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Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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Story of missing Pennsylvania woman questioned

TARPON SPRINGS - Joanne Covish didn't know Brenda Heist, the Pennsylvania woman who had been missing for more than a decade and legally declared dead before turning up alive recently in the Florida Keys.

She did, though, know Kelsie Smith.

That was one of many names and identities Heist apparently went by in the 11 years since she suddenly left her family in Pennsylvania. Heist surfaced last week in the Keys, telling authorities she ran away from her family with a group of homeless people and had survived since by panhandling, scavenging food from the trash and living on the streets.

Authorities are beginning to question Heist's story — and with good reason, Covish said.

“I already knew she was a phony,” she said. “She was a master manipulator.”

Covish said she knew nothing about Heist's previous life, or name, when she let the woman she knew as Kelsie Smith stay in her home in exchange for housework for about a month earlier this year.

“I questioned her all the time,” Covish said. “I said, 'Where where you born?' And she'd say, 'Nowhere, everywhere.'”

Heist's time with Covish ended in late January, when a Pinellas County sheriff's deputy pulled Heist over for driving a car with an expired tag. The sheriff's office said the 53-year-old presented a fake driver's license and fake Social Security card.

After learning of the arrest, Covish said, she found a box of fake identification and Social Security cards in the woman's room, as well as a retired man's drug prescription.

Heist spent more than two weeks in jail on charges of possession of marijuana, paraphernalia and false identification. She had been pulled over on an expired tag that wasn't registered to her and claimed that several forms of identification — none of them containing a photo — belonged to a friend.

During the stop and after the arrest, the sheriff's office said, investigators tried several methods of identifying her, including fingerprints. They discovered a warrant for her arrest in Santa Rosa County on felony fraud charges and that her license was suspended in Broward for failing to appear in court. Beyond that, nothing.

Heist was booked into the Pinellas County Jail under the name Jane Doe, with Kelsie Smith listed as her alias. On Feb. 13, she was released to Santa Rosa County; it was not immediately clear when she was released from that county.

In Heist's mug shot, bleach-blonde hair hangs against her sallow cheekbones, a far cry from an old photo where she has dark brown hair and appears decades younger.

Covish last saw Heist in April. She said Heist walked to Covish's townhome from the Clearwater Greyhound station, asking to stay there again. Covish said no, then gave Heist back some belongings before sending her off.

Soon afterward, Heist finally turned herself in to authorities, telling police she made a spur-of-the-moment decision in 2002 to abandon her two children and estranged husband in Pennsylvania. Heist is now staying at the north Florida home of her brother, her mother said.

Heist's story has brought her notoriety across the country, but it's not shocking to some longtime observers of Florida's culture.

“It's not one story. It's a wave,” said novelist Tim Dorsey.

Dorsey bases his Florida-centric fiction on what he covered on a daily basis as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune.

“The state is so transient,” he said. “It's the Wild, Wild West here.”

Florida also attracts people looking for a second — or third — chance, said Gary Mormino, who wrote about Florida's often bizarre mystique in his book “Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams.”

“It's a place to come and be anonymous,” Mormino said. “It's easy to disappear in Florida.”

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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