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Woman steals another's identity, gets into Ivy League

Story Highlights

• Esther Reed assumed Brooke Henson's identity and then disappeared
• Police are trying to track down Reed for further questioning
• Henson, who disappeared seven years ago at the age of 20, is still missing
By Gary Tuchman
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Brooke Henson was 20 years old when she disappeared without a trace. She lived in the small South Carolina town of Travelers Rest and has been missing for more than seven years.

Police in the town think Henson was killed by someone who knew her, but they have not found a body and do not have enough evidence for an arrest.

Her family had thought for years that Henson was never going to come home, until a phone call last summer abruptly changed their lives.

The New York City Police Department called the police in Travelers Rest and told them they had found Brooke Henson, alive and well, in Manhattan. The police relayed this message to the family.

"I was jumping for joy," said Lisa Henson, Brooke Henson's aunt. "It was incredible."

But the family's ecstasy was short-lived. The woman police had interviewed had taken Henson's identity.

The woman's real name is Esther Reed. Originally from the tiny town of Townsend, Montana, she had been reported missing by her family around the same time as Henson.

"I had pretty much come to terms that she was dead," said Edna Strom, Reed's sister.

Now, she's missing again. She disappeared after her two identities became known.

Reed led a busy few years as Henson. She used Henson's identity to apply to two Ivy League universities -- Harvard and Columbia -- and the high school dropout was admitted by both.

"She was able to get some true identification using fake identification and she was able to take the SAT and GED in our victim's name and she used those to apply to Columbia," said Jon Campbell, an investigator with the Travelers Rest Police Department.

There is no evidence that Reed used the false ID and some other false ID's for illegal financial gain. But authorities are investigating relationships she had with at least four officer candidates at West Point and Annapolis, as well as money transfers she received from outside the country. Officials want to make sure she's not a spy.

"We don't want to learn something like that in a small town in South Carolina and shove it in a desk drawer and not tell anyone, so we wanted to give it to someone to investigate, so we just passed it on to the Army," Campbell said.

Reed's life in Montana seemed to be a sad one. She had very poor grades in high school, but she had a high IQ, and her English teacher, recognizing her intelligence, had her join the speech team.

"Esther was the kind of kid who would have been invisible if you didn't take pains to notice her presence," said James Therriault, her high school English teacher.

Reed won competitions with the speech team, and 10 years later her name is still on plaques at the high school.

Harvard and Columbia acknowledged that a woman named Brooke Henson was enrolled at their schools, but said privacy laws prevent them from discussing details.

The U.S. Army said it is investigating the case. Police officials said they are reasonably sure Reed had nothing to do with Henson's disappearance, but they want to question her about it.

Reed's father still lives in Townsend. He said he is convinced his daughter doesn't want to be found. Strom, who lives in Oregon, agreed, but hopes Reed turns herself in so she can be part of the family again.

"I would hug her .... You just hug people you love," Strom said.

In South Carolina, Henson's aunt doesn't want to give up hope her niece is alive. But Lisa Henson said the situation now is more painful than ever, after being victimized by the woman who took her loved one's identification and made it her own.


Esther Reed assumed the identity of Brooke Henson and gained access to two Ivy League schools.



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