A Pennsylvania woman who mysteriously disappeared 11 years ago has resurfaced in Florida, saying that she just walked out on her family, her life and her problems. Brenda Heist, 54, turned herself in to authorities in Key Largo, Florida, on Friday, informing them that she thought she might be wanted in another county. The responding officer checked her name and saw that she was listed as “missing and possibly deceased” from Lititz, Pennsylvania, according to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office in Florida. Authorities in Monroe County immediately contacted the Lititz Borough Police, informing them that Heist was in their custody. After exchanging pictures and details, Detective Sgt. John Schofield confirmed that it was indeed the Brenda Heist he had been searching for since 2002. He met with her in Florida two days later. “She left just on a split-second whim and decided to just leave, and turn her back on her family and on her life, and pursue a life with these homeless people to hitchhike down to Florida,” Schofield told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin on Thursday. Heist disappeared February 2002, after last being seen dropping off her children at school. READ MORE

Wow. What a story. Y’know, I have to say that, after reading it, the person I feel most sorry for is her ex-husband. Yeah, I know the two young children having to grow up without their mother is also a terrible thing, but the ex had to endure the suspicion of being involved in her disappearance. A woman in the middle of a bad divorce suddenly vanishes without a trace, of course everyone is going to think that her husband probably killed her. And even though the police ruled him out as a suspect, you just know that cloud was still hanging over his head all this time. A bet a lot of people who knew both of them still probably had that nagging suspicion that he probably killed her, or had her killed. But now she’s alive.

This all reminded me of some article I read in a magazine several years ago, I wish I could remember exactly where it was from so I could link to it, but it was an interview with a private investigator who specialized in tracking missing persons. Specifically, he specialized in tracking people who faked their deaths, or just disappeared and established new identities, in order to avoid lawsuits, debts, or things like that. He’d be the guy the debt collectors would hire to find someone. And through this interview, he was giving types on how to establish new identities, based on his experience in finding people who did it. Having found many people over the years, he knew what typical mistakes people made, and thus could advise what to avoid. I found it interesting because it made me think about where I would go and what I would do, if I ever wanted to just leave my life behind and start over, for whatever reason.

From what I recall, here where the tips he gave if you wanted to disappear from your current life.

1/MOVING. Sure, that seems obvious. Of course you need to leave the place where you currently live, move away to someplace where no one knows you. But he said that doesn’t mean you have to move to some far off remote place. In fact, that tends to be a bad decision, because the point is that you want to be somewhere where you can be as inconspicuous as possible. So if you go to some small town, with fewer people, you’re more likely to stand out and be noticed. Therefore big cities are much better, because it’s easier to blend in, and just go on about your business without anyone noticing you. So if you’re from Los Angeles, it’s better to move to New York, or Chicago, or Dallas, places like that, instead of to some little town in Idaho or Alabama.

2/ALTER YOUR PHYSICAL APPEARANCE. Another obvious one, you don’t necessarily have to get plastic surgery or anything that drastic (unless you have a noticeable, defining characteristic, like a scar, birthmark, or a mole on your face) but if there’s anything significant about you that you can easily change, then do that.

Like for me, I’ve been shaving my head and face every day for the past decade or so, so the first thing I do would be to stop doing that. Let my mustache grow back (I can’t grow a full beard) and the hair on my head grow out. Nothing too drastic, like I wouldn’t grow my hair out into a big afro, or grow it long and get cornrows or dreadlocks because, again, the whole point is that you don’t want to stand out in a crowd. So, like, if you’re a brunette, go ahead and dye your hair blonde, or red, but not blue or pink. If you wear glasses, try to switch to contacts, or vice versa (although that’s something I could never do, the very idea of putting lenses directly on my eyeballs freaks me out like you wouldn’t believe).

3/NAME CHANGE. Yes, get a new last name, but it’s actually better to keep the same first name. I believe this is a common tactic among undercover police officers, when they come up with fake names. The reason for this is that you never know when you might run into and be recognized by someone from your old life, and you want to be prepared for that possibility. If they see you, and call you by your first name, and you’re with people from your new life who know you by some other name, that could raise suspicions in everyone. Say you’re out in a restaurant with your new coworkers, or neighbors, whatever, and they know you as MICHAEL, and then suddenly there’s someone you went to High School with or used to work with, and they come up to you saying “Hey, STEVE! I can’t believe it, I haven’t seen you in years, how are you?!?” So now you’re busted, your new friends are wondering why this guy is calling you Michael, and if you try to pretend that you’re not MICHAEL, the old friend might insist it’s you, or get in touch with people from your past that you’ve left behind, like you’re family, and be like “I swear I saw Michael but he said that wasn’t him, it was someone named Steve,” and now they might come looking for you, and try to track you, and now they know your new alias.

So, instead, if you’re Steve Jackson, and you change your name to Steve Washington, if you bump into someone from your previous life who calls you “Steve”, it might be easier to kinda blow them off, just be like “Hey, good to see you, I can’t talk now, but here’s my number let’s keep in touch,” and just give them a fake number. And then just tell your new friends, “Oh, that was just someone I used to know,” and then drop the subject. Plus, if you’re using the same first name, it’s easier for you to remember, and you’re less likely to screw up and answer to the wrong name, or give the wrong name to anyone.

4/CUT ALL TIES WITH THAT PAST. This is the one that he said is the most important, and it trips up the majority of people, and how he ends up finding them. People still try to somehow keep in touch with their past, on some level. People always think they can figure out some way to get in touch with someone without being traced, but don’t try it. No phone calls, emails, letters, postcards, NOTHING. If you’re going to really go into hiding, and become someone else, then you need to be prepared to give up everyone, every single family member or friend that you have. Don’t ever plan to see them, talk to them, or write to them ever again, under any circumstances. No matter how hard that is, you have to do it, if you’re going to succeed in getting away from whatever it is you’re running from.

So, there you go. I think for me, if I were going to do this, the hardest part would be deciding where to go. I’ve lived in Southern California all my life, I’m used to it and the weather. I can’t ever imagine living somewhere where they have to deal with snow in the winter, or places where they have hurricanes or floods. So that limits my options. I’d want to say on the West Coast, at least. Maybe I’d move to Arizona and call myself J.R. Davis or something…

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