Feds searching for local woman in ID theft cases

A Mountlake Terrace High School dropout who is suspected of assuming at least three identities to gain entrance to some of the nation's most prestigious colleges and to fraudulently collect more than $100,000 in student loans is now the subject of a federal investigation.

Esther Reed, 29, disappeared from the area in 1999 after pleading guilty in King County to stealing her sister's checkbook. Since then, law-enforcement officials say, she has conned friends, employers, boyfriends and college-admissions officials into believing she was one of three different women whose identities she assumed in order to gain admission into Harvard, Columbia and California State University, Fullerton.

Reed is now wanted by federal authorities because she fraudulently received more than $100,000 in student loans, racked up credit-card bills and obtained a passport in someone else's name, according to federal charging papers. She was indicted last summer by a federal grand jury in South Carolina on charges of mail fraud, wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and Social Security fraud, according to the indictment that was unsealed this week.

Assistant U.S. Attorney W. Walter Wilkins said the U.S. Marshals Service and the Secret Service, which is assigned to investigate identity theft and Social Security fraud, are searching for the missing woman. He said that if Reed is found, tried and convicted she could face more than 20 years in prison.

"She could be anywhere," said Wilkins, who is based in Greenville, S.C. "Esther Reed has obviously become very creative and skilled in assuming somebody else's identification."

Before the indictment, Reed was wanted by King County authorities for the checkbook theft and by police in Travelers Rest, S.C., home of a missing woman whose identity Reed allegedly assumed.

On July 4, 1999 — the same year Reed last spoke with her family in the Pacific Northwest — Brooke Henson vanished from a house party in Travelers Rest. Local police believed the 20-year-old woman had been slain, until receiving a telephone call from New York City police last year.

Henson, a high-school dropout, had somehow gained entrance to Columbia University. A prospective employer researching Henson's background contacted police in New York when she found a Web site dedicated to the missing woman, according to police in Travelers Rest.

Authorities investigated and determined the woman claiming to be Henson was actually Reed. Confronted with the allegations, the woman agreed to take a DNA test in July 2006, but never showed up. Investigators who searched her apartment said she appeared to have left in a hurry.

Lisa Henson, Brooke Henson's sister, said Wednesday she heard that law enforcement had been close to finding Reed. Wilkins declined to say what leads authorities have.

"I don't necessarily want to talk to Esther Reed," Henson said. "We want to see her brought to justice. Obviously she has no conscience."

In the months after Reed walked away from her apartment, police from South Carolina to King County unraveled a secret life so unbelievable that it could have been from a movie.

She had claimed to be a European chess champion, dated U.S. Military Academy cadets and somehow gained entrance to the three schools. Reed got a passport, passed a high-school-equivalency test, obtained an Ohio identification card, took an SAT test in California and was accepted to the School of General Studies at Columbia University — all by using Henson's identity, according to grand jury charging documents.

"Identify theft cases are not that uncommon, but an individual who completely assumes the identity of a person who is missing and could be deceased is unique," Wilkins said. "To take a GRE [Graduate Record Examination], the SAT and send applications to two very prominent universities is also very unique."

While police in Travelers Rest don't believe Reed had anything to do with Henson's disappearance, they still want to talk to her to find out where she was when Henson was last seen, said Detective Clark Brazier.

"We would like to establish her alibi and eliminate her from our leads," Brazier said. "It looks like a matter of identity theft."

Though Reed never served her jail time locally, she is no longer wanted by the King County Sheriff's Office because the warrant for her arrest has expired, said sheriff's spokesman John Urquhart.

"The Prosecutor's Office could ask a judge to reinstate a warrant, but for a nonviolent crime like this it is fairly unlikely," he said.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com