They Were Who They Weren’t: 6 Audacious Impostors


Throughout history, people have changed their identities and become someone completely different. Sometimes it was to avoid consequences in their previous lives, and sometimes it was to be something grander than they were. I wrote about the most famous impostors several years ago in the post We Love Who They Aren't: 7 Famous Impostors. Here are a few more stories of fake identities I’ve come across since then.

1. Esther Reed

In 1999, a 20-year-old woman named Brooke Henson disappeared from her family home in Travelers Rest, South Carolina, and was never seen again. In the same year, 22-year-old Esther Reed left her home in Washington state and never wanted to be seen again. She fled after pleading guilty to stealing her sister’s checkbook. Reed took the name of Natalie Fisher, got her GED, and took classes at Cal State. She later became Natalie Bowman and enrolled in Harvard Extension School, where she joined the debate team. At some point after leaving Harvard, she was investigated by the US military when she tried to get a certificate from the Army's Assault School. That was the last of Natalie Bowman. Reed then took on the identity of Brooke Henson, whose case was still open as a missing person. Reed enrolled at Columbia University as Brooke Henson in 2004. An employment background check in 2006 led to the missing person case from Travelers Rest. Ordered to take a DNA test, Reed flew the coop once again. She went to Chicago and took the name Jennifer Myers.

Jon Campbell, the detective in charge of Henson’s case, suspected she had been murdered, but no body was ever found. So he began to pursue the fake Brooke Henson. Through talking to everyone who knew Bowman/Henson, Campbell discovered that she may have been Esther Reed from Seattle. Reed’s family was astonished to hear from the detective; they thought Esther had been murdered by the Green River Killer soon after she disappeared. Reed was put on the Secret Service’s Most Wanted List for identity theft and receiving nearly $100,000 in fraudulent student loans. Reed was finally found in Chicago in 2008, during a police sweep in an unrelated murder case. When police asked for identification, she presented a phony license, but then broke down and admitted she was Esther Reed. Reed pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years in federal prison. 

2. George Psalmanazar

We don’t know much about the real George Psalmanazar, but he was believed to have been born in France between 1679 and 1684 under some now-lost name. In order to travel to Rome on the cheap, he decided to take on the identity of an Irish pilgrim. That didn’t work, because people in Europe knew about Ireland and saw through his tales. So he came up with something much more exotic: He became a native of Japan, complete with odd customs that he’d read about, but had little basis in reality, like sleeping in a chair and eating raw meat. As he traveled Europe over the course of several years, he eventually switched to being a native of Formosa (now Taiwan). He made up a language that no one knew, which fooled most everyone he met. A Scottish priest converted the heathen from Formosa and took the newly-named George Psalmanazar to London, where he became quite famous.

In 1704 he published a book on Formosa, its history, language, and customs, which were made up by Psalmanazar. An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa tells of a land where people eat mainly snakes and young boys are sacrificed, and the upper classes lived underground -which explained Psalmanazar’s pale skin. There were always some who questioned his story, and Psalmanazar admitted the hoax in 1706. He paid no real consequences for the fabrications. 

3. Prince Mike Romanoff

Herschel Geguzin was born in Lithuania, but he eventually became Prince Michael Alexandrovitch Dmitry Obolensky Romanoff, the toast of Hollywood. His extensive travels, friendships, and brushes with the law left him with enough experiences to pull the wool over the eyes of many wealthy Americans. However, many saw through him or found out about his masquerade, and didn't mind because he was so entertaining! Eventually Romanov went legit and opened a restaurant in Beverly Hills that catered to his famous friends, many of whom invested in the business. How Romanoff achieved such acclaim is a fascinating story. The short version is that everyone loved to be the friend of a prince.

4. Šćepan Mali

In 1767, a Balkan farmer managed to convinced the authorities in Montenegro and in other countries of Europe that he was Tsar Peter III of Russia, who had been murdered in 1762. Šćepan Mali took advantage of rumors that the Tsar had fled Russia incognito and traveled to Montenegro. Šćepan Mali (Stephen the Small) was also new in town, so why not? He became the leader of Montenegro in 1768, and ruled with an iron hand. Montenegro under Šćepan managed to ward off the Ottoman army, which cemented the leader’s reputation.

