A Pennsylvania mother who had been legally declared dead after vanishing in 2002 has recently been discovered in Florida, telling authorities a sudden impulse led her to hitchhike to the state with a group of homeless drifters.
Brenda Heist, 54, was last seen in 2002 after dropping her children off at school. At the time, Heist was going through an amicable divorce and had recently been turned down by housing assistance – an act that reportedly led her into a state of despair.
On Wednesday, Heist told authorities she had survived for much of the past decade by sleeping under bridges, scavenging for food, and panhandling.
John Schfield, a detective in the southeastern community Heist originally disappeared from, said the mother of two expressed shame and apologized repeatedly for what her family endured in her absence.
"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."
Despite her apologies, Heist’s ex-husband brushed off the remarks during a news conference Wednesday, saying he was angry due to the effect her disappearance had on their son and daughter.
Lee Heist was also originally viewed as a suspect by police following his wife’s disappearance, but cooperated with authorities and passed a polygraph test before eventually being cleared of any wrongdoing.
Although his children have expressed a desire to speak with their mother, Lee Heist cautioned the process would evolve slowly, and stated no talks have occurred since his ex-wife was discovered.
Heist’s identity was uncovered on Friday after she walked into a police station in Key Largo, Fla. and informed them she was a missing person. She also told officers she was on probation and had recently been arrested under a different 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.