Catch her if your can: the story of Esther Reed

When it comes to watching movies, there’s nothing we love more than a good drama that follows the life of spies, secret agents, con artists and more. Of course, there are some movies that stick out from the rest – there’s James Bond, Now You See Me, The Bourne Identity, and Catch Me If You Can.

However, unlike many of the other movies mentioned, Catch Me If You Can is based on real-life events. In fact, this Steven Spielberg movie is based on the life of Frank Abagnale Jr. In the world of con-artists, Abagnale takes the crown as not only the most famous but also the most successful. Before he had reached his 20th birthday, Abagnale had been able to con millions of dollars out of people, as he posed as an airline pilot, prosecutor, and doctor. Over the course of his life, Abagnale grew to become one of the most prestigious names in the fraud industry. So much so, he was ultimately employed by the FBI to help them catch others like him.


Although Frank Abagnale Jr. has continued to top the charts as one of the most infamous con artists in history, there have been others who have come close to his record. In fact, there is one woman who is often linked to the phrase ‘Catch Her If You Can.’ The woman in question goes by the names of Esther Reed, Natalie Fisher, Natalie Bowman and Brooke Henson. In reality, she is simply called Esther Reed – and stole numerous identities to start a new life. Before too long, the manipulative high school dropout had used missing people to get ahead in life and attend Ivy League schools with the intention of becoming a lawyer. But would the criminal mastermind get away with it? You’ll have to read on to find out…

Who is she

Meet the woman in question who goes by the names of Esther Reed, Natalie Fisher, Natalie Bowman and Brooke Henson. However, in reality she is simply called Esther Reed – and stole numerous identities in order to start a new life. As it turned out, this manipulative high school dropout had used missing people to get ahead in life and attend Ivy League schools with the intention of becoming a lawyer.

The early years

Esther Reed was born Esther Elizabeth Reed on March 8, 1978. She spent her early years living in the small town of Townsend in the state of Montana, surrounded by a large family – which meant was often overshadowed. Esther spent most of her childhood with her eight older brothers and sisters, and would spend her free time down at the local creek, swimming and playing with her older sister, Edna. However, Esther wasn’t your usual happy-go-lucky child…

Esther’s parents

Esther was raised by her mother and father – Ernest ‘Ernie’ Reed and Florence Reed. Florence had been married twice before she met Ernie, and was known for having a questionable taste in men. However, Ernie was different to her other husbands and wanted to do right by Florence and their children. And the kids absolutely loved him. As the years went by, Ernie ensured that there was food on the table, and the kids were well looked after.

A pretty baby

Esther was always regarded as a ‘pretty baby’ and was brought up in a loving home – but this just wasn’t enough for her. As she got older, Esther began to feel like an outsider. She believed she was overweight and was constantly overshadowed by her more intelligent, outgoing and attractive older brothers and sisters. This brought out a manipulative side to the youngster. If she were told not to touch something, she would try and push the boundaries as far as she could go.

Her high school years

Esther Reeds’ insecurities soon became a part of who she was. Esther’s high school teacher, Mr. Theriault, questioned whether Esther was suffering from abuse. He was worried about her reclusive nature, and the fact that “she had this shell.” Mr. Theriault decided to give Esther a spot on the debate team and watched her come out of her shell and show her intelligent side. But there was more to her debating talent than just intelligence. Esther knew exactly what to say, and when to say it.

An incredible ability

In later discussions with the police, Esther’s older brother EJ has confirmed this incredible ability and confirmed that Esther was able to persuade and manipulate anyone she came across. The brother and sister would often play chess together, but EJ soon realized there was no way to beat his younger sibling. She would always think three steps ahead of him and be able to manipulate the game to her advantage. Little did he know that this manipulative streak would later land her in the Top 10 of the U.S Most Wanted list…

Failing grades

Despite her talent in the debate team and her obvious intelligence, Esther Reed was not excelling in high school. In fact, she was flunking almost every subject she took. The teachers could tell she was intelligent and knew more than she was letting on, but Esther always believed high school was a waste of time. She was too smart for what they were offering her. She wanted more, and she was going to make sure she got it.

