It was a fitting place to plead for forgiveness. At Lakewood Baptist Church in Gainesville, Ga., last Thursday, Pastor Tom Smiley delivered a statement from Jennifer Wilbanks, the runaway bride whose disappearance triggered a massive search effort and media frenzy before she surfaced in New Mexico with a concocted tale of abduction. "I am truly sorry for the troubles I caused," the statement read. "I was simply running from myself and from certain fears controlling my life." Meanwhile, at a former Baptist church an hour's drive away in Duluth--the town where Wilbanks lived with her fiance--a more temporal bid for redress was underway. There, behind the granite walls that now house police headquarters, authorities were calculating the cost of Wilbanks's misdeed. Salaries for some 60 officers deployed for the search: $42,000. Logistical support, including food and fuel: roughly $18,000. After learning that "the entire episode was a charade," says Duluth Mayor Shirley Lasseter, "I realized the costs involved."
Now it's up to officials to decide--likely in the coming week--what restitution to seek and whether to file charges against Wilbanks. It's a quandary authorities increasingly face in the age of 24-hour cable news, in which merciless media coverage forces law enforcement to devote copious resources to solve crimes that turn out to be hoaxes. Last year a student in Wisconsin faked her kidnapping, prompting a $97,000 mobilization of manpower. (She pleaded guilty to obstructing officers and agreed to pay back $9,000.) A few months later a runaway bride in Ohio sparked a search involving bloodhounds and helicopters, only to be discovered at her friend's house several days later. (She was charged with "inducing panic," but prosecutors later dropped the complaint.) In these cases, as in Wilbanks's, the press descended, the public clamored for resolution and authorities stewed in a pressure cooker. In another era, Wilbanks's case might not have been covered at all and resources might have been deployed more cautiously, says James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University. "A lot of people have criticized her, but of course, we're the ones who called on the dogs."
Wilbanks's story proved irresistible to the media. On the eve of her wedding--an extravagant affair involving 28 attendants and more than 500 guests--Wilbanks vanished after going for an evening jog. The press devours abduction stories, says criminal-justice professor Victor Kappeler of Eastern Kentucky University, who argues that the trend gained steam after Elizabeth Smart's 2002 kidnapping in Utah. Once reporters began broadcasting from Duluth, hysteria mounted. "People were keeping their children inside and curtailing their activities because they were afraid there was a kidnapper out there," says Danny Porter, district attorney for Gwinnett County. At the Duluth Police Department, virtually everyone focused on finding Wilbanks. "We didn't totally abandon the city," says spokesman Don Woodruff, but "certainly there were less officers than there are normally."
That reaction highlights the toll media scrutiny can take on law enforcement. "When you marshal that type of focus and resources, that means something else is not being investigated," says Noble Wray of the Madison, Wis., Police Department, which uncovered the student-kidnapping hoax last year. Though the press certainly aids many investigations--raising public awareness and generating crucial tips--it often hinders them as well. After the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, media calls jammed police phone lines and pranksters called in false reports based on news accounts, according to the Littleton, Colo., police chief, Gary Maas. His experience since then hasn't been much rosier, what with TV cameramen shining their lights on cops during nighttime raids.
In response, authorities are becoming more sophisticated at managing the media. At the Mt. Lebanon Police Department in Pennsylvania, part of Ken Truver's job as public-information officer is to anticipate which scenarios are likely to entice reporters. "The media's not going to show up at a two-car crash," he says. "They are going to show up if there's any kind of threat at a school." Law enforcement has also become more adept at tracking the flow of information--or misinformation--circulated by news reports. In one Florida investigation in which Northeastern's Fox participated, the cops continually updated a grid with each new tidbit disseminated by the press. That strengthened their hand in interrogations, helping them to evaluate whether a suspect's answers derived from the media or from intimate knowledge of the crime.
Duluth officials are still reeling from their spell under the klieg lights. For Wilbanks, the glare has been withering. She has ensconced herself in her mother's home, where she's undergoing "professional treatment," according to her statement. Her consolation, if she considers it that: the would-be groom, John Mason, has said he still wants to marry her. If they end up reaching the altar, rest assured that the press will be close at hand, snapping, shooting and scribbling away.