HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A woman who surfaced 11 years after disappearing and leaving behind her young children is doing OK but "had a real traumatic time," her mother said Thursday.
Brenda Heist was released from police custody on Wednesday and is staying with a brother in northern Florida for now, Jean Copenhaver, of Brenham, Texas, told The Associated Press.
Copenhaver said she had spoken with Heist several times since Friday, when her 54-year-old 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 8-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son.
She had been 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. She told police that she slept under bridges and survived by scavenging food from restaurant trash and panhandling.
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's doing OK," Copenhaver said. "She's got a long way to go. She had a real traumatic time, but she's doing OK."
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, her husband, Lee Heist, was investigated but was cleared as a suspect. He raised the children without her — one is in college, the other a recent college graduate — and got the courts to declare her legally dead. He has since remarried.