A troubled home life

As Esther’s grades continued to suffer, her home life became even more troublesome, and in 1991, her father contracted meningitis. The strain and the pain of his ill-health proved to be all too much for him and his wife, and Ernie and Florence separated. The news was a huge blow to Esther, and her whole life was turned upside down. During the custody battle, Esther was asked whether she wanted to stay with her mother or her father – she chose her mother.

A move to Seattle

Just a year after their separation, Esther’s mother was diagnosed with cancer – and Esther’s life took another turn for the worst. In 1995, Florence made the decision to move her and her family away from the negative atmosphere of Montana, and relocate to Lynwood, Seattle. What was left of the family tried to keep up appearances and get on with their normal lives, so Esther continued her studies at the local high school. But a year later, Esther dropped out…

Watch out for Esther

As Florence’s health deteriorated, her grasp and control over her daughter weakened, and she was getting concerned for Esther’s welfare. After a while, Florence knew she had very little time left, and wanted to give her older daughter, Edna, a little advice. “The rest of you will be fine, but watch out for Esther” she said. At the time, Edna didn’t understand what her mother meant – but a discovery in 1998 brought her mother’s warning to life.

Esther on probation

Sadly, Florence Reed passed away after a hard fought battle with cancer in August 1998, and Edna was left in charge of all of the subsequent formalities. As she sorted through her mother’s’ belongings, Edna found a document that would shed some light on the person Esther had become. The document was an official record that showed Esther had been arrested for stealing and placed on probation – something that had been kept a secret from the rest of the family. Edna was naturally concerned, as Esther was now staying in her house.

Living with Edna

Unlike Esther, Edna had her life together. As she was much older, she had a house, a husband, and a daughter – and she was happy. After the death of their mother, Edna felt compelled to give her younger sister somewhere to stay. However, she soon noticed that petty change was going missing from her home. Although she knew of Esther’s past history, she ignored the situation. That was, until 1999, when her purse mysteriously disappeared – and so did Esther.

An arrest

Edna had a sneaking suspicion who had stolen her purse but alerted the police anyway. Just a few days after, the police notified Edna of some unusual activity on her bank account. In fact, someone had been cashing her checks at numerous banks across the state. After hours of searching, the cops managed to track Esther down – and arrested her for theft and credit card theft. Esther ultimately pleaded guilty, and her sentence was reduced to community service.

A turning point

However, this new conviction was a turning point in Esther Reed’s life – and she knew more than ever that she wanted to escape from the world she was living in. She felt like an outcast, and she didn’t want to be Esther Reed anymore. So, Esther embarked on a plan to get rid of her real life once and for all. She knew she was smart and that she was able to assimilate information quickly, and used this to her advantage. Her metamorphosis had begun.

Who is Esther Reed?

After completing her community service, Esther Reed ceased to exist. She was angry at her mother’s death, she was angry that she was alone, and she was angry that she had been caught stealing – so she left town. The 21-year-old stole the name, social security number, and information from her ex-boyfriend’s sister, and started her new life as Natalie Fisher. However, the real Natalie Fisher soon realized that she had been conned after debt collectors knocked on her door…

A move to Seattle

In 2000, the real Natalie Fisher searched for the con artist stealing her money – but by this time, Esther Reed had left Seattle and spent the next two years traveling from state to state, spending the fraudulent money and staying in cheap motels. Although Esther had now found herself in the midst of criminality, she still didn’t feel complete. She wanted to find somewhere where she could truly start a new life; somewhere where she truly belonged.

