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Originally published Friday, February 13, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Con artist from Mountlake Terrace sentenced to 4 years in ID theft, fraud

A Mountlake Terrace High School dropout who assumed the identities of at least three people to get into some of the nation's most prestigious colleges and fraudulently collect more than $100,000 in student loans will serve about four years in a federal prison.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A Mountlake Terrace High School dropout who assumed the identities of at least three people to get into some of the nation's most prestigious colleges and fraudulently collect more than $100,000 in student loans will serve about four years in a federal prison.

Esther Reed, 30, conned her way into Harvard and Columbia universities and earned a spot on the U.S. Secret Service's "eight most wanted" list by adopting the identities of several people after she left Washington state a decade ago. Among the identities that Reed assumed was that of Brooke Henson, a woman who vanished from a house party in Travelers Rest, S.C., in 1999.

In 2007, Reed was indicted on several federal charges, including aggravated identity theft. She was arrested a year ago near Chicago.

Lisa Henson, Brooke Henson's sister, who spoke at Reed's sentencing Wednesday in Greenville, S.C., asked the judge to impose the harshest sentence possible for dragging their family through the pain of hoping Brooke had been found.

"I don't think she was sentenced long enough," Henson said by phone Thursday. "When I made my statement [in court] she wouldn't make eye contact with me."

Reed asked for mercy at her sentencing, contending she sought a made-up world to escape a difficult family life.

"I was desperate to escape an environment I felt I could not survive," Reed said, speaking in a strong voice as she stood before the judge in handcuffs, leg shackles and red prison jumpsuit, her long, dark- brown hair in a ponytail.

Reed pleaded guilty to mail and wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and student-loan fraud in August. She was also facing a Social Security violation charge, but it was dropped when she agreed to plead guilty, said W. Walter Wilkins, U.S. Attorney for the District of South Carolina.

Reed will serve three years of supervised release after getting out of prison, Wilkins said. Reed requested she serve her time in Pennsylvania so she could be close to a friend.

"I have been involved in this case for almost two years now. We took it on like we would any other identity theft," Wilkins said. "The scheme she was engaged in expanded from the East Coast to the West Coast. She was very talented in assuming a third-party's identity."

Henson said Reed smiled and laughed in court Wednesday, acting as if she had done nothing wrong.

"She is sly like a fox. She doesn't want to face anybody who she has done wrong," Henson said.

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During her nine years on the run, Reed had claimed to be a European chess champion and dated cadets from the U.S. Military Academy, according to police and court documents. She 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.

Reed disappeared from the Seattle area in 1999 after pleading guilty to possession of stolen property, including a book of her sister's checks. She disappeared before she could be sentenced.

Reed is no longer wanted in King County because her arrest warrant has expired.

In February 2008, police in suburban Chicago tracked Reed to a motel after spotting a car she had been known to be driving. Though she initially provided an Iowa driver's license with another woman's name, Reed soon admitted her true identity.

Reed also had fictitious marriage certificates, a birth certificate in her legal name and a Washington driver's license. She was arrested and turned over to Secret Service agents.

In addition to the prison sentence, Reed was ordered to pay $125,000 in restitution to several victims.

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

Information from Seattle Times archives and The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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