An interesting conundrum: when a deliberate fraud has been committed upon the public purse, so to speak, who gets to pay for it? Who decides who gets to pay for it? And how much do they have to fork over?
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."
And that brings up another interesting question: given that crime rates are at historic lows, why on earth did the disappearance of one woman, in the midst of seriously over-the-top wedding preparations, provoke such a response, and the desire for such a response? Granted that her own actions made the story a bit more newsworthy -- especially the false kidnapping report and charge -- but why is it that the news is so quick to jump on a story that in days gone by would never have been mentioned outside local media until the false kidnapping report? Editors would have said, "Until we see some hard evidence that it's anything besides a woman running away from her wedding, we're not touching this." So what's changed?Posted by iain at May 12, 2005 04:25 PM