Long-missing Pennsylvania mom surrenders in Gainesville
Published: Saturday, May 4, 2013 at 3:31 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, May 4, 2013 at 3:31 p.m.
Authorities say the Pennsylvania woman who abandoned her family 11 years ago and made national headlines last week when she showed up out of the blue in the Florida Keys has resurfaced again — in Gainesville.
Brenda Heist walked into the Alachua County jail just after 5:30 p.m. Friday to turn herself in on an outstanding arrest warrant from Santa Rosa County, just east of Pensacola.
Heist was booked into Alachua County jail under the alias Kelsie Lyanne Smith, the name that was listed on the Santa Rosa County warrant for violation of probation stemming from charges of forgery of a written instrument and providing a false name to law enforcement.
It is unclear how and why Heist ended up in Alachua County. She does not face any criminal charges here. Recent reports have speculated that Heist was living with a brother in North Florida.
Heist was declared legally dead in 2010, eight years after mysteriously disappearing from her central Pennsylvania home in 2002 upon dropping off her children for school.
Heist, who was a car dealership bookkeeper in Lititz, Pa., was going through an amicable divorce and had just been turned down for housing assistance, authorities in Pennsylvania have said. She left the half-done laundry, a defrosted dinner and her daughter and son, then 8 and 12 years old.
Fast forward 11 years to April 26, when Heist turned herself into the Monroe County Sheriff's Office in the Florida Keys, saying she was tired of running. She traveled to Florida on a whim with homeless hitchhikers, she told Monroe County authorities, slept under bridges and survived by scavenging food and panhandling.
Heist told Monroe County Deputy Jacques Rozek she may have a warrant out for her arrest in Pinellas County, according to a Monroe sheriff's news release issued May 1. When Monroe officials put her name into their database, it revealed her status as “missing and possibly deceased” from Lititz, Pa.
According to a detective from Pennsylvania who worked the case, Heist and her husband, Lee, were going through an amicable divorce when she vanished. She dropped her kids off at school and was never seen again. Her car was found abandoned days later with no signs of a struggle. Lee Heist was initially investigated in his wife's disappearance, but was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing.
Lee Heist told The Associated Press: “There were people in the neighborhood who would not allow their children to play with my children” because he had been a suspect, he said.
Brenda Heist told Monroe sheriff's authorities she was crying in a park about being denied subsidized housing amid the divorce when drifters approached her and suggested she join them.
Morgan Heist, the 19-year-old daughter of Brenda Heist, expressed frustration with her mother and told The Associated Press she thought her mom's actions were selfish.
“I ached every birthday, every Christmas,” said Morgan Heist, a freshman at a community college outside Philadelphia. “My heart just ached. I wasn't mad at her. I wanted her to be there because I thought something had happened to her. I wish I had never cried.
“She clearly did not think of me or my brother or my dad at all with that decision. She thought of herself,” Morgan Heist said.
Since news broke last week of Brenda Heist being alive and well, Lancaster online, a Pennsylvania news website, reported persons coming forward from Florida declaring that she did not live as a homeless person the entire time of her disappearance, but lived a rather comfortable lifestyle under various names, claiming she was a widow with no children. These reports have not been confirmed by The Sun.
When Brenda Heist surfaced in the Keys, she was placed in protective custody, but she was not in the custody of the Monroe County Sheriff's Office, authorities said. A Monroe sheriff's news release did not contain additional details, citing Florida laws that prevent such information from being released to the public.
Brenda Heist is currently on suicide watch in the Alachua County jail, according to sheriff's spokesman Art Forgey. Alachua County authorities will maintain custody of her until Santa Rosa County deputies are able to pick her up, Forgey said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.