HARRISBURG, Pa. (CNN) — The tale of Brenda Heist, the Pennsylvania mother who abandoned her two children only to turn up in Florida 11 years later, has taken another unlikely turn.
Heist may not have spent most of those 11 years homeless, as she told police last week when she turned herself in, saying she’d abandoned her family because of stress.
Sondra Forrester says she knew Heist in 2010. At that time, Heist cleaned her Florida home and went by the name Lovey Smith.
“She actually moved in with me, moved in with me about six months after she started cleaning the house,” Forrester told CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” on Friday.
Heist first came into her life through a neighbor, who recommended her when Forrester was looking for a housekeeper.
The neighbor had used her as a babysitter and spoke highly of her, she said.
At first, the two women shared small talk, but little more on Heist’s weekly visit to clean.
But over time their conversations took on a different, more personal tone.
“She told me that she had a bad relationship with her boyfriend and I started to kind of feel bad for her,” Forrester said. “She described it as sort of an abusive situation, saying that he was maybe an alcoholic and I just let her know that my door was always open for her. I felt bad for her.”
Forrester asked more questions about Heist’s past when she moved into the house, “but not a whole lot. But when I did ask, she made it clear that she never had kids and she didn’t want any.”
Heist also claimed to be a widow.
“She said she had been married for, like, 20 years to a man named Lee and he had worked for the Marriott and they had traveled around and visited amazing places and he had died,” Forrester said.
After she moved in, bringing some belongings with her, Heist lived with her for 10 or 11 months.
She used the computer and cell phone, had a Facebook page and was on an internet dating site, Forrester said. “She had friends outside of me.”
Heist’s appearance then was nothing like the worn-down face shown in pictures taken after she turned herself in last week to authorities in Key Largo, Florida.
“I was absolutely shocked when I saw that photo,” Forrester said. “She has deteriorated significantly since the last time she was seen around here, which was, you know, the middle of 2012, the end of 2012. That’s not been very long, you know, seven months or so.”
She never suspected Heist of using drugs, Forrester said — or she would not have allowed her near her family.
Another twist in the tale is that Heist had revealed her true last name to Forrester’s son, with whom she became close while living in the family home.
He was around the same age as Heist’s own son was when she abandoned her Pennsylvania family nearly a decade earlier.
Forrester had taken her son aside to tell him the truth about the woman he knew as “Miss Lovey,” so that he wouldn’t learn about it on the news. But he told her he already knew her last name was Heist.
“I was stunned that he knew that. But for a little boy, that’s kind of a cool last name. I said, honey, how did you know that? ‘Miss Lovey told me.’ “
No family reunion
But while Heist was making friends and living an apparently normal life in Florida, the husband, son and daughter she’d left behind in 2002 continued to wonder if something terrible had happened to her.
Police searched for her for years, at one point creating a cold case task force. Her family remain angry over the pain her disappearance caused.
“I don’t think she deserves to see me,” her 20-year-old daughter Morgan Heist told CNN’s “Piers Morgan Live” on Thursday night. “I don’t really have any plans on going to see her.”
The fact that her mother — who she last saw when she was 8 — never even called has left her seething, Morgan Heist said.
The anger is captured in a post on the daughter’s Twitter page that reads she hopes her mother “rots in hell.”
“That makes me really mad,” Morgan Heist said. “I can’t believe she would do that because she was a good mom. She was great. But, I mean, I guess something happened. Something snapped in her. “
Her father, Lee Heist, said he is not planning on visiting his ex-wife anytime soon.
They were going through a divorce at the time she disappeared, and he was treated for a time as a suspect in her disappearance, though he was eventually cleared.
In 2010, he filed a petition with the county court to have Brenda declared legally deceased, according to a Lititz police news release. He was seeking closure, he said.
“I don’t see where it would do any good for either of us to see her again,” Lee Heist said.
He later remarried and said he will learn to forgive his former wife.
But for Morgan Heist, forgiving her mom may not be easy.
“I hope to eventually forgive her one day for myself, not for her,” she said.
Left on a whim
Brenda Heist vanished in February 2002 after last being seen dropping off her children at school.
She was applying for housing assistance so that she could get an apartment after the breakdown of her marriage. She worked as a bookkeeper for a car dealer and hoped to receive some financial aid.
However, her request was denied, police said.
“She was very upset, she was sitting in a park crying, thinking about how she would raise her children, feeling sorry for herself,” said Sgt. John Schofield, a Lititz Borough, Pennsylvania, police detective. He was one of the many officers who searched for Heist.
By her account, it wasn’t long before she was approached by two men and a woman who asked her what was wrong. After she told them what had happened, they invited her to hitchhike with them down to Florida.
“At a whim, she decided at that very moment, she would go along with them,” Schofield said.
Schofield spoke to Heist at length after she turned herself in.
“She was very emotional; she hung her head; she’s ashamed. She was crying when I met with her. She knows what she did was completely wrong, but all that while, she’d never made one effort to call or contact her family at all,” Schofield said.
Heist told police she spent the first two years homeless, living under bridges, eating food thrown out by restaurants after they closed.
For the next seven years, she lived in a camper with a man she had met. They made money as day laborers, cleaning boats and doing other odd jobs for which they didn’t have to show ID and were paid in cash.
After that relationship soured, Schofield said, she said she lived on the street again for another two years.
But the revelations made by Forrester raise new questions over the truth of Heist’s account.
“I don’t think we know the full story yet,” Schofield told CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” on Friday.
“The facts are she left, she turned her back on her family. She started a new life down in Florida … Whether she lived homeless or whether she lived a wonderful life as a live-in housekeeper, I don’t think that was for the 11 years, that was just for the last few years here.”
Schofield said Heist is still looking at charges for false IDs, thefts and possession of drugs and drugs paraphernalia in Florida. There may also be false ID and theft charges to face in Pennsylvania, he said.
By Laura Smith-Spark, CNN. CNN’s Laura Ly contributed to this report.