Jennifer Wilbanks was scheduled to marry her then-fiancee, John Mason in April 2005. It was going to be a lavish event: There would be 28 members of the wedding party and more than 600 guests were invited.
But just days before the wedding, Wilbanks vanished without a trace, sparking a nationwide manhunt. Her distraught family made the rounds on the cable networks, pleading for her return and saying that she wasn’t the type of person to run off.
They were wrong.
Wilbanks, then 32, emerged three days later and claimed that she had been taken hostage by a Latino man and caucasian woman while she was out for a run. According to Wilbanks, the couple had driven her from Duluth, Georgi,a to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where they had sexually assaulted her in a van.
She later recanted her story, admitting she’d actually fled Georgia on a bus because of “personal issues.” The wedding was called off.
Wilbanks was eventually sentenced to two years of probation, 120 hours of community service and ongoing mental-health counseling. A judge also ordered her to pay the sheriff’s office $2,550 to cover some of the costs of searching for her. She also agreed to pay $13,250 to the city of Duluth, Ga., to help pay for the overtime costs the city incurred searching for her.
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Wilbanks’ story was revisited on the Reelz Channel’s show, Scandal Made Me Famous. The show spoke with several insiders involved with the case — many who haven’t spoken out in several years.
“I was glad that she was okay, and not murdered in this horrible incident,” Albuquerque Police sergeant Trish Hoffman tells the show. “And then, the rest of it kicks in: She couldn’t handle what was happening at home. She made up all these horrible things that she said about what people did to her. Of course, none of it was true. I mean, not one single bit of it.”
“I think I was mad at first,” Hoffman continues. “You’re wasting people’s time and you’re saying that these offenders did this to you when in fact none of that had happened. So I think it kind of went from angry to disappointment to feeling sad for her. I mean, it’s very desperate to do that.”
Jennifer Wilbanks Today
But Wilbanks is no longer desperate. Still living in Georgia, she’s in a long term relationship with Greg Hutson, the owner of a landscaping company. The couple has been together since 2010 — although they’ve never walked down the aisle.
On her Facebook page, Wilbanks dotes on her nephews and nieces, interacts with a large circle of friends and posts inspirational quotes.
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Despite the outrage at Wilbanks’ actions in 2005, many people feel like it’s water under the bridge. “I think the community has completely forgiven Jennifer,” a friend told the show. “I think what she went through was worse for her than just about anybody, to have to come home and face the music like that.”
“In the big picture who did it really hurt? Her and her family,” adds Sgt. Hoffman. “I hope they’re in a better place than they were back then.”