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Capture The Queen
She's Young, She's A Con, And She Is Evading Law Enforcement
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Dec. 1, 2007
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(CBS) On July 4th, 1999, Brooke Leigh Henson was reported missing in the small, quiet town of Travelers Rest, S.C., prompting a police investigation to locate the young woman.
There was a potential break in the case in 2006, when police got wind of a woman calling herself "Brooke Henson" in New York City. But as correspondent Peter Van Sant reports, as investigators dug deeper they uncovered an intricate web of lies, spun by a woman named Esther Reed.
The "Brooke Henson" in New York was taking classes at the prestigious Columbia University, and had told friends she had a lucrative career as a professional chess player.
But that scenario seemed far-fetched to South Carolina Detective Jon Campbell. That's because the missing person Campbell was after was a free-spirited young woman who never made it past the tenth grade.
"I didnt think it was possible that Brooke had gone to New York and somehow got into an Ivy League school after she'd been a high school dropout," Det. Campbell explains.
But the Brooke in New York seemed genuine: she could even answer personal questions provided to police by her aunt Lisa Henson. But when Lisa saw a photo of the New York woman in July 2006, she was not looking at her niece.
Campbell called back to the NYPD, hoping to get some DNA from the mystery woman; police made an appointment to get a sample, but "Brooke Henson" never showed up.
The woman using Brooke's name was actually another missing person, Esther Elizabeth Reed. Like Brooke, Esther had disappeared in 1999.
As police would learn, the mystery of Esther Reed is a cross-country saga of fraud, fake identities, and frustrated dreams. It all began in the rural community of Townsend, Mont., where Esther was born and raised. People there remember her as a young woman with talents, and troubles.
Edna Strom, one of Esther's eight older siblings, showed 48 Hours Esther's childhood home, where new owners found a trunk full of the young woman's belongings and mementos, including pictures.
In photos, Esther looked like a happy young girl. But the happy child would grow into a sullen, maladjusted teen, who wrote in a 1999 e-mail to her sister Edna, "When I was 14, I learned how to lock myself up in a little box and I had no idea how to unlock it.
I feel like I had this wall surrounding my soul and I couldn't get out and nothing could get in."
Like many teens, Esther was self-conscious about her weight, and had trouble coping when her parents divorced in 1995.
"She was having a lot of trouble at home and I think that interfered with her abilities as a student," remembers Jim Therriault, who was Esther's English teacher. He also coached her in the one school activity she really seemed to enjoy: competitive debate.
"She wanted to be a lawyer. And she would be so good. But she always talked about going to school, to Harvard," Edna remembers.
But despite her smarts, Esther dropped out of high school as her emotional problems mounted.
"What do you think Esther saw when she looked in the mirror?" Van Sant asks Therriault.
"Somebody she didn't want to be. Someone she didn't like. Someone I think she would have done anything to escape from if she could have," he replies.
The first of many escapes came when Esther and her mother Florence moved from Montana to the Seattle area, where her sister Edna was living. But in 1998 tragedy struck when her mother died after a long battle with cancer.
Edna says Esther was close to her mother. "My mom was Esther's champion," Edna explains. "Esther felt like no one understood her but my mom. And when my mom died she felt like it really didn't matter. That she didn't matter to anybody anymore."
At the same time, 3,000 miles away in South Carolina, a similar tale of teenage angst was playing out in Brooke Henson's house. Like Esther, Brooke had also quit high school, and worse, had started dating a known bad boy.
Det. Campbell says the boyfriend, Ricky Shaun Shirley, had convictions for drug violations and assaults.
When 20-year-old Brooke disappeared, hours after getting in an argument with him, the family quickly focused its suspicion on Shirley and his friends. And when the cops came calling, Shirley clammed up. "He got a lawyer," Campbell recalls.
With no cooperating witnesses and no body, Brooke's case was little more than a tangle of rumors and country gossip. But it all pointed in one direction. "I believe she was killed. And her body was disposed of," Campbell tells Van Sant.
