(CBS/AP) LITITZ, Pa. - Brenda Heist, a 53-year-old central Pennsylvania woman who mysteriously disappeared after dropping off her children for school 11 years ago, has surfaced in Florida.
She tells police she traveled there on a whim with homeless hitchhikers, slept under bridges and survived by scavenging food and panhandling, authorities said Wednesday.
Heist had been declared legally dead, Lititz Borough Police Det. 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 she said 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 month-long hitchhiking journey to South Florida, Schofield said.
Her ex-husband, Lee Heist, who got the courts to declare her legally dead two years ago 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 cooperated with investigators, took a polygraph and was eventually cleared.
He was able to maintain a bond with the children.
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.
Schofield said Brenda Heist 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.
On the day Heist disappeared, police located her car in a neighboring county but none of her personal belongings were taken.
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.
Brenda Heist turned herself in to Monroe County sheriff's deputies in Key Largo, Fla., last Friday, regarding some outstanding warrants, and then informed them she was a missing person. She had apparently been using a different name and 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," Det. 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 the warrants before releasing Brenda Heist.
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 for 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.