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The Lady Vanishes
January 17, 2010 1:41 AM   Subscribe

"No one guessed the truth, which was simpler, and therefore stranger, than their wildest theories: that the scared young woman so hotly pursued by South Carolina police, the Secret Service, federal marshals and even the U.S. Army was actually on a bizarre and misguided journey of self-discovery." Rolling Stone reports on the strange case of Esther Reed: The Girl Who Conned The Ivy League. (via Metachat)
posted by The Whelk (46 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
It was posted in The Clay Shirky thread.

The oddest thing is that she could have "stolen" her own identity pretty easily. She knew no one was using it, Especially after running away from Columbia.
posted by delmoi at 2:50 AM on January 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Can I point out that "getting in" to Columbia's school of general studies or Harvard's extension school (or any other non-traditional BA program at an otherwise elite college) is not the same as "getting in" to either school's College? The breathlessness with which it is reported that Esther/Brooke "conned the ivy league" is unwarranted. If you can show up with a high school diploma (forged, apparently) and an application essay, they are happy to have you pay full tuition for a less valued degree. That's why there are so many non-citizen students in those programs; being enrolled gets you permission (in the form of a student visa) to stay in the country, so it's like buying your immigration status, same as for all those scam college programs you see advertised on the subway. These extension colleges are money makers. They aren't "elite" in any real sense; they trade on the elite status of the parent institutions.

Not a bad way to use a fake identity, actually, while you've got control of it.

Makes the story more boring, doesn't it?
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:08 AM on January 17, 2010 [22 favorites]


Very interesting story; too much editorializing. The tying-together of Esther and Brooke at the end seems extremely forced. They were both...uh...young girls, or something. In search of identity! And yeah, the whole "the girl who conned the Ivy League" thing is kind of lame given that that's the least interesting part of this story, and come on, it's the extension school.

Jon Campbell sounds like a complete nutter.
posted by threeants at 5:46 AM on January 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


I think Joe Campell is a sufferer of "when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail" theory. He can't get out of threat-assessment mode.

And of being really, really bored. Come to think that's probably more important.
posted by bettafish at 5:53 AM on January 17, 2010


Makes the story more boring, doesn't it?

Not to me, it didn't, because I didn't take the nature of the schools as being the point of the story. The article is written a bit heavy-handedly but it is pretty fascinating to see how relatively easy it is to assume not just a new identity but a string of them, and how far you can get with them.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 7:30 AM on January 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Can I point out that "getting in" to Columbia's school of general studies or Harvard's extension school (or any other non-traditional BA program at an otherwise elite college) is not the same as "getting in" to either school's College?

I don't think the article's interest depends upon the divisions to which she was admitted being "elite." She became, under false identities, a student at Harvard and then at Columbia. It's interesting as part of the overall story, which is that a young high school dropout, in search of a more interesting and fulfilling life, stole identities and enrolled at two of the nation's best institutions. The prestide of the particular divisions is beside the point.
posted by jayder at 7:42 AM on January 17, 2010


I think Joe Campell is a sufferer of "when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail" theory. He can't get out of threat-assessment mode.

Also, this absolutely. The detective looking for Brooke Henson sure had a vivid imagination. For example - after discovering that the person calling herself Brooke Henson in New York was probably not the same Brooke Henson on the missing person's list in South Carolina, he tries to come up with reasons why an identity thief wasn't trying to milk the new identity financially, as is often the case:
Campbell struggled to make sense of the facts. What could Esther Reed's motivation possibly be? Was she a drug courier, as [father of ex-boyfriend Ian] Fleischmann suggested? Or, just maybe, could she have murdered Brooke Henson and the other girls she impersonated? "I thought, 'Man, she might be a serial killer,'" recalls Campbell. Then one day, while reading the hundreds of pages of instant messages that Kyle Brengel had turned over, his eyes lit on a passage in which Esther expressed keen curiosity about a term paper the cadet was writing about tactical troop movements. In another exchange, she told Kyle that she'd love to be James Bond — that being a spy would be her dream job.

Of course, Campbell concluded: Esther Reed was a spy.
Of course!

Not to say that "she came from a shitty family and just wanted to re-invent herself" should have been obvious to anyone, but a spy? This story is just amazing.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 7:55 AM on January 17, 2010


I love how all of his reasons are straight from terrible thrillers.
posted by The Whelk at 8:00 AM on January 17, 2010


For comparison, the New Yorker published a piece in 2001 about another wishful self-discoverer who conned his way into Princeton. Paywall, sorry. I think it was on the blue at one point but a Google search didn't turn up anything.
posted by awenner at 8:03 AM on January 17, 2010


Delmoi, I think her original ID had bad credit / crimes etc on it.
posted by rebent at 8:04 AM on January 17, 2010