Russian diplomat Prince Geogriy Dolgorukov, who knew the man was an impostor, went to Montenegro to discredit him, by force if necessary. But when it became evident that Šćepan had managed to unite the various tribes of Montenegro under his leadership, Dolgorukov dropped his campaign. Šćepan then himself admitted that he was indeed not the late Tsar, but by then he was so respected that the people of Montenegro proclaimed him Tsar Šćepan I. The Tsar was murdered in 1773 on the orders of the Turkish pasha. After Stephen the Small was gone, the tribes of Montenegro began fighting amongst themselves again.

5. Lori Kennedy Ruff

When Lori Ruff died in 2010, her husband Blake opened a strongbox she kept and was astonished to find evidence inside that his wife of seven years was not who he thought she was. She had told him her parents were dead, and that her childhood photos had been destroyed. Blake Ruff and Lori Kennedy married in 2003 and had a daughter in 2008. Lori never wanted to be close to Blake’s family, and tensions between the two led to a split in 2010. Lori became unglued, and stalked her husband at his parents’ home. On Christmas Eve, she shot herself in her car, parked outside the elder Ruffs' home.

The strongbox held a document that said Lori had changed her name from Becky Sue Turner in 1988. However, an investigation found that the real Becky Sue Turner had died at the age of two. Her identity had been stolen in Idaho. The Blake family wanted to know more, for the sake of Blake’s daughter, but ran into dead ends everywhere they looked. There are no fingerprints, no genetic matches, and no information on the woman who became Becky Sue Turner in 1988.

6. Lennay Kekua

Lennay Kekua was a student at Stanford University when she met Notre Dame football player Manti Te'o sometime in 2009. The story Te’o told the press was that they met after Notre Dame played Stanford, but later admitted that he had met Kekua on Twitter in 2010. He had made up a story about meeting her in person because his family would be suspicious of an online-only relationship. The two fell in love, and corresponded by email, social networking, and by phone while Te’o became a star at Notre Dame. The press ate up the story, especially when Kekua was hospitalized after a traffic accident in 2012. While she was in the hospital, she was diagnosed with leukemia. In September of 2012, both Kekua and Te’o’s grandmother died, either on the same day or within 48 hours of each other. Te’o did not go to Kekua’s funeral ten days later because she did not want him to miss any football games. As one of the finalists for the Heisman Trophy, Te’o’s story of heartbreak amid his sports triumphs was covered diligently in the press. But in January of 2013, it all fell apart.

Photograph from Bandido.

Deadspin, acting on a tip, began to look into Lennay Kekua’s life and death, and found nothing. There was no official record of her as a Stanford student, as an accident victim, as a cancer patient, or even her death. The pictures of Kekua from her Twitter account were traced to another woman, Diane O'Meara, who had no idea they were being used for another online account. However, she pointed Deadspin toward an acquaintance who requested a picture of her holding a handmade sign -his name was Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. Tuiasosopo was also an acquaintance of Te’o. As the evidence mounted, it became clear that Tuiasosopo was the man behind the Lennay Kekua Twitter account.

Getty Images

After Deadspin went public with their findings on January 16, 2013, Notre Dame and the rest of the world wondered if Te’o had engineered the deception. Te’o declared that he had been the victim of the hoax. He said Tuiasosopo, who he only knew as Kekua’s cousin, had admitted he was behind the hoax.

Many wondered how someone could be duped so thoroughly. Manti Te’o was a young man, away from home and family for the first time. He is not the only person to fall for someone on the internet who was not who they say they are -but as a star football player, his ordeal was publicized more than most. Te’o has since gone on to play with the San Diego Chargers. And another generation of young people are leaving home and family and meeting people on the internet.

See also: We Love Who They Aren't: 7 Famous Impostors.