Brenda C Heist took her two children, then aged 8 and 12, to school on the morning of February 8 2002, then vanished from her home in Lititz, Pennsylvania. Her car was found a few days later. In 2011, after years of fruitless investigation, she was declared legally dead.
Then Heist, now 54 and living as a vagrant, strolled into a police station in Key Largo, on the southern tip of Florida. She told police that she had felt under pressure due to financial problems and the divorce proceedings and had a made a sudden decision to join a group of homeless people who were travelling south.
Heist then spent a decade sleeping under bridges and in tents around the island of Key West, surviving on odd jobs and fast food scraps, before eventually deciding to turn herself in due to worsening health problems.
She now plans to live with her mother in Texas.
Heist’s daughter Morgan, now a 19 year-old college student, tweeted her disbelief at the news that her mother was still alive:
“My mother is alive.. I feel like this can’t be real..”
Saying she and her brother wanted no contact, the student’s fury at being abandoned by her mother quickly came to the fore:
“You were finally becoming less and less of a memory. Now? You’re a horrible nightmare.”
“I don’t think anyone could understand my pain for the past 11 years. But I am strong. And nothing like Brenda C Heist will tear me down.”
She later told the media that she regretted grieving for her mother during he years of her disappearance.
A former neighbour told Pennsylvania TV station WGAL Channel 8:
“I can’t believe that [Heist] would leave her two children. I just can’t, as a mother, I just can’t believe that.”
Speaking to the same station, Police Detective John Schofield added:
“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.”
Photo of Key West by Tore Sætre via Wikipedia under a Creative Commons licence