Grand disappearing act stuns classmate

By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer

The question is simple: Would you rather be rich or famous? The answer is also simple: I’d rather be rich, because you can be famous for the wrong reasons.
Now I have proof, because I grew up with somebody who’s now famous … and I’m not sure if it’s a good thing.

I had a pretty average life in Townsend, Mont. I was a 4-H member for a few years and spent my high school years as a member of the speech and drama team. In both of these activities, I was joined by classmate Esther Reed.

Esther transferred out of Broadwater High School after our sophomore year, and I really hadn’t thought of her until last Friday. That’s when a friend had passed me some stories about her on the Web sites for CNN, the New York Times, the Seattle Times and other media outlets.

Reed, who left Montana in 1994 to live with family in Washington State, had pretty much disappeared from her family in 1999. When they heard of her again, she was the subject of an Army investigation of identity theft and a fraudulently gained education.

Investigators told CNN that about the same time Reed disappeared, a South Carolina woman named Brooke Henson disappeared as well. It’s unknown if there are other connections to the pair, but police have said Reed found a way to acquire paperwork identifying herself as Henson, a woman of the same age and physical description. Assuming the identity of Henson, police said, Reed acquired a GED, took the SAT and landed an education at Columbia University.

That story was shocking enough, but my parents sent me a story from the Seattle Times, which said that Reed, assuming the identity of Natalie Bowman, studied at Cal State-Fullerton and got into Harvard via a professor’s recommendation letter.
Further in the story, it details the tale of a suspicious boyfriend who went through her purse and found seven different forms of identification.

It was quite a stretch to think of Esther Reed in that way, but then I remembered that I knew nothing about her. Reed, as my former speech coach Jim Therriault told CNN, “was the kind of kid who would have been invisible if you didn’t take pains to notice her presence.”

Her presence was pretty much nonexistent to me from 1994 through 2006. I may never know what happened in the 13 years between, but there’s no guarantee I even knew what went on in the preceding years when she was just the girl winning trophies in speech and drama and discussing her fair projects during our Old Baldy 4-H club meetings. I’m not advocating criminal activity and I mean no disrespect to the family of Henson, but I have to say I’m impressed with what Reed is accused of doing.

This story is going to get more complicated as authorities and media outlets uncover more details, and it is looking more and more like we could someday see a movie about these events in the style of “Catch Me If You Can,” the tale of master con artist Frank Abagnale.

Esther Reed, or Brooke Henson, or Natalie Bowman, could be a character in a movie someday, and I can only hope that nobody is cast in the role of Kevin Wilson when the movie tells her back story.

After all, being famous has its drawbacks.

Kevin Wilson is a columnist for Freedom Newspapers of New Mexico. He can be reached at 763-3431, ext. 313, or by e-mail:
kevin_wilson@link.freedom.com