Runaway Bride May Escape Punishment

Published May 08, 2005

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Anyone who was watching the early morning news when "Runaway Bride" Jennifer Wilbanks (search ) was located could not help but feel happy for her, but also a little bit peeved.

News anchors were confounded as Albuquerque’s police chief announced that the 32-year-old subject of a four-day search by multiple law enforcement agencies was neither dead nor had ever been kidnapped, but had decided to bolt on her fiancé just days before their wedding.

Wilbanks has said that she will “make amends” for the search conducted after her deliberate disappearance, but more than one law enforcement official has said that he intends to investigate criminally charging or suing Wilbanks. American law enforcement, to a great extent, still relies on people to be honest, and that’s why Wilbanks' behavior is so offensive to so many people.

There is quite a lot of evidence that Wilbanks planned her disappearance well in advance. According to published reports, Wilbanks asked her employer if she could take off from work on the day she was to disappear. By then, she had purchased a ticket for the bus that brought her to Las Vegas, and had even arranged transportation to the bus station from a point along her jogging route.

All of these things helped her disappear from her home, and up until that point, the disappearance was capable of more than one interpretation; it was just as plausible that she’d run away as had been kidnapped. But three days after her disappearance, police announced they had located a clump of hair they suspected to be Wilbank's along her jogging route. If Wilbanks cut her own hair and left it along the route to encourage the belief that she had been kidnapped, she moved beyond simply running away-- and into an attempt to deliberately mislead the law enforcement she knew would be looking for her.

When she turned herself in to police, her hair had been cut much shorter than it appeared on the “missing" posters that had been placed all around her hometown. The only reasonable conclusion is that Wilbanks not only wanted her family to believe that she had been kidnapped, she also wanted to reduce the likelihood that she would be recognized.

All of this points to a deliberate, meticulously planned disappearance. It’s doubtful that Wilbanks would have been found had she not called 911 herself.

It’s also unlikely that any of this will result in criminal prosecution. But in states like New York, public monies may be recouped from at-fault parties. That’s why, for instance, an individual who causes a particularly messy car wreck will be sent a bill for cleaning up the glass, oil and debris left in the roadway. In a corollary to this, law enforcement authorities in Duluth, Ga., hope to sue Wilbanks for the cost of their investigation. Wilbanks has suggested that she will voluntarily reimburse the municipality for at least part of the expense.

She might have more to worry about, though. At a minimum, Wilbanks appears to have made false statements to investigators and may have caused a false report to be filed.

Prosecutions and disciplinary actions for filing a false report (search) and making false statements (search) to law enforcement are more common than most people think. They are so common because people can commit these acts in such a wide variety of circumstances. Accountants and lawyers are regularly suspended, or lose their license, for filing false instruments, and even people who have only a tangential relationship to a police investigation have been convicted after making a false statement to foil a police investigation.

Wilbanks is reported to have spent several hours speaking with police before she confessed that she alone had engineered her disappearance. Prior to confessing, she told them a detailed story involving a couple in their forties, a blue van and a gun. She told the same story to a 911 operator. The quality of these actions is far different from simply disappearing. It is similar to the clump of hair that may have been left by Wilbanks along her jogging route. With these statements, Wilbanks made an affirmative and false statement to law enforcement.

Ironically, Wilbanks might escape prosecution by virtue of her disappearance being fabricated. Prosecutors hesitate to charge someone with making a false statement if the statement was not designed to frustrate the investigation of an actual crime. As the runaway bride now admits, she was not kidnapped, therefore her disappearance did not involve a crime.

Matt Hayes began practicing immigration law shortly after graduating from Pace University School of Law in 1994, representing new immigrants in civil and criminal matters. He is the author of the soon-to-be-published "The New Immigration Law and Practice."

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