LITITZ, Pa. - A central Pennsylvania woman who mysteriously disappeared after dropping off her children for school 11 years ago has surfaced in Florida, telling police she traveled there on a whim with homeless hitchhikers, slept under bridges and survived by scavenging food and panhandling, authorities said Wednesday.
Brenda Heist, 54, had been declared legally dead, Lititz Borough Police Detective John Schofield said. The detective said he met with her in Florida on Monday and she expressed shame and apologized for what she did to her family.
Heist was going through an amicable divorce in 2002 when she was turned down for housing assistance, which led her to despair. She was crying in a park when two women and a man befriended her, then invited her to join them as they began a monthlong hitchhiking journey to South Florida, Schofield said.
Her ex-husband, Lee Heist, who collected on a life insurance policy after getting the courts to declare her legally dead in 2010 and has remarried, said at a news conference Wednesday that he was angry because of the effect her disappearance had on their son and daughter. Lee Heist was looked at as a suspect, but he cooperated with investigators, took a polygraph and was eventually cleared.
He was able to maintain a bond with the children.
"They knew that I was there, and I loved them and would take care of them," he said.
He said his ex-wife and their children have expressed a desire to speak with each other, but for now they are taking things slowly.
Her identity came to light after she turned herself in to Monroe County sheriff's deputies in Key Largo, Fla., on Friday and informed them she was a missing person. She told them she was on probation and had recently been arrested under a name different from her real name. The nature of those charges was not clear in a Monroe County sheriff's office report released late Wednesday.
Schofield said she was expected to be released from police custody in Florida and was likely to spend some time with a brother in that state before moving in with her mother in Texas.
"She has a birth certificate and a death certificate, so she's got a long ways to make this right again," Schofield said. "She's got to take it slow with her family, I'm sure, and it's going to be a long process."
Inside her Lititz home the day she disappeared, dinner was defrosting and the laundry was half done. Police located her car in neighboring York County, but none of her personal belongings were missing.
When Schofield called recently to meet with her ex-husband and their daughter, they assumed he would be notifying them that her remains were found, the detective said.
Lee Heist said he struggled financially after his wife disappeared, quitting his job and losing his home. She had been a bookkeeper at a car dealership.
"There were people in the neighborhood who would not allow their children to play with my children" because he had been a suspect, he said.
Brenda Heist had been homeless for the past two years, most recently living in a tent community run by a social service agency.
"She said she was at the end of her rope, she was tired of running," Schofield said.
For about seven years she lived with a man in a camper in Key West and worked odd jobs. Schofield said she never had access to a computer and never checked to see if she was being sought, although she assumed she was.
The Heists' daughter is now a 19-year-old West Chester University sophomore, and their son, 23, recently graduated from the same college and is pursuing a law enforcement career. The school is about 30 miles west of Philadelphia.
Schofield said police in Florida were trying to sort out a warrant-related issue before releasing Brenda Heist. Details about any charges, and whether she was being held on an active warrant, were not available from police in Florida or Pennsylvania.
The Monroe County sheriff's office said Heist was in "protective custody," although not with the office. The sheriff's office did not immediately respond to a request by The Associated Press to provide a way to contact her.
Police in Lititz said the investigation eventually involved dozens of detectives, and although the trail had grown cold, the case had never been forgotten, with Heist's picture tacked to a wall at police headquarters.
Lee Heist said he and the children also remembered, and observed anniversaries. Her valuables were returned to her mother years ago, he said. As for the life insurance policy that paid off on his ex-wife, he said he's unsure what will happen now.
Associated Press writer Curt Anderson in Miami contributed to this report.