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Runaway bride pleads no contest

Friday, June 3, 2005

LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. -- Escorted into court by her fiance, runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks tearfully pleaded no contest Thursday to faking her own abduction. She was sentenced to probation, community service and a fine.

"I'm truly sorry for my actions and I just want to thank Gwinnett County and the city of Duluth," Wilbanks said in court.

Judge Ronnie Batchelor sentenced her to two years of probation and 120 hours of community service as part of a plea bargain. He also ordered her to continue mental health treatment and pay the sheriff's office $2,550, in addition to the $13,250 she previously agreed to pay the city of Duluth, Ga., to help cover the overtime costs incurred in searching for her.

"She's done everything that we would ask of her," said her lawyer, Lydia Sartain. "She has accepted responsibility."

District Attorney Danny Porter called the plea "a good resolution of the matter under all of the facts of the case and taking into consideration Ms. Wilbanks' prior criminal record." Wilbanks was convicted of shoplifting during the 1990s.

Wilbanks, 32, whose disappearance just before her wedding day created a nationwide sensation, arrived at the courthouse in a casual, hooded black outfit and running shoes, with a new bobbed hairdo. She was wearing her engagement ring.

John Mason, the man she was supposed to have married April 30, was by her side in a black suit as she strode past a crowd of reporters.

After the sentencing, the attorneys approached the bench to discuss the case and Wilbanks sat alone at the defense table, hugging herself and sobbing quietly. Mason sat several rows behind her, watching in silence. The two did not share any words or glances as Wilbanks' lawyer escorted her out a back door of the courtroom.

Mason and Wilbanks' family members had no comment.

Wilbanks disappeared from her Duluth home on April 26, four days before she was to have been married at a lavish ceremony with 600 guests and 28 attendants. She cut her hair and climbed on a bus to Las Vegas and then Albuquerque, N.M.

She called police three days later, claiming she had been abducted and sexually assaulted. She quickly recanted and said she fled because of unspecified personal problems. After returning home, she entered psychiatric treatment at an unspecified facility.

Last week, she was indicted on charges of making a false statement and making a false police report. She could have gotten six years in prison and $11,000 in fines if convicted.

The false statement charge under which she was sentenced stemmed from a phone call she made from New Mexico to Georgia in which she made the abduction and assault allegations. The false-report charge was dropped as part of her plea bargain.

Wilbanks also could also have been ordered to reimburse authorities for the full cost of the search, which has been put at more than $50,000.


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