A con artist accused of stealing a missing South Carolina woman’s identity to get into an Ivy League school pleaded guilty to fraud and identity theft charges Tuesday.
Esther Elizabeth Reed, 30, who had been attending Columbia University in New York City for two years under Brooke Henson’s identity, admitted to the ruse in a federal court Tuesday in Greenville. She faces up to 47 years in prison and $ 1million in fines for aggravated identity theft, mail fraud, wire fraud and loan fraud charges.
U.S. Attorney W. Walter Wilkins told FOXNews.com that he was "satisfied with Reed's guilty plea to the four counts of the suspended federal indictment."
Reed's lawyer Ann Marie Fitz said that her client wanted to apologize in court for her scheme, but that request was denied. U.S. District Judge Henry M. Herlong said it should wait for sentencing. A date for that was not set, but Wilkins said it could be within the next 45 days.
After the hearing, Fitz said her client wanted to tell Henson's family she was sorry for getting their hopes up when she was discovered in New York. The lawyer said Reed stole identities to shed a painful past, but she would not go into details.
"It was more of a way of life for her. It was surviving her life. It was trying to move past Esther Reed and who she was in reality," Fitz said.
Indeed, a report in The New York Post paints Reed as a woman with a deeply troubled past, whose problems reportedly began when her parents divorced and she decided to drop out of school.
"She was never happy with who she was. She had a weight problem and she hated herself," Jim Therriault, Reed's former teacher told the Post.
But Brook Henson, who disappeared from her hometown of Traveler’s Rest, S.C. on July 4, 1999, was not the first alias that Reed had used. According to America’s Most Wanted, Reed has traveled all over the United States since 2001 under at least six different names, including Liz Reed, Natalie Bowman and Natalie Fisher.
According to Investigator Clark Brazier of the Traveler's Rest police department, Reed has never run up any debt while using Henson's identity, but instead used it to obtain money from the federal government in student loans and to attend different schools, including Harvard University and California State University at Fullerton.
Prior to her arrest last year, Reed, who was raised in Montana, had not been seen by her family since 1999 in Kent, Washington. At the time, she had pleaded guilty to stealing a co-worker’s purse when she disappeared from a local police station, America's Most Wanted said.
According to The New York Post, Reed went to extreme measures to drastically change her look, undergoing plastic surgery procedures and losing a substantial amount of weight.
She also concocted various stories about herself, including that she earned her living as a chess champion and had to change her name because she was in a witness protection program.
Reed’s scam reportedly began to unravel in 2006, when she applied for a job as a housekeeper for a couple in New York under Henson’s name, Brazier told FOXNews.com
"Her employer did a Google search for Henson's name, only to discover a missing-person’s Web site created by Henson’s family," Brazier said.
The employer then contacted police in South Carolina, who in turn reached out to New York police.
When authorities caught up to Reed in New York on the Columbia University campus, she insisted she was Henson.
"She was very friendly and told them that she was Brooke and had been estranged from her family in South Carolina," Brazier said. "They called us and said we could close our case on Henson, but we were skeptical because we believe that [Henson] is most likely dead."
Traveler's Rest police requested that she be brought in for an interview to determine her true identity. Reed complied and even answered most of the questions about Henson's life correctly, Brazier said.
Still skeptical of her story, Traveler's Rest police asked for DNA testing.
"She agreed, but said she couldn't make it that day. Because she was very polite, the complied with her request to come back the next morning," Brazier said.
But Reed never showed up for the appointment, and disappeared once again.
Officials tracked her down more than a year later and arrested her in February in suburban Chicago.
In a note posted on a Web site dedicated to her, Reed's family begged her to contact them and assure them that she was ok.
“You may choose a life that doesn't include us, but you will always be part of us,” the site reads. “We've wondered for 7 plus years if you were alive and okay. Now we at least know that you are alive, but are you okay?”
According to America's Most Wanted, Henson’s family claimed to have been victimized twice, first when Brooke disappeared and again when they learned that someone had been living under her identity.
Investigators do not think that Reed had anything to do with Henson’s disappearance.
FOXNews.com's Allison McGevna and The Associated Press contributed to this report.