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Originally published February 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 6, 2008 at 4:46 PM

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Mountlake Terrace con artist suspect nabbed after nearly a decade on the run

A Mountlake Terrace High School dropout suspected of assuming at least three identities to get into some of the nation's most prestigious colleges and to fraudulently collect more than $100,000 in student loans has been caught after being on the run for

Seattle Times staff reporter

A Mountlake Terrace High School dropout suspected of assuming at least three identities to get into some of the nation's most prestigious colleges and to fraudulently collect more than $100,000 in student loans has been caught after being on the run for nearly 10 years.

When police in suburban Chicago confronted Esther Reed in her motel room on Saturday, the 29-year-old woman gave them an alias, according to police. But after further questioning she admitted that she was Reed, according to a report filed by Tinley Park police.

Reed disappeared from the area in 1999 after being accused of possession of stolen property, including a book of her sister's checks. She disappeared after pleading guilty in King County.

Over the past nine years, law-enforcement officials say that Reed 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 was 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 last fall.

She was indicted 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 U.S. attorney's office she could face more than 20 years in prison if convicted.

Reed was considered one of the U.S. Secret Service's 10 most wanted fugitives.

On Saturday night, Reed was taken into custody by the Secret Service. Among her belongings, authorities found fictitious marriage certificates, a birth certificate in the name "Esther Elizabeth Reed," and Washington State driver's license, according to the Tinley Park police report.

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 in 2006. 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.

Police in Travelers Rest don't believe Reed had anything to do with Henson's disappearance, said Detective Clark Brazier.

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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, sheriff's spokesman John Urquhart said this morning.

"We just had her as a missing person. She's not wanted in our jurisdiction," Urquhart said. "We would like to hear her story. There's a movie in there somewhere.

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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