“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.