Creating her own life

When she was later interviewed by ‘48 Hour Mysteries,’ Esther Reed spoke of her thoughts and feelings towards this change of life. She noted that, even as a child, she had never liked the name Esther and had never felt attached to it. This made it easy for her to change her name and start a new life in a new place, with a new name, and new experiences. She was ready to create her own perfect life.

Making money

However, with a fraudulent identity under her belt, Esther could not risk getting a job and earning money the responsible way. Instead, she used her high intelligence and her manipulative mind to forge fake JCPenney receipts and used them to return items for more than they were worth in the first place. She continued to con one of the biggest stores in the US and pocketed money in the thousands. In her words, this ploy allowed her ‘to survive.’

A transformation

However, it seems Esther racked up more than enough money “survive” and then some. Over the course of the next few months, she used her money to transform herself into Natalie Fisher. She lost weight, had plastic surgery and changed everything about her that linked her to her former life. With a new look and a new life, Esther made it her mission to fit in as Natalie Fisher. She was going to live the life she always wanted.

Debate camp

Two years later, Esther found herself at a debate camp in Arizona – where she met Brandy Olson. The two women struck up a friendship, and Brandy learned even more about the woman who called herself Natalie Fisher. One of the things Brandy noticed about her friend was that she always had money to spare. This struck Brandy as rather odd, but Natalie Fisher always had an answer ready for their questions. According to ‘Natalie,’ she had won the money as a professional chess player…

A dream

As well as prominent debate camp member, Brandy Olson was also a student at Cal State Fullerton University, and Esther soon realized she had a way of achieving her dream of going to college. Using her manipulative ways, Esther used Brandy to get close to people who mattered – including John Brushke. Brushke was the debate team coach at Cal State Fullerton, and soon discovered “Natalie’s” incredible talent. In 2002, he offered “Natalie” the chance to attend the college. However, she turned up with a different name…

Welcome Natalie Bowman

By this point, Esther Reed knew that she could no longer continue to live a life as Natalie Fisher. She had received word that the real Natalie knew someone was scamming her and was out to get the person responsible. Esther couldn’t risk getting caught and knew she had to change her name. So, she became Natalie Bowman. In later interviews, John Bruske maintained that “Natalie” was always very guarded about her past – and although he was intrigued by her change of name from Natalie Fisher to Natalie Bowman, he didn’t ask too many questions.

Finding the name

But where had Esther got the inspiration to change her name to Natalie Bowman? She later confirmed in an interview that she knew she had to be smarter about choosing a name, so the person involved would not come after her. It was at this point that she discovered the power of the missing person list. She realized she could simply take the name of someone who had been missing for years, enroll at college and get on with her life.

A new best friend

As she started her new life as Natalie Bowman at Cal State Fullerton, Esther soon found herself becoming close friends with her roommate, Bita Shaghaghi. Bita was completely overpowered by Esther’s manipulation and truly believed her to be who she said she was. Nevertheless, Esther had found a true friend in Bita, and the pair bonded over the deaths of their mothers at a young age – and they were always there for each other if they needed help or advice.

A missing person

However, as Esther Reed continued to live her life as Natalie Bowman, her real family were growing concerned. They had not heard from Esther since she left all those years ago, and they were worried for her wellbeing. In fact, they didn’t even know if she was alive or dead. As their concern grew, Edna filed a missing person’s report, to see if the police could find her younger sister. Little did they know that Esther was moving onto her third identity…

Leaving college

Just a year after she enrolled at Cal State Fullerton, Esther was bored. She wanted more from her educational experience and was growing tired of the same people, professors, and teaching that was going on in her life as Natalie Bowman. So, she set her sights even higher – Esther wanted to go to Harvard. To instigate her change of life, Esther told Bita that she was being stalked, needed to leave college, and needed to change her name. Once again, Esther searched the missing person’s directory and chose the name Brooke Henson; a missing woman from South Carolina.

