The details of her history are sketchy: an Army brat who moved around the South and Midwest with her parents and younger brother, Keester spent her high-school years in Nashua, New Hampshire. In 1999, two years after graduating from Babson College with an accounting degree, Keester claims to have suffered a stroke after taking a birth-control pill, which impacted her ability to think clearly and left her with a slight limp in her left leg. (The Phoenix has not been able to authenticate that claim.) Shortly after, she moved to Boston and, according to the Suffolk district attorney’s office, hit “every temp agency” in the metro area with a near-fictional résumé and fake references. Thanks to the privileged nature of the jobs she then landed, between 2001 and 2006, she gained access to the financial records of close to 40 metro companies. Keester’s résumé says that she graduated with honors, but her college transcripts tell a different story — a cumulative GPA of 2.0, with a 1.17 her senior year. The businesses she worked for said she couldn’t do the simplest accounting procedures, but the jobs gave her open access to employee and client addresses, Social Security numbers, birth dates, incomes, and other personal information.
While in the Boston area, Keester, whose middle name is Michelle, wreaked havoc on the lives of co-workers, landlords, neighbors, acquaintances, and people she embezzled from over the Internet. Whether swindling a Chicago business-school student searching Craigslist for a Cambridge sublet or applying for fraudulent student loans, she drafted letters, impersonated her own references, and doctored documents to dupe her victims.
From 2000 to 2003, she sought employment while receiving $1324.71 per month in disability payments. When the Social Security Administration questioned her, Keester claimed that she had been the victim of identity theft: that she was not able to work and deserved the payments, and that someone must have gotten her driver’s license when she threw it away (the stroke having claimed her ability to drive). The thief, she said, must be working under her Social Security number.
While Keester lived among her victims in Beacon Hill, she was brazen in her schemes, stealing neighbors’ checks out of her buildings’ common mailboxes and falsifying bank documents to make it seem as if she had paid rent. By the time Keester accepted her plea bargain in December 2006, the Suffolk district attorney’s Special Prosecutions Unit named her the city’s most prolific identity thief.
“Most thieves steal one way,” says then–assistant district attorney Christine Helsel. “Karen stole every way possible.”
‘A simple, honest person’
Keester’s case file, which resides in the Suffolk district attorney’s office, is larger than most murder files. Sending out more than 70 related subpoenas, recalls Durette, the district attorney’s team “literally could not keep up with her until her arrest.”
The Special Investigations Unit — composed of Durette, Helsel, and Boston Police officer Steven Blair — eventually tracked her down, but its members seem to maintain a soft spot for Keester, a woman who gave an alluringly fragile performance as a tragic hero, even after her capture.
Of all the cases to land on her desk, remembers Helsel, Keester is “definitely the most interesting.” Helsel is still astounded by Keester’s criminal productivity. “I know there are victims out there that we never found,” she says, with what sounds like a bit of admiration.