.

"Jennifer, if you can hear this, we love you. Please call us. If you are someone that has Jennifer against her will, please let her go. Please. If anybody has any information that can help us, that can lead Jennifer to us or us to Jennifer, please call the Duluth city police or any police agency," Harris Wilbanks said.

His family is "absolutely devastated," he said.

"It's the hardest thing we've ever gone through in our life. Tonight was supposed to be the rehearsal dinner, tomorrow the wedding. We were all so looking forward to it. I can't describe the feeling," he said.

The Rev. Alan Jones, pastor of Peachtree Corners Baptist Church in Norcross, was to officiate at the wedding. His church is undergoing renovations and wasn't available.

He said the couple's wedding vows were still on his desk; it was to be a traditional ceremony.

On Friday, a spokesman for her family announced a $100,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of those responsible for her disappearance.

Mike Satterfield, Jennifer Wilbanks' uncle and family spokesman, said at a briefing that Mason -- who was standing in the crowd of sobbing relatives behind him -- had taken and passed a polygraph.

Belcher said the test was conducted by a private examiner hired through Mason's attorney and that negotiations were under way for him to take a police-conducted test.

"We would just like to have our own," Belcher said. "It's an investigative tool."

Mason has specified conditions for such a test, including meeting in a neutral location and videotaping the session, Belcher said.

Authorities agreed to the neutral location but balked at videotaping the test, saying it is not standard practice among law enforcement agencies, he said.

Mason, police said, remains cooperative and has not been ruled in or out as a suspect. "Right now, we would just like to interview Mr. Mason," Belcher said.

"We love Jennifer very much," Satterfield said during the family briefing, his voice cracking with emotion. "We would give our life and everything that we own to have her returned."

Extensive searches of Duluth and nearby towns produced little of evidentiary value, police said.

A pair of dark blue sweat pants was found in Duluth, Belcher said, and two sweat shirts were found, one in Suwanee, just north of Duluth, and one in Cumming, about 20 miles away.

The articles of clothing were being analyzed at the state crime lab to determine whether they are related to Wilbanks' disappearance.

Wilbanks was last seen wearing a gray sweat shirt, blue sweat pants and blue New Balance running shoes, police said.

She is described as being 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighing about 120 pounds, with shoulder-length brown hair and brown eyes.

A clump of hair found near a Duluth office park was also undergoing testing, Belcher said, but the hair appeared to have been cut, not pulled.

The hair color and type was similar to Wilbanks', but police cannot say whether it belonged to her, he said.

"We have nothing at this point to show a crime has been committed," Belcher said.

He said the search has been suspended, for now.

"We've turned over probably every leaf in this city." Belcher said Wilbanks' family understood. "They know that we can't search forever."

Belcher said the investigation will continue and he appealed to the public for information. He said police had received tips from as far away as California.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation was handling tips inside Georgia and the FBI was following out-of-state tips, he said. Hundreds of phone calls continued to come in Friday, he said.

Since the volunteer search has been called off, there is little for Wilbanks' family to do but wait, Satterfield told reporters, wiping tears from beneath his dark shades.

"Now that we're sitting around ... you reflect on the past, the good times, and it becomes very emotional at that point," he said, describing the family's emotions as a "roller coaster. We laugh and then we cry."

Relatives, he said, are relying on "our faith, our prayer, our friends. ... We are a close-knit family, and we'll make it through this."

During the press conference, Wilbanks' mother sobbed heavily before people ushered her away.

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

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