A disappearance, stolen identities and a trail of clues
A Mountlake Terrace High dropout, once believed dead, may have used others' identities to attend Ivy League schools.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The last time Edna Strom saw her younger sister, Esther Reed, the two had a screaming match outside a courthouse in Kent.
It was 1999, and then-21-year-old Reed was a Mountlake Terrace High School dropout accused of possession of stolen property, including a book of Strom's checks. She would eventually plead guilty to the charge.
Not long afterward, Reed stopped coming around to see her family and her e-mail account was shut down. Strom and her six siblings assumed that their sister's sketchy lifestyle may have somehow led to her death.
But last fall, King County sheriff's detectives approached Strom with a story that has prompted a nationwide hunt and sparked internal investigations at two of the nation's most prestigious Ivy League schools.
Detectives told Strom that soon after leaving the Seattle area, Esther Reed ceased to exist. In her place, they say, was a con artist who stole the identities of three women to gain admission to colleges on both coasts, earn money and find places to live.
Whether in California, where she attended California State University, Fullerton; or Boston, where she attended Harvard; or in New York City, where she attended Columbia University, the woman who was once Esther Reed conned professors, friends and suitors into believing she was someone that she had never met, police say.
Last summer, just as police in New York were closing in on her, Reed did what friends and family say she does best: She vanished.
From S.C. to Ivy League
On July 4, 1999 — the same year Reed last spoke with her family — Brooke Henson walked away from a house party in Travelers Rest, S.C., and was never seen again. Within days of her disappearance, police feared the 20-year-old woman had been slain.
"When I got the case in 2001, we were basically looking for a body," said Investigator Jon Campbell, of the Travelers Rest Police Department.
Henson's friends and family put up posters and created a Web site for the missing woman, Campbell said. After years without a word, Henson's family — just like Reed's — concluded she was likely dead.
But in June, Campbell received a call from New York police, who said Henson had turned up in that city. Campbell was startled but skeptical.
Henson, a high-school dropout, was now listed as a student at Columbia University. New York City police said she was discovered after a prospective employer typed her name into the Internet and discovered the Web site for the missing woman, Campbell said.
When confronted by New York City investigators, the woman at Columbia said she was a domestic-violence victim who was trying to keep a low profile for her safety, Campbell said. The woman had a South Carolina birth certificate and knew details about Henson's family and Travelers Rest.
"Instead of her saying, 'You got me,' she said, 'I'm Brooke Henson, I'm a domestic-violence victim, leave me alone,' " Campbell said Wednesday. "I didn't believe it was her from the very beginning."
After questions were raised over her 1999 disappearance, the woman claiming to be Henson agreed to take a DNA test, Campbell said. But when she failed to show up for the July 5 test, investigators entered her apartment. "She had taken her hairbrushes, cat, clothes and things she knew cops would go after for DNA," Campbell said. "She left in a hurry."
During their investigation, police tracked down people who knew the woman claiming to be Henson. She told some that she earned a living as a European chess champion, according to Campbell. But one skeptical boyfriend had rummaged through her purse and discovered identification for seven different people, including Brooke Hanson and Esther Reed, authorities said.
When police in South Carolina realized that a woman named Esther Reed had been reported missing by her family in Washington state, they became suspicious. Authorities in South Carolina contacted the King County Sheriff's Office, which had taken Reed's missing-person's report, and obtained a photo of Reed. Campbell noted that the two women were of the same height, weight and age and resembled one another but were clearly not the same woman.
Police say they learned that before adopting Henson's identity, Reed claimed she was Natalie Fisher and Natalie Bowman. While investigators aren't sure whether Fisher is a real person, they say Bowman is a student at Columbia who grew up in Massachusetts. Bowman was studying in South America when her identity was stolen and said she doesn't know the woman who claimed to be her, Campbell said.
A spokeswoman at Cal State Fullerton said a woman named Natalie Bowman took philosophy and public-speaking courses in the fall of 2002. A professor there wrote her a recommendation letter and she got into Harvard, Campbell said. Authorities believe that was Reed.
Spokespeople at Harvard didn't return calls Wednesday.
A spokesman at Columbia University said a Brooke Henson attended the school for two years — and that, too, was Reed, Campbell said. Campbell said the schools are investigating how the woman managed to gain admission under assumed identities.
It's unclear how Reed, a high-school dropout allegedly posing to be Henson, also a high-school dropout, gained entrance to some of the nation's most academically rigorous schools. In addition to being the focus of a search by investigators in Travelers Rest and King County, Reed is wanted by the U.S. Attorney's Office on federal identity-theft charges, said Campbell.
Still on the run
When a King County sheriff's detective handed Edna Strom a photo of the Columbia University student claiming to be Henson last fall, she had no doubt it was her sister. Reed is now 28.
"We were happy she was alive," Strom, 48, said Wednesday, speaking by phone from her Oregon home. "She's come a long way from the petty theft she started in the Seattle area."
Strom said she doubts she will ever hear from her sister while the woman is on the run.
Police in South Carolina don't believe Reed had anything to do with Henson's disappearance in 1999, which remains unsolved. But for Henson's family, learning that someone had stolen the identity of the missing woman has been difficult.
"All of these emotions just resurface inside of you," said Brooke Henson's aunt, Lisa Henson. "We would like to see her caught."
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294