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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.