Feb. 4, 2008 -- A woman accused of stealing the identity of a missing girl and using it to gain admission to some of the country's top universities pleaded not guilty Monday morning to identity theft and wire fraud charges after being arrested this weekend, federal law enforcement officials say.
Esther Elizabeth Reed was arrested Saturday by police in a Chicago suburb, where she was staying at a local hotel, said Ed Donovan of the Secret Service.
Reed, 29, is suspected of stealing the identity of Brook Henson — a resident of Travelers Rest, S.C., who disappeared eight years ago — and using it to apply for a passport, credit cards and more than $100,000 in student loans to attend Harvard University and Columbia University, according to a federal indictment.
Reed pleaded not guilty in federal court in Chicago to the charges. Federal authorities are taking her to South Carolina to face trial, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Cramer. Her court-appointed attorney could not be reached for comment Monday morning.
Reed herself had been missing since 1999, according to a Web site whose creators claim to be Reed's family members. But according to investigators, in May 2006 a Columbia University graduate student alerted authorities that a woman claiming to be Henson had applied to work for her as a housekeeper. After an Internet search, the student learned that Henson was a missing person.
Capt. John Gardner of the Travelers Rest Police Department said Reed was not a suspect in Henson's disappearance, but that he planned to interview her to see if she had any connection to the case. Investigators believe Henson, who was 20 when she disappeared, is most likely dead.
Travelers Rest Det. Clark Brazier said Reed also used the names Natalie Fisher and Natalie Bowman in 2004, around the time she was enrolled at the Harvard Extension School in Cambridge, Mass.
According to the indictment, in May 2004, under Henson's name, Reed was accepted to Columbia University, where she studied for two years. The following year, Reed allegedly received a duplicate of Henson's birth certificate in the mail, adding mail fraud to the federal charges against her.
"In her application, she said she was home-schooled, her mother was dead and she was estranged from her father. She did everything she could to appear not to have a past," said Brazier. "You think someone would have said, 'This all sounds a little strange.'"
Both Harvard and Columbia have confirmed acceptance of a student using the name Brook Henson. The colleges, like most educational institutions in the United States, don't routinely do identity checks on applicants.
"Colleges receive massive outside documentation and generally have 12 years of prior documentation proving who someone is. You'd virtually have to land from Mars not to have that sort of record," said Barmak Nassirian, spokesperson for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
"There is no reason for someone to whip out an ID to prove who they are, and colleges don't find the need to run checks," he said.
Investigators believe Reed, who is originally from Montana, learned about Henson and her disappearance from news reports and possibly parlayed a relationship with a Vermont state trooper to get additional information about Hensen, including her Social Security number.
Reed may have received some minor plastic surgery, Brazier said, "but we can't show a strong relationship that payments have been made to a particular clinic."
She was finally arrested on Saturday after local police spotted her car in the parking lot of a Tinley Park, Ill., hotel.
No Profile for ID Thief
Experts on identity theft said that ID hijackers come from all segments of the population, and that Reed's age and gender did not make her particularly unique.
"There is no accurate profile for an identity thief," Sheila Gordon, director of victims' services at the Identity Theft Resource Center, said in an earlier interview with ABC News. "This is their job; they love the rush and the money. Just because she looked innocent doesn't mean she was."
Gordon said using a false identity to apply to college was rare but not unheard of, and the greatest number of people to be victimized by identity crimes were college-aged.
"Identity theft occurs most often among 18- to 29-year-olds, and it is common for it to occur on college campuses. Typically, though, we're talking theft of credit cards, not applying to schools," she said.
Gordon also said that thieves will look through news stories or obituaries to find recently deceased people around the same age to steal their identities.