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Esther Reed: How an Ordinary Girl Faked Her Way Into the Ivy League

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Today in a courtroom in South Carolina, Esther Elizabeth Reed's fantasies finally ended. The 30-year-old brunette, who has spent eight of the past ten years on the run, often entering Ivy League schools under adopted fake identities, and evading cops with an extraordinary web of deception, faces up to over four years in prison.

For one man, Jon Campbell, a slight, sandy-haired tenacious investigator in the police department of the tiny town of Travelers Rest, South Carolina, it is the end of what became an obsessive case resembling the plot of Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks as the FBI detective Carl Hanratty always hotly in pursuit of his prey. Campbell was Reed's Hanratty.

In the summer of 2006, Campbell received a phone call from a police officer in New York. Campbell was informed that Brooke Henson, a beautiful young woman who had disappeared in peculiar circumstances from her family home in Travelers Rest in the early hours of July 4, 1999 when she was just twenty -- and had since become the town's only unsolved missing person -- had been found. She was, so Campbell was informed, an honors student at Columbia University, and Ivy League school on New York's Upper West Side.

New York police had gone to seek out the young woman on the Columbia campus after a New Yorker from whom she had been seeking part-time employment doing housework had Googled her and seen she was listed as a missing person on the Internet. Brooke Henson told police who interrogated her that she had no desire to be reunited with her family since she was a victim of domestic abuse. She wanted to be left alone to get on her with studies. She was very convincing. The New York police officer told Campbell that they intended to close Ms. Henson's file.

Campbell replied that they could close the case if they liked but there was no way the woman they had found was the real Brooke Henson. "Take some DNA" he suggested. "The Brooke Henson I knew could never have got into Columbia" he said into the phone. The girl he knew was a high-school dropout, a party girl.

Something in his voice made the New York officer go the extra mile. The next day Campbell's phone rang again. Brooke Henson had failed to show for her DNA test. Campbell wasn't surprised.

When, weeks later, New York cops forced entry into her apartment, they tripped over a pile of calling cards from New York officers. They had been dropped through the mailbox. They found no hair, no trace of anything that would have DNA. But they did find a video card, signed in Boston, Massachusetts, bearing the name "Natalie Bowman."

Once again they called Campbell and relayed their findings. Who was the young woman if it wasn't Brooke Henson? Officially this was his case. Campbell rolled up his sleeves and went to work. A 40-year-old graduate of Bob Jones university, he was more anxious than anyone to solve a mystery that had preyed on his mind and exasperated him for years.

Back in 2001, he had been assigned the case and handed two boxes of "indecipherable" material. He had re-interviewed dozens of local people and taken DNA samples to try to solve what had really happened to Brooke Henson and found himself thwarted at every turn.

"Everyone in this town had a theory about what happened to Brooke," he said. "But none of them was right."

Particularly exasperating for him were the prank calls. There was a medium who claimed to have seen her body beside "yellow rope" and then there was the inmate from a neighboring jurisdiction who got cops to drive him around in the pouring rain and dig.

He was pretty sure Brooke Henson had been murdered and he thought he knew who had done it and even probably where. He had just never found a body -- much to his chagrin.

So, he was intrigued by whoever this impostor was, pretending to be Brooke. Maybe she had information that could help him; maybe she had known the young woman. First he had to find out who she was.

He began a lonely few months of phone calls and paper trails. He called Kim Finnergan, head of security at Columbia. Finnergan was helpful at first but then stopped sending him documents once the school got "lawyered up." Thereafter they cited privacy laws. Campbell had to get a federal subpoena to force them to continue to help him. It was like pulling teeth.

He learned there were two Natalie Bowmans. One was a dead end, in that she is a bona fide medical graduate student at Columbia and a former graduate of Harvard. Another one showed up, before two years at Columbia, in Harvard's records. He saw she had been on the debate team there in 2002. From there she had apparently vanished. Harvard had no record of her graduating. Like Columbia, Harvard was not helpful. But Campbell learned that in both places her file was flagged as a victim of domestic abuse. It is possible both knew "Natalie Bowman" or "Brooke Henson" was not her real name.

