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‘Runaway bride’ sues former fiancé as couple parts ways

ATLANTA (BP)–Jennifer Wilbanks, the woman who made headlines last year for vanishing just days before her extravagant wedding, is now suing her former fiancé for $500,000, claiming he owes her half of the money received from selling their story plus punitive damages.

Wilbanks pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of lying to police and was placed on two years probation after she admitted to FBI agents that she fabricated a story about her alleged abduction. She said she fled to New Mexico because of personal pressures.

As the ordeal was unfolding, Wilbanks’ fiancé, John Mason, appeared on the Fox News Channel with Tom Smiley, pastor of Lakewood Baptist Church in Gainesville, Ga., where Wilbanks’ father is a member.

At the time, Mason was a member and Sunday School teacher at Peachtree Corners Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Norcross, Ga., but Steve Orehosky, the church’s associate pastor of pastoral care, told Baptist Press Oct. 12 that Mason and Wilbanks have been absent from the church for at least six months.

In April 2005, Mason told Fox’s Sean Hannity that the first thing he did when he saw Wilbanks again was give her the engagement ring she had left behind to show that he still wanted to marry her.

“Just because we haven’t walked down the aisle, just because we haven’t stood in front of the 500 people and said our ‘I dos,’ my commitment before God to her was the day I bought that ring and put it on her finger,” Mason said on Fox. “And I’m not backing down from that now.”

But after a year of trying to mend their relationship, Mason and Wilbanks parted ways this past May, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Oct. 11.

In September, Wilbanks filed a lawsuit claiming that while she was hospitalized following the trip she took to avoid her wedding, Mason obtained power of attorney and took over her finances. He then made a deal with Regan Media to sell their story for $500,000, Wilbanks alleges, and he used the money to purchase a house in Dacula, Ga., where the couple lived for several months.

Wilbanks is seeking half of the money made in the deal plus an additional $250,000 in punitive damages. She also wants to reclaim some personal items from the home, including wedding gifts the couple received, The Journal-Constitution reported.

During his appearance on Fox News last year, Mason described the agony he felt when Wilbanks went missing and he feared she had been the victim of a crime. Investigators were pressuring him with lie detector tests and endless questioning to be sure he was not responsible for her disappearance, and he said his pastor and a deacon took him aside at his house when they noticed he was beginning to break.

“They got me on the back deck and we just kind of talked it out. They let me yell at them, and then we prayed…. Then a couple other deacons came in, went back in my office and we prayed some more,” Mason said, adding that soon he had the peace of God which transcends all understanding as stated in Philippians 4:7.

Smiley told Hannity that after talking extensively with Wilbanks upon her return, the issues that made her run were “very resolvable and they’re not anything that no one else in this world has not ever experienced.” He could not be reached by Baptist Press for comment Oct. 12.

Smiley wrote a book in the wake of the runaway bride ordeal titled “Runaway Lives: Overcoming Emotional Undercurrents,” offering biblically based answers for problems similar to those that caused Wilbanks to run.

“The book is timeless, practical wisdom about how to deal with the emotional issues of life,” Smiley told The Gainesville Times newspaper in Georgia.

Runaway Lives is not a memoir of the couple’s struggle, The Times noted, and Wilbanks and Mason are only mentioned in the introduction.

“The book is not about Jennifer, John or their families,” Smiley said, adding that the topics covered in the book, such as anxiety, are the kind of issues that Wilbanks was facing.

“The national media brought Jennifer’s crisis into our living rooms,” Smiley told The Times. “Jennifer’s confidence in me to help her gave me a birdseye view of how dangerous and debilitating emotional struggles can be.”
Compiled by Erin Roach.

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