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 Sheriffs 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 Sheriffs 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 shes got a long ways to make this right again, Schofield said. Shes got to take it slow with her family, Im sure, and its 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 hes 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