When Brooke Henson went missing from tiny Travelers Rest, S.C. on July 4, 1999, her friends and family clung to the hope that they would see her again. Six years later, there was a sighting: Brooke turned up at Columbia University in New York.
But as it turned out, it wasn't the "real" Brooke Henson - it was a con artist named Esther Reed.
Esther, another small-town girl from Montana, was smart and manipulative, and in the midst of a decade-long trail of deception. She conned her way into Harvard and Columbia and stole over $100,000 in student loans. Stealing identities and perpetrating fraud, Esther's escapades took her across the country, including relationships with West Point and Annapolis military men.
Eventually, the feds were in hot pursuit. She even ended up on the U.S. Secret Service's Most Wanted List - always managing to stay one step ahead of authorities.
No one could catch her… until now.
"I became a different person in name only. I'm basically the same girl.
"In first grade I was Esther Elizabeth Reed for a while. When I was 18, I was Elizabeth Reed…then I was Natalie Fisher. Then I went by the name Natalie Bowman… then Brook Henson and finally, Jennifer Myers," Esther Reed tells 48 Hours Mystery correspondent Peter Van Sant.
Esther granted 48 Hours her first interview. The circumstances of how we found her will become clear as this mystery is unraveled.
Private investigator Steve Rambam, working for 48 Hours, and U.S. Marshal John Bridge were each searching for the elusive Esther Reed.
"Right now, she must be living a life trying to keep one step ahead of the law," Rambam says. "She really is very much on the run now, I think in a way that she never was before."
"Esther Reed is cunning, she's calculated, and she's intelligent," Bridge says. "That's the perfect combination for a con artist."
After stealing many identities and running numerous brilliant scams, this master con woman earned a spot on the .
U.S. Attorney Walt Wilkins has investigated Esther's background. "She lived this life as other people. She was not Esther Reed from 1999 on," he explains. "She's good. She's real good."
Trying to understand the riddle of Esther Reed, 48 Hours Mystery traveled to her hometown of Townsend, Montana.
"It's a very small town in the middle of Montana and if you blink you miss it," Edna Strom, one of Esther's eight older siblings, explains. "We used to play in the crick a lot. And that was a big thing, especially if you could do it without mom finding out."
Strom has not seen Esther in person for nearly a decade, but agreed to show Van Sant their family home. She also shared the contents of a trunk with items belonging to Esther, that found in the attic by the home's current owners.
The trunk is the first in a trail of clues a 48 Hours investigation will uncover. Inside, Strom finds a dress belonging to her younger sister and a photo of Esther as a child. "I'd say she's like four or five… She was always smiling," says Strom.
Van Sant later shows that same photo to Esther. "Yes. I was a very happy kid. Very, very happy," she says.
"What goes through your mind when you look at that?" asks Van Sant.
Crying, she says, "It's hard 'cause (long pause) this period of my life was great… It's just a shame what happened and how I disappeared."
"Why did you disappear?" he continues. "I just was so afraid of the world," she says.
After Esther's parents divorced, Esther felt like an outcast.
"What do you think Esther saw when she looked in the mirror?" Van Sant asks Jim Therriault, Esther's English teacher and debate coach.
"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. "She was very, very smart. A kid with so much potential…"
When asked by Van Sant if she is intellectually gifted, Esther says, "Yes. I assimilate information quickly. I remember it. I'm able to problem solve, things like that."
Esther and her brother, E.J. Reed, were very close. He felt Esther's brilliance every day, especially when they played chess.
"She blew me away. I mean, I couldn't even hold a candle to her," he says. "She's definitely always thinkin' a little bit ahead."
But as smart as she was, Esther dropped out of high school and moved with her
mom to Seattle. In 1998, Esther's mother passed away.
"My mom always just loved me. If she was there, it was fine," she says, crying. "…and when she died, it wasn't fine, anymore. Nothing was fine anymore."
Strom says Esther didn't like who she was or where she was going. "She would say, 'I just wish I was someone else.'"
Esther's metamorphasis from small town girl to big city con woman had begun, and so did her life of crime.
"I have lost my only compass in life. I've lost my only support system," she says of the loss of her mother. "And I'm spiraling out of control and I have nowhere to turn."
During this period, she pleaded guilty to stealing her co-workers purse, a misdemeanor.
Esther even took Strom's purse and drained her checking account of thousands of dollars.
"It was like somebody slugged me in the stomach," she says. "I just told her, 'You can't live like this… You have ripped me off.' And, you know, 'Who are you?'"
Esther describes their relationship as toxic. "I think I push her buttons and I think she pushes my buttons."
The last time they say each other Strom says, "We just hugged each other and said we loved each other. And then she said, 'I promise I will keep in touch.' And she did for a while."
Strom never saw her sister again. Esther Reed had ceased to exist.