Pennsylvania woman declared legally dead in 2010 found alive in Florida

Published On: May 01 2013 10:34:29 AM HST   Updated On: May 01 2013 10:47:46 AM HST

5.1 Brenda Heist

Photos: Missing woman declared dead turns up alive

LITITZ, Pa. -- A Lititz woman who disappeared in 2002 and was declared legally dead in 2010 has been found alive in Florida, according to police.

Video: Neighbor can't believe it

Brenda Heist, 53, was reported missing by her husband, Lee, on Feb. 8, 2002, and had been last seen that morning dropping off her two children at school, police said. Heist's car was found a few days later with no apparent sign of a struggle. 

Brenda Heist before her disappearance. Investigators said they received a call on Friday evening that Heist had turned herself in at the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office in Key Largo. A Lititz Borough detective interviewed Heist in Florida and learned that she had left town to join a group of homeless people who were hitch hiking to Florida, police said.

In Florida, Heist mostly lived as a homeless person, sleeping under bridges and tents, sometimes in a trailer, and eating food that was thrown out at fast food restaurants, police said. She sometimes worked odd jobs cleaning boats.

When she disappeared, Heist's daughter was 8 and her son was 12. Her son recently graduated from West Chester University and is applying to a police academy in New Jersey. Her daughter is a sophomore at West Chester University.

Local, state and federal authorities spent months investigating Heist's disappearance, interviewing dozens of relatives, friends, neighbors and co-workers. She was entered into several national missing persons databases. She is now being held in protective custody in the Keys.

Many ask why

There are two whys being asked in connection with this story – why did Heist leave in 2002 and why did she turn herself in last week in Key Largo, Fla.

As for why she left, Lititz police said Heist told them that she was in the middle of a divorce and that she was also struggling financially. She said the pressure was just too much and she snapped. That was when she decided to leave town with a group of homeless people that she met at a park.

Police spent years trying to solve the case. After several years, detectives from across Lancaster County even conducted a cold case investigation. They and others do feel some anger.

"I can't believe that she would leave her two children," said former neighbor Arlene Bingeman. "I just can't, as a mother, I just can't believe that."

Lititz Police Detective John Schofield said Heist did express some regret.

"She said she thought of her family and her children every day, and her parents. However, she never acted on that and never made any phone calls – not one," Schoefield said.

As for why Heist decided to turn herself in, police said she told them that she was at the end of her rope and that she was having health problems.

News 8 is learning more about this story. Refresh the page for updates and watch News 8 starting at 5 p.m. for the latest.

You may also be interested in: The FBI's missing, kidnapped list


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