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.
“We had feared the worst,” said Schofield, who had spent endless hours on the case and still had Heist’s missing person flier above his desk. “I truly thought I had an unsolved homicide.”
The Monroe County Sheriff’s Department put Heist in “protective custody” until Wednesday, when her mother and brother reportedly picked her up in the Keys and took her temporarily to his home in the Gainesville area.
Brenda Heist has yet to talk to the media. Her mother, Jean Copenhaver, who once said she thought her daughter was in heaven, has been supportive publicly. But her children and ex-husband are angry and not sure they ever want to see her again. Morgan, who was just a second-grader when her mother disappeared and is now a sophomore at a community college, tweeted that she hopes her mother “rots in hell.”
Judging by the picture taken by the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office deputy, Heist looks like she has been living in hell — a gaunt face with stringy blonde hair that looks like a totally different person than the brunette woman in the missing person photo.
“The hollow eyes. She looked consistent with someone living on the streets,” Schofield said.
But the puzzle gets more complicated because it appears Heist’s world only began to unravel a few months ago, when she stole the driver’s license of a Pensacola resident whose house she regularly cleaned. The client found out when she got a partially unpaid speeding ticket in the mail.
Just months earlier, she was living with Sondra Forrester, who said she knew Heist as Lovie Smith. ‘Lovie’ was living a fairly idyllic life, having morning coffee by the pool, drinking at a beach bar called Peg Leg Pete’s and working as a housekeeper for clients she solicited on Craigslist. She had a Facebook page and online dating profile. And Forrester had photos of Smith, who looked tanned and positively healthy.
The photos, published this past week, must have come as a shock to Schofield, who thought the search had devolved into looking for Heist’s remains. “The case was haunting to me,” he said. “You don’t know what happened and you think you missed something along the way. Now I find out after all that time and all that worrying that she actually was living in sunny Florida, living a happy life down there anonymously.”
According to Heist’s account to Schofield, her dash for freedom began with a trip to the park. She was going through a divorce that she requested, and had just had a difficult time looking for new housing for herself and her two kids. She ended up sitting in a park, weeping in despair.
Three strangers reached out to help and offered to let her hitchhike with them to South Florida. So she did, leaving behind two piles of sorted laundry, dishes in the sink, pork chops thawing in the refrigerator, two distraught kids and a husband who would come under suspicion for her disappearance. She also left behind four brothers, her mother and her father, who would die less than a year later with the heavy heart of not knowing what happened to his only daughter.
Heist told Schofield that after a month of hitching rides, she ended up in Key West. It’s a place where many a free spirit has come to hide from their troubles.
“The idea of Key West is the end of the rainbow, a symbol of dreams,” said Erika Biddle, a community activist who recently put together an art exhibit called “Hidden in Plain View: Faces and Stories of Homelessness.”
“Then they get hit with the harsh reality that Key West is expensive, not quite what they thought of, endless days on the beach with a joint. It’s hard. If their dreams are shattered, it’s another hit.”
Heist said she lived for the first two years on the streets, spending at least some nights at KOTS (Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter), next to the Monroe County Detention Center on Stock Island.
She would spend several more years living in a camper with a boyfriend named “Jimmy Stewart.” Schofield said they had to move when the trailer park where they kept the camper was bulldozed. During the real estate boom of the mid 2000s, developers were gobbling up trailer parks in the Keys for upscale projects.
From there, she told him she had gone to Hollywood in 2008 to 2009 and lived in a trailer park on the Seminole Indian Reservation.
At some point around 2010, she ended up in the Florida Panhandle, hooking up with Forrester’s family, and stayed in the Pensacola area until she fled abruptly after the theft of the driver’s license was discovered.
She ended up in Pinellas County, where she was stopped in Dunedin on Jan. 28 for driving a car with an expired tag. She originally gave her name as Carol Ann Dochow, who is a drug and alcohol abuse counselor in Monroe County. Dochow was contacted by Pinellas County police and told them that a Kelsie Smith had once worked for her.
Heist also had identification under the name Kelsie Smith. It got so confusing and unverifiable that the officer arrested her under the name Jane Doe, with an alias of Kelsie Smith, on misdemeanor charges of possession of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia and providing false ID.
Heist’s real identity remained a mystery. She was jailed in Pinellas, and later transferred in mid-February to the Santa Rosa County Jail for the more serious felony charge of using a stolen driver’s license. Law enforcement still thought she was Kelsie Smith.
Once she was released, Heist told Schofield she begged a nearby church for money, but instead they gave her a bus ticket. It took her to Tarpon Springs and then she apparently drove her car at least part way to Key Largo. The government center became the last stop on her years of running away from her old life, and the first stop in trying to repair all the damage she’s done to the people who loved her most.