Image: W. Walter Wilkins
Patrick Collard  /  AP
U.S. Attorney W. Walter Wilkins speaks to reporters outside the federal courthouse in Greenville, S.C., after Esther Reed pleaded guilty to identity theft Tuesday.
updated 8/19/2008 3:33:41 PM ET 2008-08-19T19:33:41

A Montana woman pleaded guilty Tuesday to stealing the identity of a missing South Carolina woman to attend an Ivy League school in what her lawyer called a bid to escape a painful past.

Esther Elizabeth Reed, 30, pleaded guilty to fraud and identity theft charges in federal court in Greenville. She faces up to 47 years in prison and $1 million in fines for ID theft, mail fraud, wire fraud and loan fraud charges.

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.

Reed was indicted last year for using Brooke Henson's identity to get into Columbia University. Henson, of Travelers Rest, has been missing since 1999. Investigators do not think Reed was involved with her disappearance.

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 would not elaborate.

"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. Reed is from Townsend, Mont.

Prosecutors have said that, starting in March 2001, Reed juggled six false identities to attend California State University at Fullerton and Columbia. She 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.

In 2004, she began attending Columbia, using Henson's name to get student loans. When authorities caught up to her in New York two years later, Reed insisted she was Henson and even answered some personal family questions correctly. But she stopped cooperating and disappeared when asked to take a DNA test, according to prosecutors.

Officials tracked her down more than a year later and arrested her in February in suburban Chicago.

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