KEY WEST -- To the homeless who frequent Key West’s soup kitchen, beaches and makeshift campsites, drifters on the run from spouses, lovers, jobs, bills, bosses, cold, cops, kids, creditors and what-have-you, runaway mom Brenda Heist is the woman they kinda, sorta recognize.
But not really.
“I think that’s ‘Molly,’” said one bikini-clad woman, having scanned a photo of Heist. “But she hasn’t been around here for a long time.”
“King David” Hall, a lanky vet with an eye patch, thought he knew her: “She was under the Cow Key Bridge drinking, and I saw her at bus stops. I don’t remember her name — but nobody here uses their real one.”
And so it went this past week at various homeless hangouts in this transient, tourist town. It seems that Heist, 54, is as much of an enigma to the homeless here as she is to the husband and two children she abandoned without warning or explanation 11 years ago in Lititz, Pa. Her family assumed something terrible had happened to her — the ex had her declared deceased and collected on an insurance policy — until learning nine days ago that she was alive at the Monroe County Sheriff’s office in Key Largo.
She hadn’t been abducted. She said she had been living on and off in Key West, either on the streets or in a camper in a trailer park.
Last week, the story of her reappearance after more than a decade made international headlines, raising eyebrows coast to coast — including Key West, where she had supposedly lived on society’s ragged margins.
“In Key West,” explained a shirtless man named Duke, “You can be hidden in plain sight.”
There are more questions than answers to why Heist, by all accounts a great mom who dearly loved her two kids and was going through an amicable divorce with her husband, decided on Feb. 8, 2002, to leave without a word to anybody.
And there are still more questions than answers about how Heist lived her life the past 11 years. As the pieces of the complex puzzle come out, it has become clear that not all of her time was spent on the streets, sleeping under bridges, scavenging restaurant trash and panhandling, despite what she subsequently told Pennsylvania Detective Sgt. John Schofield during a tearful account.
“I’m finding she only told me the half-truth,” Schofield said. “The picture she painted was harder than it really was.”
What is known is that Heist got out of the Santa Rosa County Jail on April 18 after serving two months on a felony charge of using a stolen driver’s license. She then reportedly took a bus to Tarpon Springs, and walked 15 miles to the place she had been living when she was initially arrested. She retrieved her meager belongings and her 1991 red Chevy and headed south.
On April 26, she showed up at the Murray Nelson Government Center in Key Largo at the start of the island chain, some 100 miles from Key West. She told Monroe County Deputy Jacques Rozek that she was on probation under an alias, Kelsie Smith, and wanted to turn herself in. He entered her expired Pennsylvania driver’s license into the system and discovered she was possibly a missing person.
It was soon confirmed, and Schofield, who had led the missing person investigation from the beginning, gave the news in person to Heist’s now 19-year-old daughter, Morgan, and Heist’s now ex-husband, Lee. Both were stunned.