The best part? Campbell still thinks Esther Reed is a spy. Second only to Esther actually meeting a friend of Brooke Henson's in prison.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 8:07 AM on January 17, 2010


The author of this article, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, seems to be Rolling Stone's reporter on the Identity Theft As Metaphor For Our Modern Condition beat. An earlier RS article by Erdley, The Fabulous Fraudulent Life Of Jocelyn And Ed, is an interesting counterpoint to Esther Reed's story, both for its contrasts and ultimate similarities.
posted by Ian A.T. at 8:11 AM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


What exactly did she get 4 years for? If it was stealing the missing girls identity, it seems really harsh. The article doesn't make it clear what the "elaborate stolen merchandise return scam" was exactly and whether or not she caught a charge for it. 4 years seems like a long time for a person who just wanted to reinvent herself and stole a missing (presumably dead) persons identity.
posted by youthenrage at 9:34 AM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Identity theft is a pretty serious crime, equivalent to fraud. The returned merchandise scam, as outlined by the equipment she had in her car, was to steal items from the store, print out fake receipts for them, and then return them.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 9:44 AM on January 17, 2010


I bet she got so many years because she conned these elite institutions. If she was conning CUNY, I doubt she would have gotten so much time. Also, love the typical metafilter teeth gnashing at *gasp* extension colleges.
posted by milarepa at 10:22 AM on January 17, 2010


It's interesting as part of the overall story, which is that a young high school dropout, in search of a more interesting and fulfilling life, stole identities and enrolled at two of the nation's best institutions.

Harvard Extension School is not one of "the nation's best institutions." It's an adult education annex.
posted by mpbx at 11:35 AM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I know there's no way to know the answer to this question but anyways: do people who nab identities like this always get uncovered? Or are there people out there who survive their entire lives without getting figured out?

It wasn't like she was really good at it - the random choosing of social security numbers was a poor choice. But is there a bulletproof way to come up with an identity and just disappear into it?
posted by SNWidget at 11:37 AM on January 17, 2010


That was a fascinating read but the real story seems to be that a person who screwed herself in her youth tried to turn her life around in an ill-advised way. This girl, given a bit of guidance, has the potential to get things done and that's quite something in itself. A 1400 SAT is nothing to sneeze at from where I'm sitting. I find this whole read quite depressing.

Alas, I would like to be able to put a face to this person. Anyone got the mugshot?
posted by krautland at 12:00 PM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


SNWidget, you do hear about people who have lived 20, 30 or even 40 lives under a different identity or with forged credentials of some kind. It's amazing to think about, but I also think it's disappearing as Google closes in on people rather effectively. Or Facebook.

As for "conned the Ivy League" I hardly blame them for selling the story. Would you read "the identity thief who took some adult education classes under a false name"?

milarepa, the sentence was not, as far as I could tell, for any of her educational activities. It was about the identity theft and the returned-merch scam. It's not even clear she committed a crime in taking any of the classes.
posted by dhartung at 12:03 PM on January 17, 2010


Alas, I would like to be able to put a face to this person. Anyone got the mugshot?

Here you go.
posted by special-k at 12:05 PM on January 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Also, love the typical metafilter teeth gnashing at *gasp* extension colleges.

There's nothing wrong with extension colleges; there's nothing wrong with Ottertail, Minnesota either, but you wouldn't tagline a news feature with "the cunning mastermind who evaded the Ottertail Police Department for six months!" It's not the FBI.
posted by threeants at 12:05 PM on January 17, 2010 [9 favorites]


Identity theft and scamming is what she was convicted of, but my impression, probably misguided, is that sentencing often allows for some leeway given the circumstances. She defrauded elite institutions, and therefore is perhaps perceived as more of a threat. That was my stupid idea, probably better left unsaid so it wouldn't be immortalized on the internet.
posted by milarepa at 12:14 PM on January 17, 2010


No, she got four years because she has been involved in escalating theft and fraud for years. Remember, she ditched her original identity to avoid a sentence for theft. She got $100,000 in college loans (for extension school?) on which she lived in Manhattan. Years later, when they catch her, she is running a sophisticated shoplifting/forgery scheme.

She's really a career grifter. The identity theft is just one of her business methods.
posted by msalt at 12:34 PM on January 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


What exactly did she get 4 years for?

The 2008 Secret Service Annual Report (.pdf) says, "On September 12, 2007, Reed was indicted by a federal grand jury in Greenville, South Carolina, for mail fraud, wire fraud, false identification documents and aggravated identity theft."

FauxNews wrote that "Reed, 30, pleaded guilty in August to federal fraud and identity theft charges and faces 47 years in prison." However, she claimed to have a mental disorder "brought on by a too-strict family upbringing, the separation and divorce of her parents, her mother's cancer death and "very neglectful, controlling and emotionally abusive" elder sister who "repeatedly told her she was evil," the documents say."