A recommendation

But Esther was soon to hit a problem. To get into Harvard as Brooke Henson, she would need a letter of recommendation from a current college professor. Creating more lies, Esther told Professor Mitch Avila that she was in danger and had to change her name – and asked him to write his letter with her new name. Like many before him, Professor Mitch Avila gave in to her demands. In 2004, ‘Brooke Henson’ was accepted into the Harvard extension school.

Going for gold

Throughout her time at Harvard, Esther had her sights firmly set on her childhood dream – to become a lawyer. She performed exceptionally in her lessons and was soon top of her class. However, she still wasn’t satisfied. To truly achieve her dream of standing in front of a judge and jury and arguing a case, Esther wanted to go for gold. So, she set her sights on another Ivy League school and applied to Columbia University.

Student loans

Amazingly, Esther was accepted into Columbia and was ready to put all of her hard work and energy into becoming a lawyer. However, she soon realized she had no way of paying her way – so returned to her fraudulent ways and acquired around $100,000 in illegal student loans. As she continued to filter other people’s money into her account, Esther maintained the thought that she would pay every penny back when she could. This time, Esther Reed intended to live as Brooke Henson for the rest of her life.

A day out in New York

A few months into her stint at Columbia, Esther got back in touch with her friend from Cal State Fullerton, Bita Shaghaghi and invited Bita to visit her in New York. Bita was incredibly impressed with how far ‘Brooke’ had come, and loved her new life and apartment in the Big Apple. Nevertheless, when Bita tried to take pictures of their day out and document their time together, Esther would become increasingly uncomfortable – stating that she didn’t like having her picture taken.

Back in South Carolina

Meanwhile, back in South Carolina, the real Brooke Henson’s aunt was holding a vigil for the missing youngster. Since her disappearance, the police had found no evidence of her whereabouts and were no closer to finding her. The real Brooke Henson’s family were growing increasingly worried and were using all avenues to reach out to the general public. They commissioned news reports and articles, and her name could be found with a simple search on the internet.

A background check

Unfortunately, this ease proved to be Esther’s downfall. In July 2006, Esther had run out of money and desperately needed more funds in her bank account. By this point, she had become so comfortable in her new life as Brooke Henson; she thought it would be safe to apply for jobs – just like everyone else. However, one potential employer decided to do a background check on Brooke Henson and found that she was listed as a missing person. He immediately contacted the South Carolina police department.

A couple of questions

The South Carolina Police Department then asked a detective in New York to check out the supposed ‘Brooke Henson’ and ask her a few questions that had been prepared by Brooke’s aunt. They could not believe that Brooke – who had been a high school dropout – had managed to move to New York and get into both Harvard and Columbia, and were skeptical that she was really the Brooke they were looking for. Nevertheless, Esther managed to answer all of the prepared questions correctly. She had done her research.

A photograph

The detective fed this information back to the police department and Brooke’s aunt, who could not believe Esther’s answers. However, they still weren’t convinced. In the end, a police officer showed her aunt a photograph of ‘Brooke’ – and they were able to tell, once and for all, that Esther Reed was not Brooke Henson. She was immediately deemed a suspect in Brooke’s disappearance and was asked for a DNA sample. But Esther was once again getting ready to leave…

Taking her dogs

Esther knew that the police would be hot on her tail, and that she would have to leave New York and get away. So, she rented a U-Haul truck and readied herself to pack her bags and drive somewhere new. However, as she got back to her apartment, the police were already there. She managed to get away with her dog and a suitcase but had to leave everything else behind. This would prove disastrous in her case.

48 Hours

As Esther escaped her apartment in a rush, she left behind all of her personal belongings and paperwork – including evidence that would lead back to her former lives. Before long, news of the woman who was pretending to be Brooke Henson made headlines, and the media picked up on her story. The show ‘48 Hours’ soon harbored interest, and enlisted the help of a private investigator, Steve Rambam to find Esther.