Asked if it is possible that Brooke simply ran away, Campbell says, "I don't think Brooke was good enough to run away, to disappear entirely with a tenth grade education and drop off the face of the earth and not leave any trail."
(CBS) In 1999, the same year Brooke vanished, a 21-year-old Esther Reed changed her name for the first time, going by Liz, an abbreviation of her middle name.
During this time, Edna's purse disappeared. "I lost my purse or it was stolen. I'm not sure which. But my checks and my ID are out there. So I filed a police report and then the checks started coming in," she recalls.
Months later, a policeman called Edna to tell her someone had been arrested at a local mall for theft and forgery. "He said, 'Well, the person we have arrested in Esther Elizabeth Reed.' And I just was in shock," she remembers. "It was like somebody slugged me in the stomach."
Esther pled guilty and was sentenced to probation. Edna confronted her wayward little sister on the courthouse steps. "I just told her, 'You can't live like this, you know. You have ripped me off. And you know who are you?'" Edna remembers.
The next day, Esther e-mailed a letter of apology to her siblings. "I sit here in my room feeling probably as low as I have ever been in my life
," Edna reads from the letter. "I want to be a normal girl who makes good choices. I want to apologize to all of you as a whole.
I do want my family back, but I understand I have put that right in jeopardy. Love, Liz or Esther."
Edna would never see her sister again. And from that moment on Esther Reed ceased to exist. Now a convicted criminal, Esther cut herself off from her family and began plotting her next move.
Natalie Fisher was one of Esther's first victims. The two met when Esther briefly rented a room from Natalie's brother.
Esther allegedly scammed Natalie's brother out of thousands of dollars. She also got a hold of Natalie's Social Security number and phone card. "I got a phone call from a collection agency representing AT&T. And they informed me that I owed them like $400 or $500 in bills," Natalie recalls.
But the con game was just beginning: Esther got a driver's license in Natalie's name and proceeded to live as Natalie. Esther left Seattle in 2000, and spent much of the next two years traveling cross-country in a car and sleeping in cheap hotels. But despite her life of vagrancy and petty crime, part of Esther was still searching for a path to success and for a place where she truly belonged.
Brandy Olson met "Natalie" in 2001. But the woman Brandy met didn't look much like the overweight check forger from Montana: shed slimmed down and had some cosmetic surgery.
Brandy says "Natalie" always had plenty of money, and a strange explanation of where it came from. "She had a very well paying job as a professional chess player she said," Olson tells Van Sant. "She told us that the prizes if you won a tournament were pretty substantial. Upwards of $10,000."
Det. Campbell believes Esther's chess career was a lie, a brilliant cover for some kind of criminal enterprise. He says nobody he had interviewed had ever seen Esther play in a chess tournament.
There were other mysteries: Brandy once saw "Natalie" use a credit card with the name "Elizabeth Reed." When asked about it, Brandy says "Natalie" told her, "Oh, that's the name I play chess under."
Still, Brandy and "Natalie" became close friends, bonding over their mutual interest in competitive debate, Esther's old high school passion.
"Natalie" started showing up at Brandy's tournaments. And Brandy, a U.S. Army ROTC student, introduced Natalie to other debaters from elite military academies, like a midshipman from the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, as well as a dashing Army recruit.
"He was a cadet at West Point that she dated for a while and got quite serious with," Olson remembers.
But while Esther, posing as "Natalie," was gallivanting about Annapolis and West Point, her sister Edna was agonizing over her disappearance. She feared Esther was dead.
The family filed a police report. As the months passed, their worry began to mix with anger. "It's the betrayal, and that she has left everybody hanging. That she doesn't even have the consideration to call and say, 'I truly am okay,'" Edna explains.
In fact, Esther was more than okay. By the fall of 2002, she had settled in California, taking classes - and debating - at California State University, Fullerton.