She was facing a maximum sentence of 47 years, so she got off lightly with 4 years and paying restitution.
posted by Houstonian at 1:59 PM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I teach students at the extension college of my elite college in the same classes. I've advised many of them. I stay in touch with half a dozen or more who've graduated. I'm not sneering at the extension college. But the premise of the breathless "grifter cons Ivy League" headlines depends on the person in question having fooled the keepers of a terribly competitive admissions process. Absent that feat, her mere enrollment in the Columbia School of General Studies is neither here nor there, and not much different than if she had spent the money on Pilates classes or Amazon.com. The standards for admission just aren't that exclusive, which is no reflection on the bright and motivated students who enroll, but a slam at the journalist who, failing to make this distinction, relied on a lazy and untrue implication.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:42 PM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


What happened to Poochin and Odie?
posted by Xurando at 4:28 PM on January 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


> Makes the story more boring, doesn't it?

No. It never ceases to amaze me how eager MeFites are to be bored by anything that doesn't involve a new tech gadget.

Fascinating story—thanks for posting it, The Whelk!
posted by languagehat at 5:19 PM on January 17, 2010


This was an entertaining read. But I'm afraid I'm not convinced by the Catch Me If You Can story arc in which finally being caught and owning her own name gives Esther the redemptive catharsis that will allow her, post-prison, to enter into a rich and fulfilling life. If for no other reason than starting your mid-thirties $125k in the hole as a convicted felon is a pretty big albatross, especially when you have no family or community support network. I hope I'm wrong, though.
posted by sy at 6:00 PM on January 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


I thought this was an intersting piece, but the part I was most intrigued by was the part that the writer spent the least time on -- the question of why Esther felt the need to live under an assumed identity to begin with.

Sure, she got caught stealing in her home town. But is a single count of petty larceny enough to justify committing several serious felonies and living your life in a paranoid little box? Any of the things she did as "Brooke" or "Natalie" -- breaking away from her family, going to college, dating West Point cadets, moving to NYC -- could have been done under her real identity.

There's obviously some deeply pschological motive at work here, and it had to be one hell of a strong motivator; if anything, it seems that she was acutely aware, at all times, of what kind of risks she was taking.
posted by Afroblanco at 7:04 PM on January 17, 2010


She got $100,000 in college loans (for extension school?)

Yup. Full-time, residential enrollment at Columbia's School of General Studies costs retail: approx $50,000+ per year. That's why it's such a lucrative pay-to-play program for the university, since virtually no institutional scholarship aid is offered. (Fun fact: students over a certain age MUST apply to GS instead of the regular Barnard or Columbia undergraduate colleges, effectively disqualifying them from scholarships or any promises of meeting full financial aid.)
posted by availablelight at 7:10 PM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I found the anxiety issues more interesting myself cause, as someone who has had, at various times in the past, trouble leaving the house to take out the garbage but then has gone on stage in front of a few hundred people, I can totally understand the appeal of a fake name and identity - even if it's completely superficial.
posted by The Whelk at 8:20 PM on January 17, 2010


Fun fact: students over a certain age MUST apply to GS instead of the regular Barnard or Columbia undergraduate colleges, effectively disqualifying them from scholarships or any promises of meeting full financial aid.)

goodness. is that really legal?
posted by toodleydoodley at 9:00 PM on January 17, 2010


Any of the things she did as "Brooke" or "Natalie" -- breaking away from her family, going to college, dating West Point cadets, moving to NYC -- could have been done under her real identity.

My exact thoughts, afroblanco.
posted by special-k at 10:02 PM on January 17, 2010


I'm pretty sure I read this exact same story in Rolling Stone sometime last fall. I wonder why it's only being posted online now.
posted by ms.codex at 10:38 PM on January 17, 2010


Yes it's legal, and many elite universities do this. Their name is gold, especially for wealthy students from Asia willing to pay cash. Why do you think they can afford to offer "need blind" admissions to the elite colleges?

And OK, "boring" was a strong word (and I find "new tech gadgets" far more boring as a topic). But the voicing of "the girl who conned the ivy league" is just so over-stated in its implications. Minus the implied claim that she was some sort of brainiac genius or conned a very tight admissions process, she comes across more as a standard wacked out grifter to me. Still interesting. But not as remarkable.

Now G. W. Bush -- there's someone who "conned the ivy league" and then some.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:21 AM on January 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yes it's legal, and many elite universities do this. Their name is gold, especially for wealthy students from Asia willing to pay cash.

Actually, students from Asia can get into the non-extension schools just fine since these schools are completely need blind and we tend to kick domestic students' asses on the SATs.
posted by anniecat at 7:03 AM on January 18, 2010


*I mean, not completely as need blind as they want you to think they are.
posted by anniecat at 7:03 AM on January 18, 2010


Also, my American born cousin attended a community college, then a state school and is making more money than my husband and I put together. And in the end, how much money you make is all that matters. So the poor saps that get conned into going to Columbia and Harvard extension schools...well, if they want to feel a false sense of self-esteem, fine.

