In 2002, forty-three-year-old Brenda Heist and her husband Lee were going through an amicable divorce. The couple had two children, a daughter who was eight, and a twelve-year-old son. They lived in Lititz Borough, a small Lancaster…
In an effort to finance her own apartment, Brenda applied for state housing assistance. The agency denied her request. Depressed, overwhelmed, and distraught, Brenda, after driving the children to school one day in February 2002, drove to a nearby town and parked her car in a bus station lot. From there she walked to a park where she sat on a bench and cried.
Brenda did not go back to her car and drive home that day. To her family and friends, and to the local police, she became a missing person.
Four days after Brenda dropped her children off at school, police found her car parked in the bus station lot. When a mother takes her kids to school and doesn't return home, the police assume that she has been abducted. As days went by without anyone hearing from or seeing Brenda Heist, detectives began to think that she may have had been murdered. At this point the missing persons case turned into a homicide investigation. As in most missing wife cases, the suspicion in Brenda's disappearance fell on her husband.
As psychic detectives and other whack-job callers flooded the Heist missing persons investigators with false leads, homicide investigators focused on Lee Heist as their primary murder suspect. Mr. Heist had to quit his job. He ran into financial difficulties, and eventually lost his home. After several years as a suspect in his wife's disappearance and murder, investigators, after a series of polygraph tests, cleared Lee Heist of wrongdoing in the case. His wife remained missing, however, and was presumed dead.
In 2008, the Lancaster County Major Crimes Unit began investigating the Brenda Heist disappearance as a cold-case murder. Two years later, Lee Heist petitioned a Lancaster County Court to declare his wife legally dead. With Brenda officially declared "missing and possibly deceased", Mr. Heist was able to marry another woman.
As it turned out, while Lee Heist was put through hell as a suspect in his wife's murder, Brenda was alive in south Florida. On the day of her disappearance, she was approached by two men and a woman who saw her crying on the park bench. After she related her tale of woe, they invited her to join them on a hitchhiking trip to Florida. She accepted their offer.
Brenda Heist spent her first two years in Key Largo, Florida living under bridges and eating restaurant garbage. She entered a new phase in her life when she moved into a camp trailer with a man she met on the street. For the next seven years Brenda lived with this man in Key West. They both worked as day laborers cleaning boats and doing odd jobs for cash.
In 2011, after her relationship with her trailer roommate soured, Brenda was back on the street. She worked odd jobs and hung out on the beach. In December 2012, under her alias Kelsie Lyanne Smith, Brenda got a job as a live-in housekeeper for a family in Tampa Bay. (According to her employer she had good references.)
A few months after landing the housekeepers job, a police pulled Brenda over for driving with an expired license plate. The officer found drugs in her car. She served two months in Pensacola County Jail on the drug possession offense. Following her release from jail, she spent a few weeks behind bars in Santa Rosa County on an identify theft charge. At one point she lived in a tent community run by a Florida social service agency.
On Friday, April 26, 2013, Brenda Heist surrendered herself to the Monroe County Sheriff's Office. Thinking that there were warrants for her arrest out of Pinellas County, the 54-yar-old told the Monroe County deputies that she was at the end of her rope, and tired of running. She informed the officers that eleven years ago she had walked out on her family in Lititz Borough, Pennsylvania.
The Florida authorities called Lititz Borough Sergeant John Schofield with the news that Brenda Heist was not dead, and no longer missing. Her children, now college students, still had a mother.
On May 3, 2013, Brenda was sent back to the Santa Rosa County Jail on various theft related charges. Morgan Heist, her 19-year-old daughter, has told reporters that she has no interest in reuniting with her mother.
On June 11, 2013 a judge in Pensacola, Florida sentenced Heist, known in the Santa Rose court system as Kelsie Smith, to one year in jail in connection a probation violation. She pleaded no contest to failing to check in with authorities after leaving the Pensacola area following her release from jail in April. She'd been on probation for using someone else's identification during a traffic stop.