SANTA ROSA COUNTY, Fla. (WKRG) — A mother of two from Pennsylvania seems to vanish out of thin air. 11 years later the family gets a call they never expected. This is the story of Brenda Heist.
WKRG News 5 is looking back at the crimes that shocked the Gulf Coast. Brenda Heist’s story is the seventeenth in the series.
It was the morning of Feb. 8, 2002. Brenda Heist, a mother to a 12-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter, had just dropped her kids off at school. At the time Brenda went missing, she and her husband, Lee Heist, were going through a divorce. According to a website made to help find Brenda, she had taken a few days off from her job to look at housing complexes.
When the kids got home from school that day, they realized the house was empty and their mom was nowhere to be found. Dinner had been set out to defrost and the laundry was half done. The kids called their dad who then called the police to file a missing person report. Four days after the report was filed Brenda’s car was found in a parking lot near a bus station in a neighboring county.
Over the years Lee was one of the suspects in the case, however, he passed a polygraph test and was ultimately cleared. At one point a cold case unit was created to investigate the case. In 2011, Lee had Brenda declared legally dead.
In April 2013, the family got a call they were never expecting to get – Brenda had been found alive. According to reports, Brenda went to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and turned herself in on some outstanding warrants. She then informed deputies that she was a missing person. Deputies said she told them she was “tired of running.”
She had spent most of the time living in a trailer with a man and doing odd jobs like cleaning homes. For the last two years she was in Florida she lived in a homeless shelter where she said she had to scavenge for food.
During the 11 years she had been missing she had used a fake name and, under that name, she had warrants out for many crimes. Brenda told detectives she had gone to a park on that February day to relieve some stress. While sitting on a bench crying, two women and a man befriended her and convinced her to join them while they were going to hitchhike to Florida. She decided to go and parked her car in the parking lot near the bus station.
Although Brenda was home safe, her family was angry. Her ex-husband said their children were not interested in talking with her. Because he was viewed as a possible suspect, people would not let their children be friends with his friends. It is unknown now if the family members have reunited.
Brenda was eventually put in jail for probation violations out of the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office. Her alias, Kelsie Smith, is still listed as Brenda’s name in the Santa Rosa County jail log.