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Family Of Runaway Mom Found In Keys Speaks Out

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Brenda Heist (Source: Lititz Police Department)

Brenda Heist (Source: Lititz Police Department)

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South Florida Crime

MIAMI (CBSMiami/AP) — There is plenty of anger from the family of a Pennsylvania woman who disappeared 11 years ago only to show up this week in the Florida Keys.

After learning her mother was really alive all of these years, 19-year-old Morgan Heist, a freshman at a community college outside Philadelphia, said the revelation that her mother abandoned her family angered her and she is not eager to restart their relationship.

Morgan, who learned last week that Brenda Heist had surfaced in the Florida Keys, said the news has made her recall with bitterness the years of mourning she endured when she assumed her mother was dead and feared she’d been killed.

“I ached every birthday, every Christmas,” said Morgan. “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.”

Brenda’s ex-husband told CNN’s Piers Morgan he’s not sure he wants to see her.

“At this point, I don’t see where it would do any good for either of us to see her again,” said her ex-husband.

Brenda walked out on her family in Pennsylvania more than a decade ago and fled to the Keys with a group of homeless people she’d met in a park. She survived the years on odd jobs, living under bridges, and eating out of the trash. Finally, she decided enough.

Brenda Heist’s mother, Jean Copenhaver, said Thursday that her daughter “had a real traumatic time” but was doing OK.

Copenhaver said Brenda is staying with a brother in northern Florida for now.

Copenhaver, who lives in Brenham, Texas, said she had spoken with Heist several times since Friday, when the 54-year-old woman turned herself in to police in Florida and was identified as a missing person.

“She just said she thought the family wouldn’t want to talk to her because of her leaving,” Copenhaver said. “And we all assured her that wasn’t the case and we all loved her and wanted to be with her.”

Morgan Heist said she’s not sympathetic, partly because her mother had a choice, unlike the family she secretly abandoned.

“It’s definitely very selfish,” Morgan Heist said. “She clearly did not think of me or my brother or my dad at all with that decision. She thought of herself.”

Heist told police she made a spur-of-the-moment decision in 2002 to join a group of homeless hitchhikers on their way to Florida, walking out on Morgan, then 8, and her brother, then 12.

Brenda and her husband, Lee, were living together but going through an amicable divorce when she learned she had been denied housing support, police said. She was crying about that in a Lancaster park when three strangers befriended her and offered to let her join them.

Morgan Heist said her parents had agreed to live near each other once they divorced. Brenda Heist had been a bookkeeper at a car dealership.

“It’s more of a mystery than ever,” her daughter said. “Her life was not hard at all.”

Brenda Heist told police she slept under bridges and survived at times by scavenging food from restaurant trash and panhandling. But Lititz Police Detective John Schofield said Thursday he is looking into reports that have come in over the past day suggesting Brenda Heist’s time in Florida included much less miserable periods.

“We’re getting several calls from people down in Florida that knew her who want to say she’s not being truthful with us,” Schofield said.

Heist told a detective with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office that she had recently been arrested in the Tampa Bay area and might be in violation of probation. She told the detective she used the name Kelsie Lyanne Smith and provided a date of birth.

Jail and court records show Kelsie Lyanne Smith, with a matching birth date, was arrested in January on misdemeanor charges of marijuana possession, possession of drug paraphernalia and providing false identification to law enforcement. After pleading guilty, Smith was sentenced to time served and was released on Feb. 13. She was also ordered to pay court costs but failed to do so and was found delinquent on April 15.

Copenhaver said she has not pressed her daughter about what led her to walk away from the life she knew in Pennsylvania and then live underground for more than a decade.

“We haven’t gone into that with her,” Copenhaver said. “She just needs time to recover, and have some peace and that. She’ll tell us when she’s ready.”

Heist told police she contacted them after feeling like she was at the end of her rope and tired of running.

She said Heist was born in South Carolina, then moved as her father was transferred by the Air Force to Italy and Missouri before ending up in San Antonio, where she graduated from high school.

When she vanished, Lee Heist was investigated but was cleared as a suspect. He raised the children without Brenda and got the courts to declare her legally dead. He has since remarried.

(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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