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Tuchman: Alleged con artist baffles police ... and me

Story Highlights

• Esther Reed, an alleged con artist, may have been seen in northern California
• Police are trying to track down Reed for further questioning
• She allegedly stole the identity of another missing woman
By Gary Tuchman
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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences covering news and analyze the stories behind the events.

SAN FRANCISCO, California (CNN) -- The story about Esther Reed, an alleged con artist, really is a strange one. It's strange, not just because so many of the details are bizarre, but also because her motives are so mysterious.

Reed, who was born in Montana, had officially been missing for about seven years. But this summer, police in New York City came across her. The catch is they didn't know it was her at the time.

Esther allegedly had stolen another woman's identity. She used the identity to get accepted at Columbia and Harvard Universities, despite the fact she herself was a high school dropout. Esther apparently got her GED and took the SAT on her own, and did so well, she was admitted to both schools.

Investigators say she dated at least four men who were officer candidates at West Point and Annapolis. That, plus the fact that she had received money from overseas, has military investigators looking into whether espionage could be involved.

I did a television story on the case that aired on CNN January 18th. Afterwards, some viewers called police with tips. Police believe one of those viewers, Rick Richman, may have spotted her in San Francisco.

Yesterday, we spent the day with Richman, who told us he was having brunch with his girlfriend at a San Francisco restaurant when he did a double-take.

"I looked at the woman and it registered to me immediately that I saw her, and I was like, 'Whoa,'" Richman told us.

Sitting next to them was a woman he believed he saw on CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360°" a few days earlier. He said he did a couple of glances to verify it was her and was almost positive.

"After I definitely knew it was Ester Reed, I said to [my girlfriend], 'The woman over there, take a good look at her, and I'll tell you why later," Richman said.

He knew her story and was a little nervous, but he left the restaurant with his girlfriend to call police. But the woman and her male companion left the restaurant before the police arrived.

As it turns out, police say they did have evidence Reed has spent time in northern California, so they believe the sighting could very well have been the real thing.

Authorities are particularly anxious to apprehend Reed because the identity she stole is that of another missing woman, Brooke Henson of Travelers Rest, South Carolina.

For years, Henson's family thought she was dead. But this summer, New York City police called Travelers Rest police to say they found Henson alive. But sadly, it turned out it was not Henson, but rather Esther Reed using Henson's identity.

The family in South Carolina was devastated. Police don't think Esther Reed had anything to do with Brooke Henson's disappearance, but they want to make sure just the same.

Meanwhile, since we did our original story, we have also talked with one of Esther Reed's ex-boyfriends, who dated her while she was using an alias. He doesn't want to be identified, but tells us Reed always had a lot of money, and indicated she had it because she was one of the top chess players in the world.

The boyfriend is not a great chess player. He wanted to challenge her, but she would always refuse. Finally, he played her on the computer, and won. Shortly thereafter, Reed left his life.

Reed is still at large. And her intentions, as best anyone can tell, are still a mystery.


Esther Reed, an alleged con artist who has gone missing, may have been spotted in a northern California restaurant.

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