A Dr. Phil Exclusive: Runaway Mom Speaks Out

May 20, 2013
In a Dr. Phil exclusive, runaway Pennsylvania mom Brenda Heist, 54, speaks out for the first time since abandoning her family 11 years ago. Why does she say she walked away from her life? Where has she been living all these years? And, why did she recently turn herself in? Brenda, who is now behind bars on a probation violation, sits down with Dr. Phil to answer the hard questions.





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Brenda then, nowBrenda's mom, JeanDr. Frank LawlisDr. Charles Sophy

Brenda Breaks Her Silence

It's a story that shocked and captivated the nation: Brenda Heist, a wife and mother vanished without a trace after dropping her two young children, ages 8 and 12, off at school. Her family says they thought she was gone forever — murdered or kidnapped. Some people even accused her husband of hiring a hit man to kill her. Eleven years passed while Brenda’s family grieved. And, three years ago, she was declared legally dead.

Then, on April 26, 2013, Brenda walked into a police station in Key Largo, Florida. She turned herself in under the assumed name, Kelsie Smith, thinking that there was a warrant out for her arrest. Then, she told the officer her real name was Brenda Heist.

Dr. Phil travels to the Santa Rosa County Jail in Florida to speak with Brenda. Breaking her silence, she tells him that at the time, she and her husband were going through a divorce, she had financial problems, and she didn't know how she was going to take care of her children — so she ran. 

“You go from being a mom in suburbia with two kids and a husband at 11 that morning, to hitchhiking to Florida and staying in homeless camps along the way.”

“Did you think or wonder that the children would be hurt by your leaving?” Dr. Phil asks.

“Not at the time. I didn’t,” Brenda says. “But I knew that they would be hurt. But I just felt like there was no turning back.”

“When did you stop crying and start living?”

“You could have walked out right then, because there wasn’t a warrant for who they thought you were, and the person you are, they believed was dead. So, you knew nobody was looking for you. Your family thinks you’re dead. You could have turned around and walked backed out of there,” Dr. Phil says. “Why did you not?”

“Because I didn’t want to be homeless anymore,” Brenda replies.

Message to Her Children

Brenda has not had any contact with her children since she turned herself in, but she says she would like to reunite with them.

Brenda's son, Lee, now 23, and her daughter, Morgan, 19, have told news outlets that they have mixed emotions about seeing their mother.

In a recent news interview, Morgan told the reporter, "I hate what she did to me." In another interview, she stated that she is open to the possibility of seeing her mother in the future. “I want to speak to her eventually, to get answers for myself and have her look me in the eye and tell me to my face why she did this.”

Lee said in an interview, "I hope she would feel terrible for what she did to the family."


"How did you, as a mother, deal with fact that you had two children out there, who you hadn’t seen, you hadn’t talked to, that we now know believed that you were dead?"


“I’m not proud of what I did; I’m ashamed of what I did.”




“Do you hope that [your children] have compassion for you?” Dr. Phil asks.

“I understand if my kids don’t ever want to talk to me again, then that’s fine,” Brenda says. “And I don’t blame them.”


“It would mean more than anything in the world to me to have their forgiveness.”


A tearful plea to the children she left behind.


A Long-Awaited Reunion

Brenda’s mother, Jean, speaks exclusively with Dr. Phil.

“For 11 years, did you think she was dead, or did you still have hope?” Dr. Phil asks Jean.

“We had hope for a long time, but as time went on, yes, we just thought something had happened to her, something bad,” Jean says.

“Were there thoughts, at the time she went missing, that her now ex-husband could have done something to harm her?” Dr. Phil asks.

“We thought he had had something done to her,” Jean shares. “We didn’t think he actually did anything.”

“What do you think pushed her over the edge?” Dr. Phil continues.

“I think she had a nervous breakdown, because she had been through a lot,” Jean says.

“Are you upset with her?” Dr. Phil asks.

“Oh, no. We’ve just got our arms open wide, can’t wait to get her home,” she says. “Everybody has problems, and we want her to move on from here.”

“She is so blessed to have you standing there with open arms,” Dr. Phil tells Jean. “It just means the difference between her making it or not making it.”

A short while later, Dr. Phil surprises Brenda , saying, “Say hello to your mother,” he says.

Brenda and Jean engage in an emotional embrace.

Dr. Phil reminds Brenda, “You told me you’re going to stay plugged in. You’re going to take the help that you need to get yourself healthy to get in a position that we can heal this family.”

Brenda nods in agreement. She thanks Dr. Phil for bringing her mom to see her.

Dr. Phil tells her that when her kids are ready, he hopes they will agree to sit down with her.

Moving Forward

Dr. Phil tells Brenda that he, along with Dr. Frank Lawlis, chairman of the Dr. Phil Advisory Board, and psychiatrist Dr. Charles Sophy, will help her create a plan to get back on her feet. “This is a beginning,” Dr. Phil says. “I know you’re hurting. Let relief come to you.”

“I want the help,” Brenda says.

Dr. Phil meets with Dr. Lawlis and Dr. Sophy, after they have the chance to speak with Brenda. He asks them, “Who does this?”

“It’s all emotional denial,” Dr. Lawlis says. “Her father was a severe alcoholic. Her mother was a victim. We have the makings of a person who, basically, has no skills, whatsoever, to deal with anxiety and stress.”

Dr. Sophy adds, “She grew up in a military family and moved a lot — all over the world. Not just within the United States — so her ability to form an attachment was never really there.”

“Can we help this woman?” Dr. Phil asks.

“Absolutely,” the doctors reply.