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

 

Associated Press

The teenage daughter of a woman who just revealed she abandoned her family 11 years ago said Thursday the disclosure has angered her and she is not eager to restart their relationship.

Morgan Heist, who learned last week that Brenda Heist had surfaced in the Florida Keys, said the news has made her recall with bitterness the years of mourning she endured when she assumed her mother was dead and feared she'd been killed.

"I ached every birthday, every Christmas," said 19-year-old Morgan Heist, a freshman at a community college outside Philadelphia. "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.

Brenda Heist was released from police custody on Wednesday and is staying with a brother in northern Florida for now, Copenhaver said.

Copenhaver, who lives in Brenham, Texas, said she had spoken with Heist several times since Friday, when the 54-year-old woman turned herself in to police in Florida and was identified as a missing person.

"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 and we all loved her and wanted to be with her."

Morgan Heist said she's not sympathetic, partly because her mother had a choice, unlike the family she secretly 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."

Heist told police she made a spur-of-the-moment decision in 2002 to join a group of homeless hitchhikers on their way to Florida, walking out on Morgan, then 8, and her brother, then 12.

Brenda and her husband, Lee, were living together but going through an amicable divorce when she learned she had been denied housing support, police said. She was crying about that in a Lancaster park when three strangers befriended her and offered to let her join them.

Morgan Heist said her parents had agreed to live near each other once they divorced. Brenda Heist had been a bookkeeper at a car dealership.

"It's more of a mystery than ever," her daughter said. "Her life was not hard at all."

Heist told police she made a spur-of-the-moment decision in 2002 to join a group of homeless hitchhikers on their way to Florida, walking out on her 8-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son.

She had been going through an amicable divorce when she learned she had been denied housing support, police said. She was crying about that in a Lancaster park when three strangers befriended her and offered to let her join them. She told police that she slept under bridges and survived by scavenging food from restaurant trash and panhandling.

Her mother said she has not pressed her daughter about what led her to walk away from the life she knew in Pennsylvania and then live underground for more than a decade.

"We haven't gone into that with her," Copenhaver said. "She just needs time to recover, and have some peace and that. She'll tell us when she's ready."

Heist told police she contacted them after feeling like she was at the end of her rope and tired of running.

"She's doing OK," Copenhaver said. "She's got a long way to go. She had a real traumatic time, but she's doing OK."

She said Heist was born in South Carolina, then moved as her father was transferred by the Air Force to Italy and Missouri before ending up in San Antonio, where she graduated from high school.

When she vanished, her husband, Lee Heist, was investigated but was cleared as a suspect. He raised the children without her — one is in college, the other a recent college graduate — and got the courts to declare her legally dead. He has since remarried.

Last week, Heist approached a Monroe County Sheriff’s Office deputy 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.

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.

Detective John Schofield of the Lititz Borough Police Department in Pennsylvania told KeysNet.com 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.

Her ex-husband, Lee Heist, who collected on a life insurance policy after getting the courts to declare her legally dead in 2010, said that he was angry because of the effect her disappearance had on their son and daughter. Although 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.

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 David Goodhue of KeysNet.com

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