Pa. woman, declared dead, appears in Fla.

Brenda Heist said she traveled to Florida on a whim.
Brenda Heist said she traveled to Florida on a whim.

Brenda Heist had vanished 11 years ago. Her husband later collected life insurance.

Posted: May 02, 2013

LITITZ, Pa. - A Central Pennsylvania woman who disappeared after dropping off her children for school 11 years ago has resurfaced in Florida, telling police she traveled there on a whim with homeless hitchhikers, slept under bridges, and survived by scavenging food and panhandling, authorities said Wednesday.

Brenda Heist, 54, had been declared legally dead, Lititz Police Detective John Schofield said. The detective said that he met with her in Florida on Monday, and that she expressed shame and apologized for what she had done to her family.

The day she disappeared, dinner was defrosting inside her Lititz home and the laundry was half done.

Heist was going through an amicable divorce in 2002 when she was turned down for housing assistance, which led her to despair. She was crying in a park when two women and a man befriended her, then invited her to join them on a monthlong hitchhiking journey to South Florida, Schofield said.

Her ex-husband, Lee Heist, who collected on a life-insurance policy after getting the courts to declare her legally dead in 2010 and has remarried, said at a news conference Wednesday that he was angry because of the effect her disappearance had on their son and daughter. Lee Heist was looked at as a suspect in her disappearance, but cooperated with investigators, took a polygraph, and was eventually cleared.

He said his ex-wife and their children had expressed a desire to speak with each other, but were taking things slowly.

Her identity came to light after she turned herself in to Monroe County sheriff's deputies in Key Largo, Fla., on Friday and informed them she was a missing person. She told them she was on probation and had recently been arrested under a name different from her real name. The nature of those charges was not clear in a Monroe County Sheriff's Office report released late Wednesday.

Schofield said she was expected to be released from police custody in Florida and was likely to spend time with a brother in that state before moving in with her mother in Texas.

"She has a birth certificate and a death certificate, so she's got a long ways to make this right again," Schofield said. "She's got to take it slow with her family, I'm sure, and it's going to be a long process."

Heist had been homeless for two years, most recently living in a tent community run by a social-services agency.

"She said she was at the end of her rope. She was tired of running," Schofield said.

For about seven years she lived with a man in a camper in Key West and worked odd jobs. Schofield said she never had access to a computer and never checked to see if she was being sought, although she assumed she was.

Lee Heist said he struggled financially after his wife disappeared, quitting his job and losing his home. She had been a bookkeeper at a car dealership.

The Heists' daughter is now a 19-year-old West Chester University sophomore. Their son, 23, recently graduated from the same college and is pursuing a law enforcement career.

Lee Heist said he was unsure what would happen with regard to the life-insurance policy that paid off on his ex-wife.

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