Runaway Bride

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Friday night's show was live from outside the home of John Mason and Jennifer Wilbanks (search). During the time we were doing the show, the two of them should have been at their wedding rehearsal dinner. Instead, she was missing ... and no one had any idea if she were dead or alive.

I was very polite to both families, telling them that Elizabeth Smart (search) surprised us all and came home alive and so might Jennifer. Frankly, I had virtually no hope Jennifer was alive, but thought I should try and help the family stay optimistic. When you go to these stories, rather than sit back in the studio, you get to know the families and it is horrible to watch them suffer. Jennifer's father was so grieved that he could hardly talk.

After the show Friday night, we lingered a bit and then headed to our hotel to check in. Because of the late hour and the distance, we did not get to the hotel until after midnight. We were feeling a bit "wired" and hungry — so we had pizza in the bar. At about 1 a.m. I went to my room — I had a 7 a.m. wake up call to go back to D.C. and did not want to be totally exhausted. The two I was traveling with — producer and make up artist — stayed until after 2 a.m. talking to Geraldo's producer and brother, Craig, and former professional basketball player Charles Barkley (search), who was also in the hotel bar.

I got to sleep — best estimate — after 2 a.m. I could not get to sleep when I got to the room, so I read. At 3 a.m., BOTH my cell phones rang. Usually I turn them off when I go to bed (if someone wants to reach me, he or she can use the hotel phone) but Friday night I decided to leave them on.

I jumped up and grabbed one and said, "Hold" and answered the other. Into the phone a New York producer yelled, "They found her! She is alive!" I was a bit confused as to who was even on the phone and told the producer to hold while I went back to the other phone. On that phone was my producer who was traveling with me. He was yelling the same thing — and, of course, yelling, "We gotta go!" I told him I would meet him in the lobby in five minutes and went back to the other producer to make sure there would be a satellite truck on location. He said there would be.

We raced back to John and Jennifer's house — getting there before 4 a.m. Of course at one point we made a wrong turn and got lost ... ugh! Upon arrival at John's and Jennifer's, the neighborhood appeared to be having a "block party" — people were yelling and lights were on in the house and there were cars parked all over the place. We were the first national media — by about two hours — on the scene. Because we had done our show from the yard earlier, we were friendly with everyone and immediately got invited inside the family home. In the days after she vanished, and before she called, the inside of the home was off limits to the media. The family wanted — understandably — privacy.

Inside the family home were dozens and dozens of people — John Mason, his father, Jennifer's father, groomsmen, bridesmaids, cousins, etc. It seemed like one of those "all night parties" you attend in college! Everyone was excited. I suspect that no one REALLY had had much hope that she would be found alive so you can imagine the elation when the word spread that she had called.

We wanted to go live immediately with John Mason and he was eager to talk — but our satellite truck had not arrived. A local FOX station had a cameraman outside and he was invited into the house to tape an interview I was given by John Mason. Everyone was much too anxious to await the truck and we could not go live without it.

We were just delighted to have the first interview even if just on tape. We were clearly in the midst of a very happy group. As we were taping the interview, our satellite truck arrived and we decided to take everyone outside for a "group" interview. We did just that — I had an "Oprah moment" — meaning I stood on their front lawn with about 30 guests. I just passed the stick mike around so each could tell his or her excitement. In news the information is usually grim and no one is happy but this was one very happy crowd. I am not sure how long we were live — my guess is that it was about 4:15 a.m. to 4:45 a.m. — but time got very distorted (and of course no one had had any sleep and everyone was in the same clothes as the day before!)

After the group interview outside, we all went back into the house and again the party got started. I have never seen a more excited crowd. Everyone wanted pictures so we took them — they are posted today on the blog. Make sure you go to the pictures on the blog since we were the only ones to get the inside photos and they do give you an idea of how much excitement there was. These are truly "behind the scenes" pictures you will see no other place: Click on the links in the photo box above.

At about 6 a.m., we left so that I could make my flight back to D.C. I was obliged to be in D.C. for an event that night even if I had to go on no sleep (which is what happened unless you count the 70 minutes on the flight back to D.C. from Atlanta.) Because of terrible thunderstorms up and down the East Coast, there was much turbulence the entire flight and there were some kids yelling. In spite of that, both my make up artist and I slept. Apparently we were the only ones who slept since some woman said to my make up artist as we got off the plane in D.C., "How could you sleep through that!" The woman obviously did not have our night!)

En route to the airport in Atlanta, my make up artist and I discussed the abduction theory and both thought it sounded fishy, but of course we were just delighted that for once a story had a good ending — someone coming home alive! Even if it turned out that the story was bogus, it still seemed like a happy ending to us.

As we stood in line about 7:15 to get our boarding passes, the calls started coming in from the producers who had remained behind at the house. The family had been told that the story about the abduction was fiction. I was told the mood changed but of course they were still happy that she was alive. I am sure in the days ahead, we will learn more.

We were thanked profusely by the family and FOX management for going back to the house at 3 a.m. without sleep and doing the live shot. Everyone was excited. Frankly, I would have had it no other way and, from what I know of others in the business, we are not alone. News people seems to thrive on this. We wanted to get you the very latest and the most information and we did! (It was also fun to have good news for once!)

Here is Jim Hammer's e-mail to me as he heads back to the Michael Jackson (search) trial:

It's late on Sunday night and I'm flying back to Santa Maria for the last two days of the prosecution's case and the start of Jackson’s defense. Last week was a tough one for the D.A. On Friday the judge kept out a key piece of evidence, which might have strengthened the D.A.'s conspiracy count.

According to a reporter who was called to testify in a hearing outside the presence of the jury, one of the alleged co-conspirators remarked that the accuser's family had "disappeared" from Neverland. To the best of the witness's memory, Jackson's associate had used the word "escape." This is the word the accuser’s mother used repeatedly and which Jackson's lawyers have mocked, "How many times did they escape only to return to Neverland?" Because this witness was working as a journalist, he came to court with an attorney and that attorney invoked California’s Shield Law -– which prohibits journalists form being compelled to testify as to any "unpublished" material. Naturally, Jackson's lawyers wanted to go beyond this one sentence and probe the witness's knowledge and relationship with the other co-conspirators. Each time his attorney objected. Good lawyering and in the end — the judge barred the witness’s testimony holding that the defense wouldn’t be able to fairly cross–examine him.

Keeping that witness off the stand was the end of a tough week for the D.A.'s case. Debbie Rowe clearly went sideways on the prosecution, the D.A.'s Battered Women’s Syndrome expert was kept off the stand, and Chris Carter, a Jackson insider and potentially powerful witness took the Fifth. We'll never know how all this evidence might have helped the DA's case. Now it's down to two days for the D.A. to try to tie Jackson to the alleged conspiracy and to try to end strong. Then it's the defense's turn. Anything could happen then. With the way trials go, the D.A. might even continue to build its case during that part of the trial. Stay tuned…
Jim Hammer
Santa Maria Courthouse

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