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The Runaway Bride fiasco: One Year Later

DULUTH - So there are more important issues than the anniversary of the Runaway Bride fiasco.

The proliferation of nuclear technology in Iran. The energy crisis. The upcoming election for Georgia governor.

But come on. How could we not take a moment to pause, reflect and wonder on this, the one-year anniversary of Jennifer Wilbanks' ill-fated decision that turned Gwinnett County (Duluth in particular) into a zoo of television crews, public officials and curious spectators?

Let's face it, the woman was more ubiquitous than Britney Spears. She's been on everything from NBC's "Dateline" with Katie Couric to a piece of toast. And the fascination with her story seemingly knows no bounds.

Maybe because the public never really got an answer about what led to a cross-country flight for the bride that wasn't. Wilbanks was vague in her only television interview, saying she was running from "certain fears" that were controlling her life, not sending her jilted fiance, John Mason, a resounding "I don't."

The 16 bridesmaids, family members, friends and co-workers who made the rounds appearing on countless cable television news shows seemed to be scratching their heads just like the rest of us.

Most of the sources close to Wilbanks have shied away from the media spotlight since her return on April 30, 2005, - her father, Harris Wilbanks, never returned repeated phone calls this week, and neither did her attorney, Lydia Sartain. John Mason declined requests for an interview Tuesday through an employee who was answering the phone at John Mason Primary Care in Duluth, where he is managing partner.

A few details about Wilbanks' life were gleaned from public officials.

Duluth Mayor Shirley Lasseter said Mason sold his little bungalow on West Lawrenceville Street about five months ago and high-tailed it to the upscale Buford neighborhood of Hamilton Mill, where he and Wilbanks now reside.

By all accounts, Wilbanks and Mason still haven't tied the knot, but they remain engaged. No word on whether a wedding date looms.

Many people have anticipated a book or movie about the runaway bride since ReganMedia purchased rights to her story last year for a reported half-million dollars, but execs for the company said nothing is in the works.

According to Peggy Chapman, spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Corrections, Wilbanks finished her 120 hours of community service in September. Wilbanks will remain on probation through June 2, 2007, after pleading no contest to one felony count of making false statements in Gwinnett County Superior Court.

She is still forking over a $32 probation supervision fee and $100 in restitution each month to the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department to repay $2,550 spent helping the city of Duluth in the three-day search for her. Wilbanks' outstanding debt to the Sheriff's Department is $1,370, Chapman said.

Media circus

At the peak of public frenzy over the story, Duluth Mayor Shirley Lasseter's phone rang off the hook from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. for weeks following the runaway bride's disappearing act. Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter fielded calls from reporters morning, noon and night.

But gone are the days when camera crews from CNN, Fox News Network, and ABC jockeyed with reporters from the New York Times and Chicago Tribune in the Duluth Town Green over who got the most coveted interviews.

In retrospect, some lambasted the event as a media circus. Howard Kurtz, a media critic for the Washington Post, called the Runaway Bride story a "runaway television embarrassment," citing the over-hype and relentless coverage as pandering to America's obsession with soap-opera drama and missing women cases.

Dan Kennedy, prominent media critic and visiting assistant professor at Northeastern University's School of Journalism, said the story was a staple of cable news talk shows, but its popularity didn't extend much beyond that.

"Stories that are big on the Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC are not necessarily covered that extensively by other media," Kennedy said. "The Laci Peterson and Natalee Holloway stories would be good examples of that. The cable networks' obsession with such tabloid fare, and the relatively small audiences they attract, show that they have never fulfilled their potential as a 24-hour news source."

Looking back, Lasseter said she was grateful for the news coverage at first, but after Wilbanks' was found safe and sound the public spotlight became a bit wearisome.

"I don't really know that we had any choice in what happened afterward. It was really kind of a roller-coaster ride for a while," Lasseter said. "I think just the curiosity of people around the world got the best of everybody."

15 minutes and counting

Wilbanks' 15 minutes of fame should have been up a long time ago, but the clock is still ticking.

Lasseter said City Hall fielded phone calls and e-mails from people as far away as Japan, England, France and Australia last year. Even now, curious citizens ask city officials about their famous former resident and tour groups ask to see the little house where Mason lived.

Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter, who prosecuted Wilbanks for lying to police about being abducted, said he still gets the occasional phone call from a reporter requesting an interview about the case.

"After all the important cases I've prosecuted in all the years I've been prosecuting, my greatest fear is that my legacy will be that silly case," Porter said. "It was just another case, in terms of my role in it."

Lasseter had mixed feelings about Wilbanks.

"I hate that we're synonymous with the Runaway Bride, but I think the experience the townspeople went through as well as our staff is certainly something we'll never forget," Lasseter said.

"I think it's behind everybody. The seriousness has left us all and at least we're not left with anger. People have found humor."

The tale of the fleet-footed bride has even been a cash cow for some. The Gwinnett Gladiators leveraged Wilbanks' notoriety last month by offering a limited number of "Runaway Bride" bobblehead dolls to the first 1,000 fans to arrive at the March 5 game against the Pensacola Ice Pilots.

People were lined up to grab them before the doors opened, and they soon appeared on the popular Internet auction site eBay. One of the dolls was listed for sale on the site for $100 on Tuesday.

In February, the Rev. Tom Smiley, the Gainesville pastor who became Wilbanks' spokesman for a time, also published a book on foolish decisions titled "Runaway Lives."

If there's one thing we've learned from all this hullabaloo, it's that Gwinnettians can find the humor in just about any scenario.

And that's got some, even the Runaway Bride herself, laughing all the way to the bank.