Back from the dead Lititz woman who disappeared 11 years ago reappears in Fla., where she lived homeless
The day she left A chance meeting Her new life The life she left A decade of dead ends Picking up the pieces nShe left two young children, who are now grown. Case haunted Lititz detective. BY CINDY STAUFFER, Staff Writer
Brenda Heist vanished one day in February 2002, leaving behind two children, her husband, her job and her suburban Lititz home.
Last week, Heist reappeared, a thin specter seemingly risen from the dead to family and police who never stopped searching for or thinking of her.
Heist surfaced in Florida, where she has been living for more than a decade under bridges and in tents, working day jobs, panhandling and eating food discarded from fast-food restaurants.
Heist -- now 53, fragile-looking, her skin browned by years in the Florida sun, her graying hair dyed blond -- got up Friday morning and decided to end her life living off the grid.
She turned herself into police in Key Largo, Fla.
Though she faces no criminal charges as the result of her disappearance, she does face a tangle of broken relationships, bewildered family members and children she barely recognizes.
"It was very emotional," said Detective Sgt. John Schofield, who flew down to Florida to talk to the woman whose case he has poured countless hours into solving. "She put her head down. The first thing I told her is there's a lot of people who have been looking for her for a long time. She was apologetic and ashamed."
Heist's disappearance has been solved, but the case leaves behind questions that can not be easily answered.
What prompted a woman, who was universally described as a devoted mother, to walk out on her two children, ages 8 and 12 at the time?
What made her decide, on what seems like a whim, to join a group of homeless people she unexpectedly encountered at a low point in her life?
Why did she stay away for years, staying out of contact as her children grew and graduated from high school and college, as her father and two of her brothers died and were put to rest?
"She pretty much said she just snapped," Schofield said. "She just felt there was no other choice for her to do, but just that."
Heist walked out of her Lititz home on a Friday in early February in 2002, leaving behind laundry that was sorted into neat piles and pork chops thawing in the refrigerator for a dinner that night.
Also left behind were her clothes, makeup and all of her personal belongings. She didn't take as much as a toothbrush.
It turned out that a chance meeting led Heist to make a decision that led her out of Lancaster County, and her family's lives, for the next 11 years.
Heist and her husband, Lee Heist III, were in the midst of a divorce at the time. The split was an amicable one, and the couple planned to move out of their Swarthmore Drive home in Lititz.
Heist took two days off from her job at the car dealership, where she was a bookkeeper, to find a new place for her and her two children to live.
Feeling financially pinched, she went to see if she could receive some government assistance for housing, she told Schofield, but was turned down.
Upset, she went to a nearby park, which Schofield thinks likely was Long's Park, and sat on a bench.
"She was just crying and thinking to herself how she was going to pay her bills and raise her children," he said.
Two men and a woman approached her and struck up a conversation.
"They said they were homeless, and leaving right then to go down to southern Florida," he said. "This was Feb. 8. It was a cold time. They said, 'You're more than welcome to come with us, if you want.'
"She said she made a split-second decision. ... She doesn't know why she did it. She just left."
Heist drove her car to York, where the group planned to meet with others, and abandoned it there.
The group then hitchhiked south, sleeping in tents in the trees that bordered Route 95 along the way. It took them about a month to reach Key West, where Heist ended up staying.
With its warm climate and free-spirited atmosphere, Key West has attracted a large homeless community in recent years. In 2002, a census counted more than 2,000 homeless adults and children, but the number dropped to more than 650 in a census done earlier this year, according to a story in the Key West Citizen.
Heist settled in, living in tents and under bridges for a time, congregating with others at the rear of fast-food restaurants when they discarded food.
"She would panhandle and beg for money," Schofield said, but noted Heist stayed out of trouble, off the radar of police and away from their detection.
She denied using drugs or having an addiction problem, the detective said.
For about seven years, she lived in a camper with a man she had met there, working daytime jobs where she was paid in cash for cleaning boats or homes.
"The person she lived with believed she didn't have a family," he said. "She didn't tell a soul she had a family back here."
He added, "Although she said she thought of them every day, she never acted on it, or made any attempt to contact them."
About two years ago, she moved out of the camper and said she has been staying in a homeless tent community, funded by the city of Key West.
Last week, she decided to change her life again, this time hopefully for the better.
"She was tired of running and tired of lying," Schofield said. "She pretty much came to the end of her rope."
During his talk with her, Schofield said he showed Heist recent photos of her children.
"She was very emotional," he said. "She didn't recognize them, how they have grown up so much."
Her son, Lee Heist IV, who was 12 when his mother disappeared, played wide receiver and defensive back for the Cocalico High School football team. He graduated, went to West Chester University, and is planning to enter a police academy in New Jersey, where he now lives.
Lee was always interested in police work, and Schofield said he had a feeling why that was.
"In the back of my mind, part of it was so that he could, in a perfect world, work on his mother's disappearance," Schofield said. "I asked him that the other day, and he confirmed that had something to do with it."
Heist's daughter, Morgan, who was 8 when her mother disappeared, graduated from high school in Norristown, and now is a sophomore at West Chester University.
Schofield stayed in contact with the children while he investigated their mother's disappearance. He had pizza with them, and went to see Lee play football when he was in high school.
"To their father's credit, and to their credit, they grew up to be wonderful kids," he said. "They have a lot to be proud of, both of them, right now."
Heist hopes to contact her children at some point, the detective said.
"She understands it has to be their choice at the moment," he said. "She wants to give them the respect that it will be at their choosing."
Heist's former husband later remarried and in 2009, asked the court to legally declare his former wife as deceased.
Schofield said he was surprised to get the phone call from Florida last week.
"One hundred percent, I thought she was dead somewhere and some day we would be getting the call that her remains were found, or someone confessed to having something to do with it," he said.
Police poured a ton of resources into investigating Heist's disappearance.
Police discovered that, before she disappeared, she had withdrawn money from bank accounts, and that a small amount of money was missing from an account at her workplace, a county car dealership.
Though Heist's car was found in York, near a bus station, police learned she didn't buy bus or airline tickets. Her Social Security number was never used. No credit cards were opened in her name.
Police did an aerial search, looking from Lancaster to York. They followed up on every tip, including searching a local golf course for traces of Heist.
They entered her DNA into a national law enforcement database, prompting hits on evidence, such as a baseball cap dropped by a robbery suspect in New York, and following leads as far away as Canada. All turned out to be dead ends.
Schofield kept Heist's missing person poster hanging next to his desk for the past 11 years. He kept the box with her case files open nearby.
"People for years came up and said, 'Whatever happened to that woman who went missing?' " he said.
Schofield doesn't totally understand what motivated Heist to do what she did.
"I think when she started living her life down there, selfishly, she just wanted a new start, a new beginning, and a new life," he said. "She was choosing to live that way."
And now an uncertain future awaits.
Heist's mother and one of her brothers were on their way to Florida Wednesday to pick her up, and help her start a new life. She may live with a brother, who also lives in Florida, or her mother, who lives in Texas.
"She knows," he said, "that she has a long road ahead."