Instead, they said they had found Brenda Heist alive - living under an assumed name in Florida.
The last several days have been a whirlwind for Lee Heist and his two children, now 19 and 23, as details emerge of his ex-wife's life on the run. Brenda Heist left town on a whim, she told police, after being denied housing assistance while the couple were going through an amicable divorce in 2002.
While crying in a Lancaster park, "thinking about how tough it's going to be to raise kids on her salary," she met three homeless people who invited her to hitchhike with them to the Florida Keys, Lititz Detective John Schofield said.
The decision took a split-second. The journey took a month. Brenda Heist and her companions slept in tents on the side of I-95 at night and thumbed rides by day, eventually arriving in Key West, 1,350 miles away.
She begged for food behind restaurants and lived on the streets for two years before moving in with another man in a trailer, Schofield said. She did odd jobs, cleaned boats, and moved in and out of the trailer until the relationship became abusive and she went back on the streets, Schofield said.
From there, the details get fuzzy. Brenda Heist told police she had been homeless for an additional two years; the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal-New Era reported Thursday that she began cleaning houses under an assumed name, Lovie Smith, sometimes living in the homes where she worked.
By last week, Brenda Heist had grown tired of living a lie. She went to a sheriff's department and turned herself in as a missing person.
It was a development Schofield never expected.
"All those hundreds and hundreds of hours of investigation, the dozens of detectives that helped me all this time, and she's living down in sunny Florida," he said Thursday. Brenda Heist's photograph was tacked to the bulletin board above his desk.
Lee Heist said his children, who were 8 and 12 when their mother disappeared, have been struggling to come to terms with her reappearance. His son is a West Chester University graduate looking to go into law enforcement; his daughter is a student at Montgomery County Community College.
"I'm very proud of them - they've done so well with what they went through," he said. He said he was not bitter about his ex-wife's disappearance - "just confused."
What's next for Brenda Heist is unclear. She was released from custody Wednesday and "has some things to clear up" related to false identification in Florida, Schofield said. She faces no charges in Pennsylvania and will likely stay with her mother in Texas, Schofield said.
Lee Heist said he was not sure if meeting Brenda "will do either of us any good." But he said he would pay for his children to travel to see their mother for the first time in 11 years - if they want to, he said.
"Regardless of whatever she's done, I hope she gets better. I hope she makes peace," he said. "I hope this is the end of the movie."
'I Wish I Had Never Cried'
Morgan Heist, 19, who learned last week that her mother, Brenda, had surfaced in Florida after 11 years, said the news had made her recall the years of mourning when she assumed her mother was dead and she feared she had been killed.
"I ached every birthday, every Christmas," said Morgan Heist, a freshman at Montgomery County Community College. "My heart just ached. I wasn't mad at her. I wanted her to be there because I thought something had happened to her. I wish I had never cried."
Brenda Heist's mother, Jean Copenhaver, said Thursday that her daughter "had a real traumatic time" but was doing OK.
"She just said she thought the family wouldn't want to talk to her because of her leaving," Copenhaver said. "And we all assured her that wasn't the case."
Morgan Heist said she was not sympathetic, partly because her mother had a choice, unlike the family she abandoned.
"It's definitely very selfish," Morgan Heist said. "She clearly did not think of me or my brother or my dad at all with that decision. She thought of herself."
- Associated Press
Contact Aubrey Whelan at 610-313-8112, at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @aubreyjwhelan.
This article contains information from the Associated Press.