(CBS) As an adjunct student, Esther didn't need a transcript to be admitted. But she made another curious move, switching her name from Natalie Fisher to Natalie Bowman.
"She had told me that her name was Natalie Fisher and she discovered that she was adopted," remembers Esthers roommate, medical student Bita Shaghagi. "When she found her biological parents and their last name was Bowman, which is why she told me that she was going by Bowman."
Bita found Esther aloof at first. But their relationship blossomed when Bita revealed that her mother had died of cancer, just like Esther's.
In time, they became as close as sisters. Bita says "Natalie" was everything you'd want in a friend. "She was great to talk to. Very good listener. I just miss her
I really love my friend."
Esther seemed to have found a place that was right for her at Cal State: she took her studies seriously and excelled on the debate team. But in the spring of 2003, Esther surprisingly retreated, leaving Cal State and going back on the road to make more mystery money.
"And what was she doing in that time?" Van Sant asks Bita.
"We assumed that she was playing chess. That's what she told us, that she was traveling around playing chess tournaments," Bita explains.
Bita and Esther remained friends but later that year, Esther told Bita she had to change her name again. Her story this time? She claimed she was being stalked by a family member.
The new name would be "Brooke Henson." A new stage of Esthers strange game was about to begin.
"How does Esther Reed find Brooke Henson's name to begin with?" Van Sant asks Det. Campbell.
"Its not hard to find Brooke Henson's name," the detective replies. "You can go look through missing persons Web sites, find somebody you look like. That person's been missing for seven or eight years. They're probably dead. They're not using their identity. I think I'll help myself to it."
The elegance of Esther's game has piqued Campbell's interest. He wonders if she's connected to Brooke's disappearance. Campbell says he'd like to catch her. "Technically, she is a suspect until we can clear her," he explains.
48 Hours also wanted to find Esther to learn how someone can stay underground in a post-9/11 world. We hired private investigator Steven Rambam, a specialist in missing person's cases who has hunted everyone from deadbeat dads to fugitive Nazis.
Rambam first headed to Esther's last known address, the Manhattan apartment where she was living as Brooke Henson.
When Esther fled in 2006, her landlord photographed her abandoned belongings. Most have been discarded, but Rambam recovered one crucial box - a treasure trove of documents from Esther's life as Brooke.
Starting with these documents, Rambam traced Esther's past movements, identities, and romances.
Might one of these former flames know where Esther is now? One of them is in Chicago, a former debater named Steven Donald.
Back in 2003, when Esther left Cal State Fullerton, she came here to visit Donald. Now, Rambam and a 48 Hours undercover crew visited him, too.
Rambam coaxed Donald into taking a walk. "Some of what Steven Donald tells me weve heard before. Shes a world class chess player. She makes over $100,000 a year at it. Shes a self described genius," Rambam explains.
Donald seemed nervous, telling Rambam Esther had a sketchy associate, known only as "Tony," who served as her protector and her muscle.
"She believed that Steven Donald owed her money. And told him that if he didn't give her the money, she'd have a guy by the name of Tony come and collect it," Rambam explains.
But Donald did not want to discuss any of that with 48 Hours, telling Van Sant on the street, "Peter, I already told your friend and pretty much anybody else who's asked that I dont wish to speak to CBS News."
Donald did tell Van Sant that he is not in contact with Esther and that he doesn't know where she is.
Rambam also obtained Esther's cell phone records from 2003, which lead to another Chicago man named Steven Fouts.
"Steven Fouts is a convicted sexual predator, who admitted to being the owner of a cell phone that Esther Reed called repeatedly
and that repeatedly called Esther Reed," Rambam tells Van Sant.
Fouts claims his phone was borrowed by a friend called Wanda, but he offers no proof.
(CBS) We dont know what Esther was really up to in Chicago, where she lived or how she made money. We do know that she kept in touch with Bita, and kept clinging to her college dreams.
"So she started studying for the SAT exam," Bita recalls. Bita believes that Esther did in fact take the exam.
