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. Brenda Heist, 54, had been declared legally dead, says a police detective who met with her in Florida; he says she 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 month-long hitchhiking journey to South Florida, the detective says. Her ex-husband, Lee Heist, who was looked at as a suspect in her disappearance and later collected on a life insurance policy after getting the courts to declare her legally dead in 2010, told reporters he was angry over the effect her disappearance had on their children, now ages 19 and 23. "There were people in the neighborhood who would not allow their children to play with my children" because he had been a suspect. He says the mother and children want to speak with each other, but they're taking things slowly. (Read more missing person stories.)