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Mother missing since '02, declared dead, admits living in Fla.

| Wednesday, May 1, 2013, 9:21 p.m.

LITITZ — A central Pennsylvania woman who mysteriously disappeared after dropping off her children for school 11 years ago has surfaced in Florida.

Brenda Heist, 54, told police that she traveled to Florida on a whim with homeless hitchhikers, slept under bridges and survived by scavenging food and panhandling, authorities said on Wednesday.

She had been declared legally dead, Lititz Borough police Detective John Schofield said. The detective said he met with her on Monday in Florida and that 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, said Schofield.

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 that he was angry because of the effect that 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 eventually was cleared.

He was able to maintain a bond with his 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 the situation slowly.

Heist's identity came to light when she turned herself in to Monroe County sheriff's deputies in Key Largo, Fla., on Friday. She informed them that she was a missing person. Heist told police that she was on probation and recently was arrested under a name different from her real name. The nature of those charges is not clear.

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