Campbell retraced the steps of Harvard debate team in 2002. Harvard had taken on West Point. A few more phone calls led him to Natalie Bowman's former boyfriends -- cadet officers who had been on West Point's debate team and who had since left to take senior military postings, including the supervising of others in Iraq.

He called the parents of one young man, in Detroit. Finally he got the name he was looking for; the young man's parents believed the woman calling herself Natalie Bowman was really one, Esther Reed. They'd seen her driver's license, which been issued in Seattle.

In the fall of 2006, Campbell called cops in King County, Washington. They traded photographs of the woman who had posed in New York as Brooke Henson and others of Esther Elizabeth Reed, a young woman who had last been seen in Seattle, in 1999. She had been convicted of credit card fraud and then broken off contact with her family, who had wondered if she'd been killed.

A corpse had been found in Peasley Canyon, Washington, and until 2004, when DNA showed otherwise, local police believed it was Esther. When that was ruled out, police had speculated she'd been a victim of the "Green River Strangler," discovered to be Gary Ridgeway, a serial killer convicted in 2003 of murdering 48 prostitutes over 25 years in King County.

Both woman bore an uncanny resemblance to one another. Both were slim and pretty with long lush dark hair. But Reed looked slimmer and had a more impish look; a wider smile and a knowing twinkle in her eyes.

Seattle police sent Esther Reed's half sister, Edna Strom an email asking if the attached photograph was her sister. Strom got the email and gasped.

It was.

Thus began further investigation that got Campbell really riled up. Although theoretically the story of Esther Reed was not his case, as he pieced together her narrative in an attempt to learn how her path had crossed Brooke Henson's, the tale grew more and more remarkable.

How had Esther Reed, once an overweight high school dropout gotten herself into Ivy League schools -- as someone else? Why had she taken on someone else's identity, if not to rob them. Had she known her alias? How had she obtained the relevant social security numbers? How had she survived?

When finally it broke in the New York Post in January 2007, it jump-started the TV crews of America's Most Wanted and news networks everywhere. Everyone wanted to know the same questions:

Boyfriends talked of cash being wired from Germany and the Netherlands: were these real?

And what had been the real subtext of her romantic relationships with men in the military? Was she a spy? There were so many peculiarities about the case that did not make sense.

"From a criminal standpoint we rarely find somebody who assumes somebody's identity for any period of time," says Det. John Urquhart of King County, Washington. "Typically they will do it long enough to clean out the bank accounts and then off they go. But she's done this for a long period of time, more than once, to live as those persons."

*****

Esther Elizabeth Reed was born on March 8, 1978, in the tiny town of Townsend, Montana, the youngest of eight children. Her father, Ernest "Ernie" Reed, was a woodworker and farm laborer. He married a woman named Florence when he was 32 and she was 40 and a single mother with seven children and two marriages behind her. Edna, one daughter, says that of her mother's four husbands, Ernie, a god-fearing Baptist, was by far, the most reliable, a truly good man. "My mother was a wonderful, attractive person," Edna says, "but she didn't have the best taste in men."

Though never affluent, Ernie made sure there was food on the table for his family, which mainly consisted of Esther and her brother, EJ, two years her senior, since the other children were mostly grown. She was a "pretty baby" according to another half-sister, Lori Devaney. But as she grew, Esther somehow never fit in, according to both Lori and Edna, partly because she was always a little overweight, and partly because she was so much younger than her half-siblings. She was always, says Lori, "manipulative... the kind of girl who when told not to touch something would put one finger on it to test boundaries."

James Theriault, who taught Esther in high school, wondered for a long time if the girl was being abused, because she was so reclusive. "She had this shell," he says. So he put her on the debate team, and noticed that she was "highly intelligent" and outstandingly good. Her brother EJ would later tell police that it didn't matter which side of an argument she was told to argue -- she was equally good at everything. "She could convince you it was daylight outside in the middle of the night," Sergeant Urquhart recalls EJ Reed telling him. EJ also told Edna that he gave up playing games like chess with his sister pretty early on -- she was way too good for him.