Find the evidence

As Steve went in search of Esther, he found vital clues to her whereabouts and all of the criminality she had undertaken. He was allowed unprecedented access to her apartment and her belongings and found birth certificates, credit card bills, statements and phone bills – which all led him to her friends, family, and other people who could give them more information on the conwoman. During his search, Steve also noticed that Esther often used manipulative ways to get closer to men.

The men at West Point

Steve Rambam discovered that Esther/Natalie/Brooke had had many intimate relations with men – including many military personnel from West Point. Because of this connection, Steve was concerned that Esther had been involved in espionage, and had been a spy. He believed she had been manipulating these personnel and extracting their military secrets and activities, and passing this information on. This thought was further highlighted by her instant messaging chats with the men and the international wire transfers that Esther had been involved in. Of course, this led the Secret Service to become involved in the case.

A missing link

However, with all of their new information – they were no closer to finding Esther and prosecuting her for her crimes. But in 2008, they discovered a missing link. The investigators had heard word of a car that had recently been bought in the area of Chicago, and it was their belief that Esther had bought the car. The investigators knew the license plate but had no idea where it could be. They were constantly on the lookout, but Esther Reed and her multiple identities were always one step ahead.

Tinley Park

After months of searching, investigators finally had a lead that pointed them to Esther’s whereabouts. On February 2, 2008, she was believed to be hiding in the Tinley Park area of Chicago. Unbeknownst to her, this was the worst possible place for her to be at that time – because, on that day, five women were horrifically killed in a murder-spree, and the killer had yet to be found. Because of this, the police checked cars and license plates, to see if any were from out-of-state.

Finding her car

As they continued to cruise through parking lots and check license plates, the police stumbled across a car they had almost given up hope of looking for – they had found Esther’s car. They tracked the car to a nearby apartment, and Esther was arrested. The manhunt was over. Incredibly, Esther confessed to all of her crimes and was charged with student loan fraud and identity theft. However, Esther’s lawyer doesn’t believe she is a hard-hearted criminal…

A lost soul

In fact, her defense attorney believes the woman is ‘a lost soul.’ After hours of interrogation and questioning, she is led to believe that Esther committed her crimes because of an underlying psychological disorder that has come to light because of an intense social anxiety disorder. Because Esther inherently feels that everyone is against her, she felt compelled to start a new life; whatever means necessary. However, the police officers and detectives involved deny this notion and believe her crimes were calculated and intelligently planned.

A criminal

Despite her guilty plea, Esther Reed does not think she is a criminal, like those who commit murder of bodily harm. During an interview with 20/20 ABC, Esther was asked whether she thought she was a criminal, to which she answered ‘Sure. I mean, I’m a felon.’ Although she admits she has done wrong, many people still wonder whether she was a spy. Esther denies all charges of espionage – but Walt Wilkins, a US attorney, believes there was a little more to her interactions with the military.

Enhancing her power

According to Wilkins, Esther Reed took part in the secretive rendezvous and manipulative relationships with the military personnel to try and enhance her power. As we’ve seen from her whole life, nothing was ever enough for Esther – she always wanted more. Wilkins believed she was simply looking into the possibility of espionage to try and enhance her criminal schemes and look towards different criminal avenues. Although she acted on the basic steps, there was nothing more to her James Bond ways.

Why not Esther Reed?

Over the course of her life, Esther Reed manipulated hundreds of people around her and used the names of missing persons to aid her own gain. However, as more and more people learn of her case, they all have the same question – why did she not do what she wanted to do as Esther Reed? Well, Esther maintains that she could not have gone to college, made her money or lived the life she did as Esther. She needed to build a new life, away from family, friends, and memories of a former life.

Life in prison

After she was charged with fraud and criminal activity, Esther Reed was potentially facing an incredible 47 years in prison. However, after much consideration that regarded her psychological ability and her history, her time was reduced to 51 months. She also had to pay $125,000 to many of the victims that she hurt during her lifetime. She was released on October 27, 2011. According to sources, she may have now legally changed her name.