Police, psychics search for ‘abducted’ Runaway Bride
Jennifer Wilbanks, 32, vanished from her Duluth, Georgia, home on April 26, 2005. The long-distance runner, who was to be married in less than a week, was last seen preparing to go jogging. When she disappeared she left behind her keys, wallet, and diamond engagement ring.
Wilbanks soon became the focus of a nationwide search. Various clues seemed to suggest that foul play may have been involved. Sweatshirts and sweatpants found near where Wilbanks often jogged were examined, as was a clump of hair. Her family tearfully pleaded for the public to come forth with any information, and offered a $100,000 reward. Missing persons posters and yellow ribbons appeared throughout the Atlanta suburb.
A spokesman for the Duluth Police Department stated that they had received several tips from people claiming to be psychics, but could not confirm their exact number or nature. One self-proclaimed psychic in Buffalo, New York, reportedly had a vision that Wilbanks was dead and would be found near some bushes. Another psychic, Christopher Scott, described his involvement in the case at the Blogger News Network Web site: “I am a psychic with experience in this type of investigations [sic] and have offered my help to Duluth police. I left my number two days ago and I haven’t heard a word from them. I was involved in the murder of Robert Crane (from Hogan’s Heroes) many years ago. I have participated in other investigation as well…. I have told police that it’s vital that I examine her personal articles before they ‘cool down….’ I fear Wilbanks is in dire straights [sic]…. If her parents can afford to offer $100,000 reward, they can afford to fly me in and at least allow me to examine evidence.”
Some speculated that Wilbanks’s disappearance might simply be a case of cold feet, coming just days before her wedding. However, friends and Family repeatedly stated that Wilbanks was looking forward to the marriage and that a voluntary vanishing would be totally out of character for the bride-to-be. The investigation soon focused on Wilbanks’s fiance, John Mason. He was asked to take a polygraph test, and after his home computers were seized as possible evidence, Mason hired a lawyer.
The search ended four days after the disappearance when Wilbanks called 911 and her family from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Through sobs and stammers, she reported that she had been kidnapped and raped by a Hispanic man with a gun, along with a Caucasian woman. When FBI investigators questioned her, she admitted that she had not been kidnapped nor raped, and had simply left town on the spur of the moment because she “needed some time alone.” She had taken a bus first to Las Vegas, Nevada, then to Albuquerque. Further investigation revealed that she had in fact planned the disappearance for some time, purchasing a bus ticket and setting aside extra cash. Wilbanks knew people would be desperately searching for her, and cut her hair to avoid being recognized.
Though the media-dubbed “Runaway Bride” at first refused to apologize for her actions, Albuquerque police were sympathetic to Wilbanks, giving her free clothes and gifts (including a teddy bear, an FBI hat, and a tote bag) during her stay and airplane trip back to Duluth. The reaction in Georgia–where hundreds of volunteers had spent four days and nights searching wooded areas, riverbanks, alleys, and sewage drains–was somewhat less understanding. The search had ended, but the results were bittersweet. Apparently none of the psychic detectives divined that Wilbanks was in Las Vegas or Albuquerque, and Wilbanks’s family was spared the expense of a psychic’s round-trip airfare to “examine the evidence.”
Statistics on the numbers of false kidnappings are not kept, though I investigated the phenomenon following the hoaxed kidnappings of Dar Heatherington (a Canadian politician who vanished while on a trip to Montana in 2003 and reappeared a week later claiming she had been abducted and sexually assaulted) and Audrey Seiler (the Wisconsin college student who claimed that a man had abducted her at knifepoint and held her for four days in 2004). Faked kidnappings occur in the United States several times per month, though only rarely do the cases achieve national notoriety. Aside from the often enormous costs to taxpayers, false reports (especially those of violent crimes such as shootings, robberies, school bomb threats, rapes, and kidnappings) unnecessarily frighten the public and waste police resources. Several Hispanic organizations were outraged that Wilbanks had blamed the false rape and abduction on a Hispanic man.
Those who file false reports are rarely prosecuted. Seller’s and Wilbanks’s hoaxes together cost taxpayers nearly a quarter of a million dollars. Seller was sentenced to probation, community service, and ordered to pay $9,000 in restitution. Jennifer Wilbanks could face a misdemeanor charge of false report of a crime or a felony charge of false statements. In recent years, several states including New York, Mississippi, and Michigan have tried to address the problem of false abduction reports by passing legislation toughening penalties for those offenses.
Benjamin Radford wrote about hoaxes and false kidnapping claims in his book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal
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