Yet her grades were poor. "She thought she was too bright for high school," says Lori. "[She thought] that the teachers were wasting her time."

Meanwhile life at home was rocky. In 1991, after Ernie's health deteriorated following a bout with meningitis, he and Flo separated. In 1992 Flo had surgery for cancer. In 1995 she moved out of Townsend and took Esther to Lynwood, near Seattle, where Esther enrolled in high school for just one year before dropping out. Weakened by her pain medication, Flo's grasp on Esther slipped. "The rest of you will be fine, but watch out for Esther," she told Edna as she was dying. Edna wasn't sure why their mother was so concerned. But as she was going through her mother's possessions, following her death in August 1998, she found a document that shocked her. It showed that Esther had been on probation for stealing (with a group of friends) in Townsend. Suddenly things started to add up for Edna, who was letting her sister live with her.

Edna and her husband and daughter would habitually throw loose change in an old jug for their annual vacation. It had gotten to the point where it was so full it was almost too heavy to lift. Suddenly the money vanished. So too did her daughter's tooth-fairy money; then Edna's purse went missing. By then Esther had moved out.

In the late spring of 1999 the police notified Edna that someone was cashing her checks... and then in June they arrested Esther as the culprit.

During the summer of 1999, Edna sat in the visitors' gallery at the courthouse in Kent, Seattle, where she watched Esther plead guilty to the credit card theft. Esther was sentenced to 35 days in jail, which had been converted to community service. Grudgingly, through her fury, Edna noticed that her younger sibling had gotten thin and "beautiful" -- the result of diet pills and jogging. Outside after the proceedings the two sisters had it out. Edna asked how, given their Baptist upbringing and everything the family had been through, Esther could have behaved like this? Stealing her own baby niece's tooth fairy money? Esther shrugged: "Because I didn't think you'd really mind and because I could," were more or less her answers, according to Edna.

(Court papers filed by Reed's lawyer alleged her sister had called her "evil" and claimed this subsequently triggered panic and anxiety attacks in the young woman).

But emails from Esther to Edna offer a different insight into her amoral outlook, more or less the Bad Seed syndrome. "Usually there has always been something in my life that I hadn't admitted to that I had done, so guilt was nothing new for me" she wrote. "Ever since I was a young kid, I have had urges of steeling [sic]. Most of the time I can overcome them. But as I got older, the things I took got bigger and the schemes I pulled to get them got worse. When I was fourteen I learned how to lock myself up in a little box and I had no idea how to unlock it..when I steel [sic], I am able to shut off all feeling ...it bothers me, but not like it should.

She goes on: "Sitting in a jail cell will tell you there is a little bit more wrong than just saying "no" will fix... something inside of me is different. I don't want to be the girl who let life pass her by because she was too afraid to live it."

She signed herself "Liz," not Esther, a sign of a new start.

*****

Later that summer Esther emailed her sister Edna that she'd quit working in nursing homes and was thinking of a career in the military and that she had taken up chess and was playing in tournaments. Her last email to Edna was in October, 1999.

By then Edna and Lori were also receiving irate emails from one of Esther's ex-boyfriends, Johnny Fisher, who was owed thousands of dollars in rent. Fisher had a sister, Natalie, then living in Germany. Esther enrolled as Natalie Fisher in a summer debate tournament in Arizona, where her abilities caught the eye of John Bruschke, the debate coach at Cal State Fullerton.

Bruschke suggested "Natalie" enroll at Cal State as an adjunct student -- because that way she could sign up for classes more cheaply. She would not end up with a degree, but she could sign on to the debate team. She said she would finance this with her winnings from chess tournaments.

Bruschke was puzzled when Esther enrolled at Cal State, not as Natalie Fisher, which is how she had known her, but as Natalie Bowman. However he didn't pry. The debate team at Cal State Fullerton was no stranger to members with mixed-up backgrounds says Brushke. "We are kind of a place where people with unpleasant lives, but talent, find their way," he says.

