“She’s a criminal genius,” says Jon Campbell, the South Carolina police detective who eventually exposed her trail of deceit. “She was manipulative, controlling, brilliant. We didn’t know what to make of her.” With so many unanswered questions, authorities treated Esther Reed’s disappearance as an all-out emergency, suspecting her not only of fraud but of murder and international espionage. The tabloids had a field day with this brazen girl who had conned her way into the Ivy League; front-page headlines worried over her whereabouts and wondered what dangerous secrets she might be keeping.
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. A 28-year-old high school dropout from Montana, Esther Reed just wanted to stop being Esther Reed and to embark on a new, better life of her own design. She was pursuing the American Dream, with a twist: Rather than forge a new identity from scratch, she would steal someone else’s and remake it to suit her own needs. Reed never imagined that her ill-conceived self-help program would land her on America’s Most Wanted and brand her as a threat to national security — or that for one brokenhearted family in South Carolina, the fulfillment of her hopes and dreams would mean the end of their own.