LITITZ, Pa. - Brenda Heist disappeared after dropping her kids off at school back in February 2002, police said. Now she's turned up -- alive.
Eleven years later, Heist, 53, formerly of Lititz, Lancaster Co., has been found in Key West, Fla.
Investigators said Heist was upset about an upcoming divorce. The news of her reappearing has stunned her former husband and her family.
"Yes, it was a shock, but at the time point, too, we've already started planning to move forward," said Lee Heist.
Brenda Heist survived in Florida by joining a group of homeless people, living in tents and under bridges and by eating scraps of food, police said.
The Heist family no longer lives where Brenda left them in Lititz. They have since moved to Norristown, Montgomery Co. Lee Heist has remarried.
Lee and Brenda Heist had two children. Their son is in New Jersey. Their daughter, Morgan, lives with her dad and stepmother. She is a student at Montgomery County Community College.
Morgan was 8 when this all happened. She's now 19.
"I was 8, not a care in the world," said Morgan Heist, adding that she remembers the day like it was yesterday. "Her dropping me off at the school that day and her telling me she'd be at the grocery store. When we got home, she wouldn't be home. So we got home, assumed she was at the grocery store. Just never came back."
People thought the worst -- kidnapping, murder. But not Morgan.
"I always said I thought she left, but everyone was like, 'No. She loved you guys too much.' And finally, when I started to accept that, we get this news," said Morgan.
She found out Friday from the detective who has been working this case from the beginning.
"She left me, you know. She was selfish and she left me and my brother and my dad," said Morgan, "She got up and decided she couldn't do it anymore. That's not what you do as a mother."
That's not the mom she remembered.
"She'd take me to the library. We run home from the library, we'd race," said Morgan. "She'd help me and my friends get through stupid fights."
But the photo of her mom from Florida changed that.
"It broke my heart. That's my mom," said Morgan, who's angry. "As of right now, we're going to keep our distance. We're doing okay. I know it's heart breaking. I just put up a good front."
Morgan said her grandmother told her that Brenda said she loved her and missed her. Morgan said together with her brother, they'll decide if they'll talk to the mom who left them so long ago.
Residents in Lititz were shocked to learn of Heist's reappearance.
"And here it is, 11 years and she's alive. I don't see how in the world a mother could leave two little children behind," said one neighbor, who did not want to reveal her name.
Heist's disappearance haunted some neighbors. Every time they heard about a body being found, they thought it was Brenda's.
"She expressed remorse," said Det. Sgt. John Schofield, Lititz Police Dept. "She told me she was sorry for what she did. She felt embarrassed, ashamed, and she understands why no one is going to want to talk to her or forgive her for something like this."
While some neighbors are still angry, after all these years, others said now is the time for compassion.
"I don't like to judge people," said Mary Theresa Squirdo. "Because you never know what's going on in their lives. Everyone has their own story."
"You know, every day I drive by the house and say a little prayer and just hope for the best," said Mike Squirdo.
Police said Brenda told them that she "snapped," it was a whim, and she made a decision after thinking there was no way she could raise her children on her small salary.
Officials said it's still not certain if Heist will face charges, but she will travel to Texas to live with relatives.
Allentown, PA 18102