This poor kid had pretty much no sense of self. But she was smart. And obviously very ill. I feel pretty sorry for her for being crazy.
posted by anniecat at 7:07 AM on January 18, 2010


I read about Esther Reed and about Jocelyn and Ed. Now I need a shower.

While it certainly is sad that these folks feel the need to resort to identity theft to start a life that they feel certain is their due, it just smacks of entitlement. Not born with a silver spoon in your mouth? Fake it, steal someone else's or go into debt to show everyone that you are as good as they are.

These stories show me people who don't want to pay their dues, either by working for what they want, or by serving their sentences. They just take what they want, and screw anyone who gets in their way.

Just an interesting chronicle of selfish, immature people going entirely on Id.

No sympathy here.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:41 AM on January 18, 2010



Now G. W. Bush -- there's someone who "conned the ivy league" and then some.


Even better, look into the story of James Hogue, who DID game the (traditional) Princeton admissions system. His story actually is what Rolling Stone is trying to package this one as.
posted by availablelight at 9:16 AM on January 18, 2010



Actually, students from Asia can get into the non-extension schools just fine since these schools are completely need blind and we tend to kick domestic students' asses on the SATs.


Erm, actually, no. The old saw is that an Ivy League school could fill each class several times over with students with perfect SAT scores--diversity and well-roundedness are what get you into the Ivies and the MITs and CalTechs out there. It's not a numbers racket. (The Ivies have also been accused of the same kind of discrimination against Asian students that existed against Jews in earlier times, in order to prevent their "overrepresentation." I don't know if this is actually true.)
posted by availablelight at 9:20 AM on January 18, 2010


And in the end, how much money you make is all that matters.

Speak for yourself.
posted by special-k at 9:42 AM on January 18, 2010


Like Afroblanco, and special-k, I'm also frustrated that there's no investigation into the why of the assumed name. Although its possible that the lack of character development is related to the fact that she seems to have been writing a Hardy Boys novel.

Martin and Cathy Henson were known around town for their good-time ways, and their small, two-story house was a magnet for folks of all stripes who would gather for the family's boozy fish frys and never really leave. The Hensons rented to a basement boarder who hid his marijuana plants behind a rebel flag.

Campbell, a baby-faced 40-year-old with blue eyes and a widow's peak, had chased down every lead, searching ponds, wells and forests with cadaver dogs. But he knew he was out of his depth: Aside from a long stint in the Coast Guard, his whole law-enforcement career had consisted of writing traffic tickets and responding to trailer-park brawls.

By 2003, he had given up on finding Brooke alive.

A day or so later, he got a stunning call: The young woman had answered nearly all of the questions correctly. The New York cops believed they had found the real Brooke Henson.

Even so, Campbell couldn't accept it. He was positive that the real Brooke Henson was dead. "I want DNA!" he snapped at the New York detective.

Campbell could tell from the get-go this was no ordinary case.

Of course, Campbell concluded: Esther Reed was a spy.

Campbell was tied to the chair trying to remember his boy scout knots when Brooke Henson said something that surpised him. She met his eyes in the mirror. "My name is Esther Reed," she said. As soon as the words left her lips, her expression dissolved into one of pure relief. Just then Jon's chunky friend Chet burst into the log cabin in his Jalopy with Jon's vivacious girlfriend Lola. Chet waddled over to Brooke/Esther and socked her one. "That's for Brooke," Chet hollered. Iola untied Jon and together they all climbed into Chet's jalopy in order to bring the criminal to justice, and defeat communism once and for all!
posted by edbles at 10:02 AM on January 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


(I am a grad of Columbia College)

While it is somewhat easier to enroll in GS than CC or BC, General Studies is not:

- An "extension program" by any accepted definition of the term. It is a full matriculation.
- Less intellectually rigorous than the other undergrad programs. You still must complete a (slightly modified) version of the Core Curriculum tailored to older students.
- Anything remotely approaching "just sign up" for enrollment.

GS is primarily designed to be a program for older students who (a) don't need the on-campus 24/7 socializing with teenagers and (b) have careers and lives outside of college that prevent them from being full-time students.
posted by mkultra at 12:01 PM on January 18, 2010


This isn't a double? I know I've read this whole thing before and I swore it was in the Blue.

Still, it's a really weird and fascinating story, even if I have already heard it once before. I also wonder why she needed multiple fake identities, other than (as Mad Men has shown us) being a good plot device.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:23 PM on January 18, 2010


Is this the same girl-on-the-international-run story that had a blog where she posted updates? Maybe in 2006 or so? *thumps skull* Dang memory is acting up again...
posted by wenestvedt at 9:02 AM on January 19, 2010


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