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Runaway bride's story perplexes authorities

County prosecutor says she could face criminal charges

Wilbanks, a blanket over her head, is escorted by police through the airport in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
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The district attorney is considering charges in the case.

People are not quick to forgive the runaway bride.
Should police file charges against the runaway bride whose flight spawned a national search?
John Mason
Jennifer Wilbanks

DULUTH, Georgia (CNN) -- Authorities said runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks cried when she met with them Monday and recounted how she cut her hair to disguise her appearance and caught a bus heading West to escape her wedding.

She did not, however, offer an outright apology, said Carter Brank, an assistant special agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

"She was somewhat remorseful for what she had done. She didn't come right out and apologize," Brank said. "She didn't feel like she really had done anything wrong. But she did -- in her way -- make somewhat of an apology."

Authorities said they believe a crime occurred when Wilbanks, a 32-year-old medical assistant from the Atlanta suburb of Duluth, reported she had been abducted by two people and driven away in a van, but they have yet to determine if they will prosecute.

She could face a charge of making a false police report, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 12 months in jail, or making false statements to authorities -- a felony that carries a maximum of five years' imprisonment.

The city of Duluth may also take civil action to recoup about $40,000 to $60,000 from Wilbanks for costs incurred in her hometown's search for her, Police Chief Randy Belcher said at a Monday evening news briefing.

Wilbanks has hired Edward L. Hartness, an attorney based in nearby Gainesville, who said neither he nor his client had any comment. She "needs time to heal with her family and time to heal with her fiance," Hartness said.

Wilbanks' fiance, John Mason, 32, told CNN his "only concern now is to get Jennifer well." According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Web site, Mason also told a TV interviewer, "Hey, we all mess up. We all make mistakes."

Wilbanks, who had been scheduled to get married last Saturday in front of 600 guests and 28 attendants, disappeared last Tuesday evening, prompting three days of searching.

On Friday, she called Mason from a pay phone in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and said two people had abducted her, then retracted her story upon questioning by the FBI and police. Albuquerque police said they will not file charges.

Returning to Atlanta late Saturday, Wilbanks handed a statement for reporters to a flight attendant shortly before landing. (Full story)

Flooded with e-mails

Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said he has been flooded with more than 400 e-mails running 7 to 1 in favor of prosecution.

"There's a minority that believe that there should be no prosecution, and then there's the same number that believe I'm a relentless publicity hound," Porter said.

He would not say whether he plans to file charges.

Asked whether Wilbanks has expressed sorrow for her actions, Porter said, "Sometimes, I'm not sure she has the capability for remorse."

He continued: "I'm not even sure she really understands the magnitude of what happened here."

Porter said he knew as soon as he heard Wilbanks' story that the woman was lying, and said he was not persuaded she had come clean yet.

"There's something about the statement she gave today that doesn't ring completely true and, to tell you the truth, I think that her absorption with herself is so great that she just really doesn't understand what the consequences of what she did are," Porter said.

"She said that she never thought there would be a search for her. Well, that just doesn't make sense."

Duluth residents, including some of the 150 volunteers who had helped search for Wilbanks, had a mixed reaction to her return. (More hometown reaction)

Duluth Mayor Shirley Lasseter said the cost of the search was more than $60,000, based on the 78 city workers who took part in it, including all 55 employees of the Police Department.

Lasseter said she believes Wilbanks needs to be held accountable.

"I think, when we all do wrong, that we must be punished for that in some way," she said.

"I think for this action there needs to be some type of reaction, and there needs to be some type of retribution that she should feel to give back to the community for what she has put them through for these many days."

Last year, a Wisconsin college student who faked her abduction was sentenced to probation and ordered to reimburse police. (Full story)

Timeline of case

At Monday evening's briefing, Belcher gave an extensive timeline of the case.

He said Wilbanks purchased a Greyhound bus ticket from Atlanta to Austin, Texas, on April 19 -- a full week before she disappeared while on a run in Duluth.

Belcher said she called a taxi from a gas station April 26 before she went on her run, telling the taxi to pick her up at the Duluth library.

Authorities said they believe that before she hopped into the cab she cut her hair with scissors and left a clump of it near the library -- evidence found during the search for her.

She then took the cab to the main Greyhound station in downtown Atlanta and boarded a bus to Dallas, Texas, where she changed to a bus bound for Las Vegas, Nevada, that passed through Albuquerque.

After spending some time in Las Vegas, she made her way back to Albuquerque, where she called her fiance collect early Saturday from a pay phone outside a convenience store, Belcher said.

Belcher said he was near the fiance's home at the time of the early morning call and drove to the home to get on the line.

He said he "clearly identified" himself to Wilbanks as the chief of police and that she told him that when she was jogging last Tuesday, a Hispanic male and white female jumped her from behind, placed her in a van and drove off.

"At this point, she did violate Georgia law by advising me of this situation -- that she was kidnapped," Belcher said.

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