Runaway Mom Missing for 11 Years Reemerges in Florida

ABC News

Mother Believed Dead Returns 11 Years Later

Now watching

Next video starts in : 7 Play

Mother Believed Dead Returns 11 Years Later

The mystery of what happened to Brenda Heist more than a decade ago when she disappeared after dropping off her two kids at a Pennsylvania school was cleared up when she reappeared in the Florida Keys last week.

The details of why she decided to emerge, however, remain shrouded in mystery.

The husband she abandoned in Lititz, Pa., who was left to wonder what happened to his wife, fend off suspicions that he was responsible for her disappearance and raise two children alone, says he has forgiven her for leaving the family.

"[Her re-emergence] shocked me, and I'm sure it shocked everybody that knows her," Lee Heist told reporters this week.

Lititz Borough Police Det. John Schofield told ABCNews.com that Heist is coping with the news.

"He's dealing with it very well," Schofield said Thursday. "He thought she was dead. His number-one priority is looking out for the two kids."

The Heists' daughter is now a 19-year-old freshman at Montgomery County Community College, and their son, 23, recently graduated from West Chester University and is pursuing a law enforcement career.

Whether they will want to reconnect with the mother who dropped them off at school 11 years ago and never returned remains to be seen.

"He [the father] said it's going to be up to them," Schofield said. "He said they're adults now, and he's going to respect whatever decision they make."

Lee Heist told ABC News that the cloud of suspicion hovering over him all these years and its effect on his children have been difficult.

"There were people in the neighborhood who would not let their children play with my children that hurt me more than anything else," he said. "The kids are doing much better. This is a little bump in the road were going to work through it."

Heist, 54, was going through a divorce with her husband and applying for housing assistance in 2002 when, while distressed and crying in a park in Lititz, she told police, she was approached by a trio of drifters who told her they were about to head to Florida. The mother of two, who worked as a car dealership bookkeeper, had just dropped off her kids at school when she decided to join the group, and vanished without a trace.

"She decided to go with them on a whim," Schofield told ABCNews.com. "She told me that it was two males and female. They drove to York, Pa., with her car, parked it and abandoned it, and met up with another group, who were traveling down to Florida. It was a community down there living together."

Schofield has been working on Heist's missing person case for years. When she showed up at the Monroe County Sheriff's Office in the Florida Keys on April 26, Schofield flew to Florida and interviewed her about her experience. She told him that she was at the end of her rope, and tired of running, the officer said.

"She turned herself in to the sheriff down there on a criminal warrant that she thought was out for her under an assumed name," Schofield said. "Then she handed them a Pennsylvania ID for Brenda Heist, and told them that she was wanted in Pennsylvania."

Police quickly figured out that she was the same woman who had vanished in 2002. Her disappearance led to an extensive investigation involving local, state and federal agencies. Heist's missing person case eventually went cold, only to be reopened in 2008.

"We interviewed neighbors, friends, coworkers, family members. The one consistent thing was that they said there's no way she would have left her children," Schofield said.

In 2010, Heist was declared dead.

On Monday, Schofield met Heist in Florida, where she is now staying with her brother. She told the detective that she "just snapped" when she decided to leave Pennsylvania with the group of strangers. Heist told him that she had slept in tents and under bridges, and scavenged garbage bins for food. For seven years she had lived with a man in a camper, but for the past two years she said she had again been homeless.

But when her story made it into the news, her story revealed added twists.

Sondra Forrester, who lives in Pensacola with her three kids, told ABCNews.com that she met Heist in 2010 through a neighbor when she had asked if he knew anyone who could help with housekeeping. While working for Forrester, Heist told her about problems with her boyfriend, and Forrester took her in.

"We were close, she was a friend, and we did things on weekends," Forrester said Thursday. "We spent time at the beach, and fishing. She was around my three kids. She was very sweet. She called me sweetie. I felt bad for her. It sounded like she'd had a hard life. She said she was a widow, had no children, that her mother died when she was 6."

In the beginning of 2012 Forrester told Heist that she was moving in a different direction, and that she could no longer live with her. At that point, according to Forrester, Heist moved in first with Forrester's ex-husband and then with another family whose home she cleaned in Gulf Breeze, Fla.

"She lived there until very recently," Forrester said. "My ex-husband went to the house because her phone had been disconnected, and her Facebook had gone down. The gentleman at the house said he hadn't seen her in a few weeks."

What happened to Heist since then and her reemergence to authorities last Friday is not clear. Schofield said that when he met with her, her appearance was consistent with someone who had been living the homeless lifestyle, and she looked malnourished.

Heist's ex-husband, Lee Heist -- who was at one point a person of interest in her disappearance -- is now remarried and living in Montgomery County, Pa.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

View Comments (4199)

Recommended for You

  • US Veteran Says He is 'ISIS Soldier,' Calls Bin Laden 'Beautiful Man,' Officials Say

    The FBI has arrested a former member of the Army on weapons charges after he allegedly expressed sympathy for ISIS, called Osama bin Laden "a beautiful man" and said the murder of government agents was "a hundred percent obligation," according to court documents filed in a Washington state federal…

    Good Morning America32 mins ago
  • Giant Rabbit From Scotland Looking for a Home

    The Scottish SPCA center in Glasgow has a 7-month-old continental giant rabbit up for adoption. The rabbit, Atlas, is already about the size of a Westie dog and is still expected to grow, according to a Feb. 8 press release from the Scottish SPCA. Atlas is not only the same size as a dog, but…