But even by Cal State standards Natalie Fisher/Bowman developed a reputation as a "crazy" girl among her peers. She was highly interested in the opposite sex, recalls both Bruschke and her philosophy teacher, Mitch Avila. But her relationships were extremely short-lived even by student standards, noted Brushke.

She was considered odd. "She didn't trust anybody" says one of her debate team colleagues. One time "Natalie" complained to Brushke that the debate team had gotten bawdy and out-of-hand en route to a tournament -- but when he looked into the matter he discovered that she had been the ringleader of the bawdiness. So why would she have complained?

Avila says she was clearly way beyond the rest of the philosophy students in his class. "It wasn't remotely clear what she was doing there... she already knew all this stuff" he says. He was so suspicious he even checked her work for plagiarism but came up empty. In 2003, at her request, he wrote her a letter of recommendation under the name Brooke Henson, because, she told him, she was being stalked and needed to change identities while she applied to a new college.

She wrote to him about the matter:

I was in your philosophy, I think 100, class last fall. I was the debating chess player. Anyways, last winter I decided to transfer from Fullerton to Loyola University in Chicago. In between I went back to playing chess to get the money to pay for a school like that and I acquired a bit of a stalker. Things got fairly complicated and I wasn't able to attend Loyola for safety reasons, so I am now in the process of applying again, but to Northwestern and a couple of other better schools. Apparently my scores allow me into better schools than I thought. I will explain it better in person, but its a tricky situation and I know you once said you write letters of recommendation for students and I am in need of a good one.

Avila says he agreed to her request "because when you have a student facing you who says she is being stalked it's very difficult to fight that... you tend to believe her."

Neither Mitch Avila nor John Brushke were surprised when they read recently that their former student had gotten into Columbia and Harvard. "She was absolutely bright enough" says Brushke, adding that she didn't strike him as a petty criminal: "Here's the thing about a debate team... you are driving and hanging around with someone for 12 hours then you are living with them and are spending 16 hour days where you are in hotel rooms having meals with them, ...if her intentions had been to steal, she had ample opportunity."

In 2003, according to Detective Jon Campbell, Esther, as Natalie Bowman, somehow joined the Harvard debate team. Records show that the real Natalie Bowman had debated for Harvard in 1999 and then went on to Columbia Medical school. This Natalie was in Peru when Esther impersonated her in Cambridge, Massachusetts, according to Campbell.

Why would Esther bother to get into Ivy League Schools under an assumed identity, when she could have used her considerable talents for more lucrative -- or insidious -- purposes is a question perplexing police. "If you are looking for motivation for Natalie, her character is very much like Kate in Lost," says Brushke. James Theriault was left wondering why she felt she needed to be anyone else since, in his opinion, "she was quite bright enough to get into Harvard on her own... I can speculate that maybe she wanted to be somebody else." Jon Campbell believes she is some sort of honey trap.

*****

Her phone text messages show that Esther/Natalie/Brooke dated many men while she was traveling the country debating, playing chess and attending college. Many of them were in service. Her text messages imply she was most serious about someone named "Tim," a Naval Warfare Officer stationed on a ship out of Everett, Washington. "Tim" gave her a ring, she wrote in an instant message to one ex-boyfriend. Yet she was flirting with her correspondent, even as she told him that the ring meant a great deal to her -- her first "diamond."

Among the cadets at West Point, she had flings with Kyle Brengel, in 2006 stationed in Alaska, and Ian Fleishmann, then supervising officers in Iraq.

Fleishmann's father, Fred, from Michigan, was suspicious of his son's new girlfriend -- then calling herself Natalie Fisher -- right from the start. While she was clearly smart and attractive she was very reticent when it came to information about herself.

"The guys were not involved with her seriously -- they were in this for wild sex," explains Det. Campbell. "They've all been interviewed -- and none of them passed on any classified information. If they had, that would be considered a very serious -- as in treasonable -- offense by the army; it's clear that did not happen."

