The mother of A Pennsylvania woman who surfaced 11 years after disappearing and leaving behind her young children is doing OK, but "had a real traumatic time," her mother says.
Jean Copenhaver, of Brenham, Texas, spoke to The Associated Press on Thursday about 54-year-old Brenda Heist.
Heist was released from police custody on Wednesday and is staying with a brother in northern Florida for now, said Copenhaver.
Copenhaver said she had spoken with Heist several times since Friday, when her daughter 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."
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 her two children.
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."
"She's doing OK," Copenhaver said. "She's got a long way to go. She had a real traumatic time, but she's doing OK."
On Wednesday, police in central Pennsylvania recounted Heist's journey after she turned herself in.
Her disappearance began when three strangers reached out to comfort her as she cried in despair in a park in 2002, then offered to let her accompany them. She took them up on it.
Husband decared her legally dead
Heist, a car dealership bookkeeper, was going through an amicable divorce and had just been turned down for housing assistance. She left the half-done laundry, the defrosting dinner and her daughter and son, then eight and 12 years old.
"Everybody that knew Brenda told us there was absolutely no way Brenda would leave her children," said Lititz Borough police Det. John Schofield, who suspected for years she may have been killed.
"She explained to me that she just snapped," said Schofield, who met with her Monday in Florida. "She turned her back on her family, she turned her back on her friends, her co-workers."
He said she expressed shame and apologized for what she did to her family.
"She has a birth certificate and a death certificate, so she's got a long ways to make this right again," Schofield said. "She's got to take it slow with her family, I'm sure, and it's going to be a long process."
After she dropped off her children at school one day, Heist decided to join the three strangers as they hitchhiked for a month along Interstate 95 on their way to South Florida. She told Schofield she slept in tents and under bridges, survived by scavenging restaurant trash and panhandling, and kept her previous life a secret, contacting no one and using a pseudonym.
Heist told police she spent seven years living with a man in a camper and working odd jobs, but more recently she was homeless again, living in a tent facility run by a social service agency.
"She said she was at the end of her rope, she was tired of running," Schofield said.
People walking off 'not unheard of'
Heist's husband, Lee Heist, who was investigated and then cleared as a suspect, struggled to raise their children. By 2010, he was able to get the courts to declare her legally dead and collected on a life insurance policy. He has remarried.
Today, their daughter is a West Chester University sophomore, and their son recently graduated from the same college and is pursuing a career in law enforcement.
"They knew that I was there, and I loved them and would take care of them," Lee Heist told reporters.
He's angry because of the effect their mother's disappearance had on the children, but he also said he has forgiven her.
"There were people in the neighbourhood who would not allow their children to play with my children" because he had been a suspect, he said.
Both his ex-wife and their children have expressed a desire to speak with one another, but for now they are taking things slowly.
People do sometimes "walk off," only to be found years later, said J. Todd Matthews, a spokesman for the National Missing & Unidentified Persons System, a Fort Worth, Texas-based organization with a database of about 85,000 missing people.
"It's not an everyday thing. But it's not unheard of," said Matthews, adding that Heist did not strike him as a good candidate for that. She told Schofield she never had access to a computer to check if she was being sought, but she assumed people were looking for her.
"I would not have expected to see her turn up alive," Matthews said.