The bizarre strategy of honest study and dishonest scheming paid off in 2004. Esther, as Brooke Henson, fulfilled her childhood dream by enrolling at the elite Harvard University -- its extension school, at least.
But after a single semester at Harvard, Esther outwitted another Ivy League university, conning her way into Columbia University's School of General Studies. Esther studied psychology and criminology, and briefly held a student job in the alumni office.
"Apparently she was in data processing. And she had access to every single alumni record," Ramban says.
"This was the classic wolf in the henhouse," Van Sant remarks.
"I think shes the Tasmanian devil in the henhouse," Rambam says,
But aside from that job, or the imaginary chess winnings, Rambam discovered how Esther was really getting her cash: student loan fraud. That money, obtained with Brooke Henson's identity, bankrolled Esther's lifestyle in Manhattan.
"Is she paying back any of that money?" Van Sant asks.
"I dont think shes paid back a penny of it," Rambam says. "Esther Reed should go to jail. She needs to be locked up."
Fraudulent student loans, identity thefts, phony Social Security numbers. Could Esther be attempting something more sinister?
Rummaging through the leftovers of Esther's life as Brooke Henson, Columbia student, Steve Rambam struck gold. "This is Brooke Henson's certified birth certificate," he explains.
In 2005, Esther allegedly tricked South Carolina officials into mailing her that birth certificate. Rambam learned Esther then went to Vermont, where anyone can get a new driver's license in just one day.
"We know that she went to Vermont and got a Brooke Henson driver's license there, using the address of literally an empty field," Rambam explains.
Rambam thinks his target may also have been devising her next strategy, creating yet another identity. But when he visited the local courthouse, Rambam found no record of a name change. Esther stayed one move ahead.
But if Esther is hard to track in the real world, she's left a clearer trail in cyberspace. Rambam finds eBay purchases Esther made, a possible user identity on an online chess site, and a number of accounts with dating services.
Esther's page on the social networking site Facebook, created under the name Brooke Henson, lists a special friend from West Point, Kyle Brengel.
Who is he?
"Military academy candidate, military academy graduate," Rambam explains. "This is, again, somebody who, should he choose, probably can rise to the very top of the military."
Rambam obtained hundreds of pages of Internet messages between the two, written during Esthers time at Columbia. The correspondence includes an intriguing exchange, where Esther tells her West Point friend that she'd love to be James Bond, and that being a spy would be a dream job.
Bita visited Esther in New York on July 4th, 2005. While the real Brooke Hensons family was marking the sixth anniversary of her disappearance, the fake Brooke Henson was out on the town.
"We had a great time. And then we also took a ferry out to the Statue of Liberty," Bita remembers. "She didnt like taking pictures, so I really had to talk her into even getting these pictures with me."
But Esther was much less shy in her exchanges with Brengel. In fact shed begun making peculiar requests. "Things that they're working on in school, projects, which would be writing battle plans, things like that," Det. Campbell explains.
In one exchange, Esther wanted to know details about a training briefing for a military science class Brengel was taking. For Campbell, it all pointed to something far more serious than mere identity theft.
"So you're wondering if she's, potentially, a spy?" Van Sant asks.
"I mean that's a possibility, pretty good possibility," the detective replies.
(CBS) But FBI consultant Frank Abagnale doesn't buy that theory, and its important to note that none of Esthers military friends, including Brengel, have been accused of any wrongdoing.
"I don't think Esther is into espionage. I think Esther is simply looking now to take on the role of a military officer," explains Abagnale, whose exploits as a young conman inspired the movie "Catch Me If You Can."
He spent years posing as a pilot, a lawyer and a doctor; then years more in prison. "This may be something that really intrigues her like the airline thing intrigued me," Abagnale explains.
And he says Esthers not afraid to use sex to get what she wants, just like he did.
"Using sex could open doors for her, couldn't it?" Van Sant asks.