In 2002, while dating Ian Fleishmann and visiting him at his parent's home in Michigan, Fleishmann's mother, Shirley, a professor at Annapolis, backed their car out of the garage and accidentally hit Natalie's red Honda Accord. Strangely, the young woman refused to give her insurance details or ever cash a check that Fleishmann wrote for two and a half thousand dollars. Fred Fleishmann couldn't understand why the young woman wouldn't let him take the car to get it fixed. He also wanted to give her a map of the area and went out to his driveway to put one in her glove compartment while she and his son were at the beach. To his astonishment, he found several driver's licenses, including Esther Reed's.

He started to pay more attention to the young woman, particularly when she suggested that she and his son share a cell phone so they could speak regularly (West Point hours don't allow much free time) and the bills came to his home. He noticed that she was calling all the time -- and from all over America."She claimed she was playing chess tournaments, but I wondered," says Fleishmann, who looked up the tournaments and saw no sign of her.

Meanwhile, his son was growing weary of the girl's barrage of phone calls and they lost touch. Detective Campbell says Ian Fleishmann has subsequently told him that "Natalie" became a pest.

Last fall, out of the blue, Fred Fleishmann received a call from Jon Campbell inquiring about the young woman his son used to date. According to Campbell, Fleishmann said wryly "I'd been wondering when my phone was going to ring about her."

*****

"The Box" is the name of an essay that investigators took from the hard drive of a computer belonging to one former West Point cadet Esther dated named Kyle Brengel, once stationed in Alaska. Though it isn't the essay that Esther Reed used to impersonate Brooke Henson to get into Columbia in 2004 -- for that, according to Det. Campbell, she cleverly took biographical details off the Brooke Henson website -- the two-page text was clearly a practice effort.

Some of it reads as follows:

When I tell people my life story, I have never received a response not laced with either shock or disapproval. My parents were extremely strict Southern Baptists. Unless someone followed their strict code of conduct, I wasn't allowed contact with them. This isolation was achieved by raising me in a small town in South Carolina with a population of one thousand people... I was educated in a private setting situated in our twenty -five member church. To complete my protection, during my school day, five foot dividers were placed on each side of the five student's desks line against the wall....

Even though I was never forced to understand the concept of the box, I have learned some of the answers to my questions. A box is slowly constructed around every child by every person they've ever crossed paths with. A teacher telling a child he can't learn that until the fourth grade places a brick in a child's wall... an older brother's friend pushing him away from the table saying he can't play chess because he's too young and would never understand it adds mortar to the bricks already in place...

My isolation gifted me with the ability to only comprehend the limitations I discovered through failure of one of my ideas or experiments. No one's disapproval or doubt ever hindered me from attempting anything my little imagination could concoct. If I thought I could do something, I would attempt it until I was successful... my personal philosophy quickly turned into: "whatever you say, but as soon as you leave, I'll find a way to do it.

*****

In 2004, Esther somehow got access to Brooke Henson's social security number. Jon Campbell says she did so through police computers in Vermont. "She must have been with someone who had access to them," he says. Records showed him that the number was run twice; "It's what we call a "ping," says Campbell. "You run it once and you wait. Do you get a reaction?" If you do then you know it's a hot number and you'll get a phone call... If nothing happens, you run it again, and you're good to go." Because Brooke Henson was not listed on a national "wanted" list, no one had bothered to flag her file, which meant no red flags went off when someone ran her social security number.

In the fall of 2004, armed with letters from Professor Mitch Avila and Ian Fleishmann's mother, a professor at Annapolis, a yarn about domestic abuse, and calling herself "Brook" without an "e," Esther got in to Columbia -- before she had obtained a copy of the real Brooke Henson's birth certificate from South Carolina's Department of Health and Education -- which took two attempts, according to Campbell.

Her essay to the school "talked about her mother dying," says Campbell. "It has bits of truth from her real life woven into a story tailored to fit what she thought Brooke's life might have been like. Brooke's life was no where near the life Esther described though."

