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 didn't 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."