"Absolutely," Abagnale says. "'Cause she could get to know military people who can answer all these questions. What's my story? She is just laying the groundwork: to how do I take on this new role?"
It appears Esther was busy laying the groundwork for something during her last year in New York City. Credit card receipts indicate mysterious trips to Virginia, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Ohio. She ran several online credit checks, and bought a voice changer at a spy shop. Like a chess master, it appears Esther was thinking many moves ahead, all the while holding down a 3.22 grade point average at Columbia.
In 2006, when Esther ditched the New York cops pursuing the Brooke Henson lead, Bita was left to wonder. "Her numbers were disconnected," Bita remembers. "Pretty much most of her e-mail accounts were closed."
And she began to worry. "So I thought something bad happened to her, or she did something bad. I didnt know," Bita says.
As Esther Reed crisscrosses America like the black queen on a chessboard, she suddenly finds herself facing her toughest opponent yet.
This September, a federal grand jury in South Carolina handed down an indictment charging Esther with felony identity theft and student loan fraud. With the full investigative powers of the Secret Service now deployed, it seemed likely that Esther would be apprehended quickly.
Private investigator Steven Rambam, eager to find Esther first, believes her best friend Bita will be the key to the case. "Bita has been in touch with her through all of her aliases, through all of her activities. I believe that if Bita wants to, Bita can give me Esther Reed," Rambam tells Van Sant.
But it turns out we know more about Esther than Bita does.
"She was not adopted. She was not a chess player, didn't play in any tournaments. None of that is true. None," Van Sant tells Bita.
"I'm still in shock," Bita says. "Really in shock about all of that. I don't think it's even quite hit me completely yet."
After months on the case, neither Rambam nor the Secret Service can say where Esther went after she fled New York.
"Just assuming anyone's identity is a lot easier today than when I did it," notes Frank Abagnale.
He is confident Esther will be tripped up eventually, not by some dogged investigator, but by the emotional strain of life on the run. "It was a very lonely life. And it was not a life I would ever wanna live over again," Abagnale explains.
"You think Esther, on any level, is a happy person today?" Van Sant asks.
"No. Not really happy. Someone who has no future, is living day by day, there's nothing permanent in her life. You can't exist like that," he says. "I hope Esther's listening to what I'm saying. And that I want Esther to know that she has talent. She has creativity. She is somebody. So, I hope Esther gives herself up, and does something positive with her life."
CBS) In the meantime, the hunt for Brooke Henson proceeds in an equally frustrating fashion.
Jon Campbell and his partners still chase down leads. "We followed all kinds of tips up there looking for the body. But we havent found anything we haven't been able to get that one person who was actually there and knows where the body is," he says.
The Henson family is still reeling from the torment of Esther's deception. "It's mind boggling. It's overwhelming," Brooke's aunt Lisa says.
But Lisa thinks Esther might - unintentionally - end up doing some good. "It's very good that we can get the attention," she says of the media coverage. "Because maybe some day, somebody will come forward from this."
Esther's sister Edna, left with little more than the trunk of mementos, still loves her, but she believes all the lies and frauds have dishonored the memory of their departed mother. "And she doesnt like it when the older sisters and brothers say 'Shame on you.' But I'm sorry, we all are saying that," Edna explains. "That there is a right and a wrong."
We received one last tell-tale sign of Esthers clouded moral judgment. Bita recalled that just months before they lost touch, Esther talked her into revealing her Social Security number over the phone.
Months later, Bita began noticing suspicious inquiries on her credit reports.
"Worse case scenario, Esther Reed is stealing your identity," Van Sant remarks.
"Yes, and I am apprehensive as to what may happen," Bita says.
That mystery lingers; the master manipulator has moved on.
Bita says Esther has broken her heart. Asked what she thinks of her, Bita says, "I think that she's lost. I think she's desperately lost. And she needs to be found."
Federal authorities are chasing down new leads regarding Esther Reed's whereabouts. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/11/29/...118_page6.shtml