She attended Columbia from 2004 to 2006. Her grade point average was 3.2216. She took courses in intro-developmental psychology, organizational psychology, social cognition, emotion and gender in Muslim studies, sociology of the US economy, introduction to psychology, introduction to political thought, origins of humanity, criminology, algebra, human rights and social justice, university writing, and astrology.

"Weird" said Campbell looking at her choice of courses and the fact that she withdrew from many of them in mid semester. "Completely weird."

He was not alone in finding her behavior incomprehensible. In the summer of 2005, through the online dating service Match.com, she met a New York-based firefighter, a handsome dark-haired young man, who had lunch with me, but asked to keep his identity anonymous.

"Brook" and he first got together at a downtown bar. She'd been wearing a blue turtleneck and blue jeans, and she made no bones about what she wanted from him: sex. "She was not the kind of girl you would take home to meet your mother," he says bluntly.

Yet, although he never intended having a serious relationship -- she traveled far too much to play in her alleged chess tournaments, on top of which she said she had a boyfriend "somewhere in the South" (the fireman got the impression he "didn't treat her well") -- he was put out when she frequently avoided seeing him, citing a social phobic disorder. "She would repeatedly tell me she couldn't see me until the end of the semester, yet she would call all the time," he says.

They quarreled.

As proof of her illness, in 2006, she sent him a letter written by a psychologist at St Luke's Roosevelt Hospital, stating that she had been treated for "social phobia," and that this would be interfering with her studies at Columbia. "Brook" wrote to the firefighter that obviously the doctor "exaggerates my stuff a bit to make sure Columbia gets off my back.... my gp and the number of Ws should let you know this is probably a pretty big priority in my life right now."

The firefighter last saw her in the summer of 2006. In January when the news stories broke, he found himself reading about her in the New York Post. He saw her photograph and was shocked. It had not occurred to him to check up on her.

*****

For the real Brooke Henson's family, 2007 was a year of intense highs and lows. First, in the summer there was the news that Brooke was alive -- which, in itself, was remarkable.

If you drive on a bright, cold winter's day along US 276, a wide empty road that climbs north from Travelers Rest, you see the looming contours of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There is woodland on both sides of the road, and the signs point out the way to "bible camp" and the local carpenter. It all seems quaint and friendly.

But it was on this road, sometime after 2 am, on the weekend of July 4, 1999, that Brooke Henson, one of the town's prettier girls, vanished. She was last seen walking toward the Willis store, the only store in the center of the sprawling town, to buy a packet of cigarettes.

It was a Saturday night, and the 5'4" brunette had earlier gotten into an argument with her boyfriend, Shaun Shirley, 30, a good-looking local contractor. He had had regular run-ins with the cops, according to his long rap sheet, which listed among other felonies, sexual assault of minors and lynching.

That evening, Brooke's parents -- Martin, a former brick mason and Cathy, who worked at the local Eckerd's pharmacy -- had returned from an Allman Brothers concert in Charlotte to find Brooke in tears on the porch. She was dressed in shorts, a tank-top, and flip flops, a silver watch on one wrist, a silver bracelet on the other. She told her father she was going to break up with Shirley and leave town. Her father wasn't sad. He, like many in the local community, was afraid of Shirley, who had acquired a reputation as someone not to mess with.

"I'll be back in five years," Brooke told her father, according to Christie Metcalf, Brooke's aunt.

Metcalf came to talk to me in the Travelers Rest police station, a small nondescript building in the middle of town, where the less dangerous prisoners hang out around tables with the police officers. "We just knew something wasn't right the next day," Metcalf, a blonde in her fifties, says. "But we couldn't get the police to take it seriously." After all, Brooke had run away from home before. "It was three weeks before the police treated it as a missing person's case and began a search mission and, by then, we'd had rain, so what were the dogs going to find?"

The present generation of police admits their predecessors mishandled the case. "The lieutenant... should have turned the case over to the sheriff's office and never even taken a report. If he had done that, then homicide detectives would have been doing the interviews of the suspects and witnesses rather than patrol officers with zero experience in solving murder cases," says Campbell.

