Left picture shows Brenda Heist before her 2002 disappearance and the picture on the right was taken last week. (WGAL/ Lititz Police)
A 54-year-old mother of two who went missing from Pennsylvania 11 years ago has been found in the Florida Keys living as a homeless person, authorities said Wednesday.
Brenda Heist turned herself in to a sheriff's deputy in Key Largo on Friday, telling him she thought she might be wanted in Pinellas County, the Monroe County Sheriff's Office said.
When authorities checked her name, she was listed as "missing and possibly deceased" from Lititz, Pennsylvania, since February 2002, the sheriff's office said.
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Pennsylvania authorities said Heist and her husband had been in the middle of an amicable divorce when she disappeared after dropping her two kids off at school one day.
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.
"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.
Inside Brenda Heist's home the day she disappeared, dinner was defrosting and the laundry was half done. Her car was found abandoned days later with no signs of struggle and she was never seen again.
According to Lititz Borough Police, Heist said she traveled to Florida on a whim with homeless hitchhikers.
Once she arrived in Florida, Heist lived as a homeless person, sleeping under bridges and tents and eating food thrown out from fast food restaurants.
Heists' children were 8 and 12 at the time of her disappearance, police said. Her husband filed a petition in 2010 to declare her legally deceased.
Lititz Borough Police Det. John Schofield said Heist expressed shame and apologized for what she did to her family.
"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."
Heist was going through the divorce in 2002 when she got some bad news about future housing plans, Schofield said. She was crying in a park when some strangers befriended her, then invited her to join them as they began a month-long hitchhiking journey to South Florida, he said.
Schofield said Heist lived with a man in a camper in Key West for about seven years 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.
Heist remained in protective custody in the Keys, the sheriff's office said Wednesday.
Schofield said he and his department were shocked that Heist had turned up.
"Because I will tell you, I was convinced something horrible happened to her years ago," Schofield told WGAL in Pennsylvania.
Schofield never took the woman's photo off his office wall. He has a picture of her daughter next to it. In the photo, the girl is eight years old. Now she is 19.
Heist's daughter is now a West Chester University sophomore, and her son recently graduated from the same college.
When Schofield called to meet with Heist's ex-husband and their daughter, they assumed he would be notifying them that her remains were found, the detective said.
Lee Heist struggled financially after his wife disappeared, losing his job and his house, the detective said. She had been a bookkeeper at a car dealership.
She had apparently 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," said Schofield.
Schofield said police in Florida were trying to sort out the warrants issue, but she was expected to be released soon, perhaps later Wednesday.
She has a brother in Florida. Her mother and another brother live in Texas, Schofield said.
Associated Press / NBC 6 South Florida