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Runaway Mom Missing for 11 Years Reemerges in Florida

Sondra Forrester and Brenda Heist are seen here in this undated photo. Heist vanished from her life in Pennsylvania in 2002 and reemerged on April 26 in Florida. (Courtesy Sondra Forrester)(LITITZ, Pa.) -- The mystery of what happened to Brenda Heist more than a decade ago when she disappeared after dropping off her two kids at a Pennsylvania school was cleared up when she reappeared in the Florida Keys last week.

The details of why she decided to emerge, however, remains shrouded in mystery.

Remarkably, the husband she left behind in Lititz, Pa., to wonder what happened to his wife, to fend off suspicions that he was responsible for her disappearance, and to raise two children alone has forgiven her for abandoning the family.

"He's dealing with it very well," Lititz Borough Police Detective John Schofield told ABC News. "He thought she was dead. His number-one priority is looking out for the two kids."


Their son and daughter are now 19 and 23. She is a sophomore at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, and their son has graduated high school and is applying for a police academy in New Jersey. Whether they will want to reconnect with the mother who 11 years ago dropped them off at school and never returned remains to be seen.

"He said it's going to be up to them," Schofield said. "He said they're adults now, and he's going to respect whatever decision they make."

Lee Heist could not be reached for comment.

Heist, 54, was going through a divorce with her husband in 2002 when, while distressed and crying in a park in Lititz, Pa., she told police she was approached by a trio of drifters who told her they were about to head to Florida. The mother of two, who worked as a car dealership bookkeeper, had just dropped off her kids at school when she decided to join the group, and vanished without a trace.

"She decided to go with them on a whim," Schofield told ABC News. "She told me that it was two males and female. They drove to York, Pa., with her car, parked it and abandoned it, and met up with another group, who were traveling down to Florida. It was a community down there living together."

Schofield has been working on Heist's missing person case for years. When she showed up at the Monroe County Sheriff's Office in the Florida Keys on April 26, Schofield flew to Florida and interviewed her about her experience. She told him that she was at the end of her rope, and tired of running, the officer said.

"She turned herself in to the sheriff down there on a criminal warrant that she thought was out for her under an assumed name," Schofield said. "Then she handed them a Pennsylvania ID for Brenda Heist, and told them that she was wanted in Pennsylvania."

Police quickly figured out that she was the same woman who had vanished in 2002. Her disappearance led to an extensive investigation involving local, state and federal agencies. Heist's missing person case eventually went cold, only to be reopened in 2008.

"We interviewed neighbors, friends, coworkers, family members. The one consistent thing was that they said there's no way she would have left her children," Schofield said.

In 2010, Heist was declared dead.

On Monday, Schofield met Heist in Florida, where she is now staying with her brother. She told the detective that she "just snapped" when she decided to leave Pennsylvania with the group of strangers. Heist told him that she had slept in tents and under bridges, and scavenged garbage bins for food. For seven years she had lived with a man in a camper, but for the past two years she said she had again been homeless.

But when her situation made it into the news, her story revealed added twists.

Sondra Forrester, who lives in Pensacola with her three kids, told ABC News that she met Heist in 2010 through a neighbor when she had asked if he knew anyone who could help with housekeeping. While working for Forrester, Heist told her about problems with her boyfriend, and Forrester took her in.

"We were close, she was a friend, and we did things on weekends," Forrester said. "We spent time at the beach, and fishing. She was around my three kids. She was very sweet. She called me sweetie. I felt bad for her. It sounded like she'd had a hard life. She said she was a widow, had no children, that her mother died when she was 6."

In the beginning of 2012 Forrester told Heist that she was moving in a different direction, and that she could no longer live with her. At that point, according to Forrester, Heist moved in first with Forrester's ex-husband and then with another family whose home she cleaned in Gulf Breeze, Fla.

"She lived there until very recently," Forrester said. "My ex-husband went to the house because her phone had been disconnected, and her Facebook had gone down. The gentleman at the house said he hadn't seen her in a few weeks."

What happened to Heist since then and her reemergence to authorities last Friday is not clear. Schofield said that when he met with her, her appearance was consistent with someone who had been living the homeless lifestyle, and she looked malnourished.

Heist's ex-husband, Lee Heist -- who was at one point a person of interest in her disappearance -- is now remarried and living in Montgomery County, Pa.

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