A Montana woman pleaded guilty Tuesday to stealing the identity of a missing S.C. woman to attend an Ivy League school in what her lawyer called a bid to escape a painful past.
Esther Elizabeth Reed, 30, pleaded guilty to fraud and identity theft charges in federal court in Greenville. She faces up to 47years in prison and $1 million in fines for ID theft, mail fraud, wire fraud and loan fraud charges.
Reed's lawyer Ann Marie Fitz said that her client wanted to apologize in court for her scheme, but that request was denied. U.S. District Judge Henry Herlong said it should wait for sentencing. A date for that was not set. Prosecutors said it could be in several months.
Reed was indicted last year for using Brooke Henson's identity to get into Columbia University. The Travelers Rest woman has been missing since 1999, and investigators have said they do not think Reed was involved in her disappearance.
Prosecutors have said that, starting in March 2001, Reed juggled six false identities to attend Columbia and California State University at Fullerton. She concocted various stories about herself, including that she earned her living as a chess champion and had to change her name because she was in a witness protection program.
In 2004, she began attending Columbia, using Henson's name to get student loans and submitting an SAT score of 1400, which prosecutors say she earned on her own merits.
When authorities caught up to her in New York two years later, Reed insisted she was Henson and even answered some personal family questions correctly. But she stopped cooperating and disappeared when asked to take a DNA test, according to prosecutors.
Officials tracked her down more than a year later and arrested her in February in suburban Chicago.
After the hearing, Fitz said her client had wanted to tell Henson's family she was sorry for getting their hopes up when she was discovered in New York.
“She never, ever had the intent to cause any harm to anybody,” Fitz said. “She feels horrible about giving them false hopes that their daughter was still alive.”
Asked why her client stole others' identities to attend college, despite her own academic abilities, Fitz said her client, who is from Townsend, Mont., did so to shed a painful past but would not elaborate.
“It was more of a way of life for her. It was surviving her life. It was trying to move past Esther Reed and who she was in reality,” Fitz said. “She has a lot of things in her background and a lot of bad family relationships that she was trying to get away from.”
Reed's trial had been scheduled to begin next month. After the hearing, U.S. Attorney Walt Wilkins said he was pleased with her decision to plead guilty.
“We're certainly satisfied,” he said. “We're glad to see this case to this resolution. … I hope this gives the family some sort of resolution.”
Reed will remain in the Anderson County jail, in federal custody, until her sentencing, Wilkins said.