    Good Morning America
  • Dad Tells Other Fathers, 'Respect the Mother of Your Child' in Viral Facebook Post

    A U.K. dad’s advice to fellow dads “respect the mother of your child” has gone viral after being posted in a Facebook tribute to the mother of his 9-month-old son.Tony Emms, of Cresswell Northumberland, in the U.K., posted on Facebook last month a photo of his fiancé, Charlotte Sperry, sleeping…

    Good Morning America
  • Duchess Kate Champions Mental Health in New PSA

    Duchess Kate is on a mission. The Duchess of Cambridge, 34, is speaking out in a new public service announcement (PSA) to raise awareness for Children’s Mental Health week for her mental health charity, Place2Be. The Duchess recorded a special video message to coincide with Children’s Mental…

    Good Morning America
  • 'Kung Fu Panda 3' Stays on Top at the Box Office

    "Kung Fu Panda 3" scored another box office win during Super Bowl weekend.The animated sequel earned an estimated $21 million in its second weekend of release.'Kung Fu Panda 3' Tops the Box Office'The Revenant' Tops Weekend Box OfficeThe Coen brothers' "Hail, Caesar!" opened in second place,…

    Good Morning America
  • Peyton Manning Knows What He's Doing After Super Bowl Win

    Peyton Manning kept with tradition when it came to his Super Bowl celebration plans. The Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl against the Carolina Panthers, 24-10. During a press conference after Sunday night's game, Manning said that he was "taking his kids to Disneyland" before he and his family…

    Good Morning America
  • 'Girls' Star Lena Dunham Taking Time Off for 'Chronic' Illness

    The acclaimed HBO show "Girls" is back for its final season next month, but its biggest star will not being making press appearances due to a "chronic condition."Lena Dunham took to Instagram today to write, "I just wanted to let you know that, while I am so excited for Girls to return on Feb 21, I…

    Good Morning America
  • Royal Caribbean Cruise Ship Rocked by Hurricane-Force Winds Heads Back to New Jersey

    A Royal Caribbean cruise ship that was rocked by hurricane-force winds overnight is sailing back to port in Bayonne, New Jersey. The ship left from Cape Liberty, New Jersey, on Saturday for a seven-night cruise to the Bahamas. The company posted a message on Twitter saying that all guests are…

    Good Morning America
  • White House Asks Congress for $1.8 Billion to Fight Zika Virus

    The Obama administration is requesting $1.8 billion in emergency funding from Congress to fight the Zika virus in the United States and abroad, the White House announced today. The request comes after lawmakers on Capitol Hill urged the White House to address the spread of the virus, which is…

    Good Morning America
  • Super Bowl 50: Beyonce Takes Fans Behind the Scenes of Her Performance

    Although Coldplay headlined the Super Bowl 50 halftime performance, all eyes were on Beyonce, who shared the stage with the British band along with pop star Bruno Mars.The singer, who announced her Formation World Tour right after the big game ended, is letting fans in on how her performance came…

    Good Morning America
  • Countdown to New Hampshire With 5 Things to Watch in Tuesday's Primary

    Tuesday will be a critical moment on the road to the White House as residents of the Granite State cast their votes in the first-in-the-nation primary. With independents making up more than 40 percent of the electorate, the New Hampshire primary can often surprise, and that may be the case…

    Good Morning America
  • Super Bowl 50: Peyton Manning 'Very Much at Peace'

    Peyton Manning says he’s “very much at peace” as he contemplates retirement from the NFL just hours after winning his second Super Bowl title. Manning, 39, finished 13 for 23 for 141 yards in the Broncos’ 24-10 win over the Carolina Panthers in Sunday’s Super Bowl game at California’s Levi’s…

    Good Morning America
  • Panda Cub Bei Bei Climbs a Tree With the Help of His Mom

    Bei Bei is moving up in the world.The Smithsonian National Zoo’s baby panda experienced the outdoors for the first time last week and now the nearly six-month-old cub is scaling trees—-with the help of his mom Mei Xiang, of course. The Washington DC based Zoo posted a video of the feat online this…

    Good Morning America
  • 4 Ways to Increase Your Chances of Scoring Beyonce Tour Tickets

    Minutes after Beyonce announced her 2016 Formation World Tour during Super Bowl 50, fans flooded to her website looking for more information about the tour, and temporarily crashed the site. Fans have also been tweeting in anticipation and excitement for the ticket sales to go live. Securing…

    Good Morning America
  • Paris Jackson Reveals Struggle With Alcoholism, Pressures of Fame

    Paris Jackson, the only daughter of music legend Michael Jackson, is apparently struggling with alcoholism.In a now-deleted, profanity-laced rant on Instagram, the 17-year-old told her followers that she was being attacked online."I am expected to literally sit … all day replying to comments people…

    Good Morning America
  • Russians Arrest 7 in Alleged ISIS-Related Terror Plot

    Russian security services have arrested seven people accused of plotting terror attacks on behalf of the Islamic State in major Russian cities, the country’s FSB intelligence agency said today. The arrests were made in the city of Ekaterinburg, located in the Urals region on the edge of Siberia,…

    Good Morning America
  • Chipotle Temporarily Closes Restaurants for Company-Wide Meeting

    Chipotle restaurants across the nation are temporarily closing today in an effort to educate 60,000 employees about the food-borne illnesses that have rocked the company in recent months. Food safety protocols will also be explained in the meeting. To make up for the closures, Chipotle is…

    Good Morning America