Twitchy Bride Runs Into PR Nightmare

Instead of a giddy newlywed, Jennifer Wilbanks (search) is the butt of jokes at water coolers across the nation.

Photographs of the thin, wide-eyed Georgian that last week were printed on missing persons posters now adorn running shoes, "Runaway Bride" kits, T-shirts and — it was only a matter of time — toast.

The first items poking fun at the jogger who fled on her cold feet appeared on auction site eBay less than 24 hours after Wilbanks admitted ditching her pending nuptials.

Antiques dealer Harry Lonzello, 48, of Newton, N.J., said he could not resist carving Wilbanks' image on a piece of toasted bread and placing it for sale on eBay.

"I thought it would be a goof to put it on the site because I thought the story was so funny," he said. The toast has received more than 10,000 hits since Sunday, Lonzello said, and as of Tuesday afternoon bidding on the slice of bread reached $66.

When asked what he would do if put in Wilbanks' fiancé's shoes, he laughed: "I'd list her on eBay and sell her."

But the story of Wilbanks' disappearance did not start out funny.

The 32-year-old medical assistant was reported missing by fiancé John Mason (search) last week after failing to return from a jog just days ahead of their Saturday wedding.

A dearth of clues led authorities to fear the worst. The search for Wilbanks turned into a criminal investigation and her family offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to her return.

By Friday, the search for Wilbanks took a darker turn. Police found a clump of hair near the home Wilbanks shared with Mason, and Mason's attorney began negotiating with authorities over a lie detector test.

Wilbanks' disappearance evoked two recent, high-profile murders — Laci Peterson (search) of California and Lori Hacking (search) of Utah, both of whom were killed by their husbands. So when she turned up in New Mexico, spun a phony kidnap tale to both her fiancé and police and then later admitted she had really just run away, the concern over her safety quickly turned to anger.

Lonzello said he initially followed Wilbanks' disappearance to see if things turned out OK. When it became apparent his concern was based on a lie, his sympathy evaporated.

"Everybody watched the news coverage and was worried something would happen to this girl. To put people through all this — I'd be behind bars if I did that," Lonzello said.

Wilbanks' stunt left many in her hometown feeling similarly betrayed, leading to calls for authorities to press charges against her. Some wedding guests apparently turned on Wilbanks as well; eBay bidding on her wedding invitations hit as high as $300 by Tuesday afternoon.

Patty Munzing, 26, who is getting married in November, called Wilbanks' actions "completely selfish."

"I think it is disgraceful that she left without telling anyone and making people believe that she was hurt or dead," the Forest Hills, N.Y., woman said via e-mail. "Probably the worst thing about her running away was that she made her fiancé a murder suspect when he did absolutely nothing wrong."

Still, it is likely that Wilbanks acted out of genuine panic over the looming ceremony, to which more than 600 guests had been invited.

"I think it is best to be nonjudgmental because we don't know what is going on inside her or the nature of their private relationship," said Dr. Elizabeth R. Yoon, a psychiatrist based in Reston, Va.

Yoon said last-minute bouts of commitmentphobia (search) are quite common among soon-to-be-wed couples, and that Wilbanks probably took her own issues too far.

"She acted out her problem instead of confronting it, and then she went to the extreme. I'm sure it got worse and worse for her — the more she worked herself up the more unreasonable she became," Yoon said.

Wilbanks may have issues beyond a fear of commitment, Yoon added: "I would suspect that she had kind of a hysterical character already, one who is easily excitable and then loses their good sense and reasoning."

Mason, whom some regarded as a murder suspect when Wilbanks disappeared, quickly forgave her and vowed to go through with the wedding. Brian Moriarty, who is getting married in less than two weeks, said he could empathize.

"The one way you respect the kind of commitment you're supposed to show [in marriage] is you stand by that person no matter what," he said. "My heart goes out to the guy."

Moriarty, a 32-year-old PR executive, said he hoped his fiancée would approach him with any apprehensions rather than take off as Wilbanks did.

He added that his fiancée, a Colombian-American, was outraged to learn Wilbanks had described her kidnapper as Hispanic.

"Why did she have to do that? It definitely makes me lose a bit of sympathy for her," he said.

Moriarty encouraged the couple to take six months to a year to work through their issues — and then downsize the ceremony to family and close friends.

And if that doesn't work out, he said, "at least other women will know that this guy is not afraid of commitment."