Reed Charged With ID Theft

Former student claims mental illness led her to steal at least six identities

A former Harvard Extension School student who obtained admission through an adopted identity was sentenced to four years in prison earlier this week in a federal court in Greenville, S.C.

Esther R. Reed—who sporadically attended Harvard between 2002 and 2005, according to the New York Post—was charged with stealing at least six identities and using such disguises to forge her way into the Extension School, Columbia, and California State University, Fullerton. A federal judge in Greenville characterized her as a scheming manipulative criminal, according to the Associated Press.

Reed’s scam was unveiled in 2006 when she applied for a job in Manhattan, using the persona of Brooke Henson, a South Carolina woman reported missing since 1999. She was indicted in September 2007 in Greenville S.C., on charges of mail fraud, wire fraud, and identity theft, Ed Donovon, a Secret Service spokesman, told the Crimson in an interview in 2008. The Secret Service—best known for defending key government figures—is also charged with investigating major cases of fraud.

Donovon said that Reed was put on the Secret Service’s Most Wanted List—a group of eight fugitives—in December 2007.

Reed had also attempted to adopt the identity of Bowman ’99, who later graduated from Columbia Medical School. Natalie M. Bowman ’99 could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Ann Fitz, one of Reed’s attorneys, said she believes Reed’s actions were motivated by mental illness caused by her mother’s death in 1998. “She felt like there was no other choice but to try and hide herself and live her life through somebody else’s identity,” Fitz said.

Fitz said she was particularly disappointed with the verdict because she said it dismissed mental illness as merely a “creative argument.”

But Walt Wilkins, the prosecutor and U.S. attorney for the District of South Carolina, said Reed’s scams were purely an effort to support herself after she had left home in 1999, and that Reed had continued to put herself in social situations despite the defense that she suffered from a “social anxiety disorder.”

Wilkins added that identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in the nation.

Director of Undergraduate Admissions Marlyn E. McGrath ’70 said that while the admissions process can be defrauded, the careful scrutiny given to each applicant typically catches inconsistencies. McGrath acknowledged new technology can more efficiently flag such cases, but stressed a desire to rely primarily on readers’ judgment. “This is not a science,” she said. “This is a thorough careful, human process and we intend to keep it that way.”