The Hensons' marriage fell apart in the wake of their daughter's disappearance. Martin, ill with multiple sclerosis, became a recluse. For five years, he believed his daughter would return. Cathy quit her job and suffered from debilitating anxiety. When Campbell arranged for her to take a DNA blood test he had to carry her to the car.

In 2002, Christie Metcalf befriended a woman named Tammy Welch, who recommended they put up the website for Brooke. Tammy sought help from a medium, who had a vision of Brooke at the bottom of a well, with a yellow rope nearby. Now, every year on July 4th, the family holds a vigil at the police station, reminding officers of their failure. (Brooke is the only missing person in the area who has never been found)

Detective Campbell was more than a little frustrated.

Campbell is convinced Brooke was murdered -- not near Travelers Rest, but up near River Falls, a beautiful spot where young people liked to party. The person Campbell really wanted to question was Shaun Shirley, who was hauled into police custody the weekend of Brooke's disappearance for "abusing two minors." Shirley swiftly "got lawyered up" and had nothing to say, according to Campbell. He is now lives up near the mountains.

Campbell planned to re-interview another former boyfriend of Brooke's, whom she had dated before Shirley. "There was a story she was planning to run away with him and that's why she was killed," Campbell says. But he died of an overdose before Campbell got to him. "It was ruled a suicide," says Campbell. "Some people think he was killed."

Thus, last summer when Campbell got the call from New York, he was never likely to believe it. He might not have believed in retrospect how hard a slog it would be to piece together what happened to Esther.

Now he believes it unlikely the two women ever met. "I think Esther was just looking for a new ID and came across Brooke's story online."

Ironically, Brooke's biography only got pasted on the Internet in 2004, thanks to the zeal of Tammy Welch, and Esther's own story got put there too, on police computers, thanks to her sister Lori's bad dreams...

Tragically, Brooke Henson's family was euphoric when they first heard she had been found. "We believed it because her father had said she would be back [after five years], because she had said that was what she was going to do," says her aunt, Christy Metcalf. The family then learned there was an impostor out there pretending to be her.

"It was the most devastating feeling," says Metcalf's friend, Tammy Welch.

A new detective took over the Brooke Henson investigation, following the promotion of Det. Jon Campbell from the local station to the state's Law Enforcement Division. Campbell said he would help out where he could.

The limelight gave the local police an incentive to retrace old steps, re-interview everyone -- and to rebuild fences with the community. "We are hoping with this attention we can find out what happened to Brooke," says Christy Metcalf, adding that the family would like to talk to Esther Reed to discover what she knows, if anything, about Brooke Henson. At the time of this writing, no meeting ever took place.

Esther Reed's family was relieved to learn that she was alive -- their last communication with her had been a typed letter from Oklahoma City in 2002, which they had feared was sent from someone else -- but they were concerned.

The federal Secret Service sent its data on Reed to the South Carolina District Attorney who could then issue a federal arrest warrant.

In February 2007, there was a report that Reed had been seen in a restaurant in San Francisco. Edna Strom did not believe it. "Whatever she has gotten herself into, I just want her to turn herself in," she says over breakfast in a hotel in Portland, Oregon. "She's at the point when she knows she will have to pay for whatever she's done, but she can still get her life back... start over."

Over on the other coast, Jon Campbell was more cynical. "This girl knows what to do, how to do it, and she will already be several steps ahead of the authorities," he says.

The slow pace of the investigation had driven him a little crazy. This is a man, after all, who took his wife to the spy museum in Washington D.C. on their honeymoon. He admitted that, despite the better pay, he was sad to have been promoted off the case. But he was confident that authorities would eventually find Reed. "Yeah" he says coolly. "I think so. Eventually."

He was right. Last January, Reed, was picked up outside Chicago. This time she surrendered willingly. Did she have regrets? Would she do it again? "I wouldn't say I was tired of running from the law," she told officers.

But as of now, the law is done with her.

Vicky Ward is a Contributing editor to Vanity Fair