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Woman missing for 11 years, and presumed dead, found in the Keys

One morning in February 2002, 43-year-old Brenda Heist dropped her two children off at school in a small town in Lancaster County, Pa.
That was the last time any of her family and friends saw or heard from her.
Until last week.
Heist approached a Monroe County Sheriff’s Office deputy Friday in Key Largo, telling him she may be wanted in Pinellas County. When the deputy ran her name, he found that she had been listed as “missing and possibly deceased,” Monroe Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Deputy Becky Herrin said.
Detective Sgt. John Schofield with the Lititz Borough Police Department told KeysNet that after taking her then 8- and 12-year-old kids to school, Heist met with a group of homeless people planning to hitchhike to Florida.
“She decided to turn her back on her family and went along with that homeless group and traveled to Florida with them,” Schofield said.
Heist’s disappearance shocked her family and friends. She and her husband were going through a divorce, “but it was going very well and plans were made with both of them to stay living near each other and raising the kids together,” Schofield said.
Pennsylvania television station WGAL News 8 reports that for the past 10 years, Heist survived by sleeping under bridges and in tents and eating discarded food from trash cans.
Schofield said that there was no indication at the time that Heist was suffering from any mental condition or was abusing drugs or alcohol.
“There was no mental health issue going on at the time that anyone was aware of. It appears that drugs had nothing to do with it and she was not dependent on drugs,” Schofield said.
Heist’s family is aware she is alive and living in 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, but he cooperated with investigators, took a polygraph and was eventually cleared.
He was able to maintain a bond with the children.
“They knew that I was there, and I loved them and would take care of them,” he said.
He said his ex-wife and their children have expressed a desire to speak with each other, but for now they are taking things slowly.
Her identity came to light after she turned herself in to Monroe County sheriff’s deputies in Key Largo 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 some 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.”
Inside her Lititz home the day she disappeared, dinner was defrosting and the laundry was half done. Police located her car in neighboring York County, but none of her personal belongings were missing.
When Schofield called recently to meet with her ex-husband and their daughter, they assumed he would be notifying them that her remains were found, the detective said.
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.
“There were people in the neighborhood who would not allow their children to play with my children” because he had been a suspect, he said.
Brenda Heist had been homeless for the past two years, most recently living in a tent community run by a social service 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.
The Heists’ daughter is now a 19-year-old West Chester University sophomore, and their son, 23, recently graduated from the same college and is pursuing a law enforcement career. The school is about 30 miles west of Philadelphia
Lee Heist said he and the children also remembered, and observed anniversaries. Her valuables were returned to her mother years ago, he said. As for the life insurance policy that paid off on his ex-wife, he said he’s unsure what will happen now.
Heist is in “protective custody” in the Keys, but no other information on her status could be released because of Florida privacy protection laws, Herrin said.
This report was supplemented with material from The Associated Press

Source: Miami Herald

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