A Pennsylvania woman who mysteriously disappeared 11 years ago has resurfaced in Florida, saying that she just walked out on her family, her life and her problems.
Brenda Heist, 54, turned herself in to authorities in Key Largo, Florida, on Friday, informing them that she thought she might be wanted in another county.
The responding officer checked her name and saw that she was listed as "missing and possibly deceased" from Lititz, Pennsylvania, according to the Monroe County Sheriff's Office in Florida.
Authorities in Monroe County immediately contacted the Lititz Borough Police, informing them that Heist was in their custody.
After exchanging pictures and details, Detective Sgt. John Schofield confirmed that it was indeed the Brenda Heist he had been searching for since 2002. He met with her in Florida two days later
"She left just on a split-second whim and decided to just leave, and turn her back on her family and on her life, and pursue a life with these homeless people to hitchhike down to Florida," Schofield told CNN's Brooke Baldwin on Thursday.
An invitation to hitchhike
Heist disappeared February 2002, after last being seen dropping off her children at school.
She was going through a divorce from Lee Heist and was applying for housing assistance so that she could get her own apartment.
She worked as a bookkeeper for a car dealer and hoped to receive some financial aid.
However, her request was denied, Schofield said earlier.
"She was very upset, she was sitting in a park crying, thinking about how she would raise her children, feeling sorry for herself," he said.
It wasn't long before she was approached by two males and a female who asked her what was wrong. After she told them what had happened, they invited her to hitchhike with them down to Florida.
"At a whim, she decided at that very moment, she would go along with them," Schofield said.
Schofield spoke to Heist at length, and she explained where she had been for the past 11 years.
"She was very emotional; she hung her head; she's ashamed. She was crying when I met with her. She knows what she did was completely wrong, but all that while, she'd never made one effort to call or contact her family at all," Schofield said.
A hard life
For the first two years, he said, she was homeless.
She lived under bridges, eating food thrown out by restaurants after they closed.
For the next seven years, she lived in a camper with a man she had met. They made money as day laborers, cleaning boats and doing other odd jobs for which they didn't have to show ID and were paid in cash.
After that relationship soured, Schofield said, she lived on the street again for another two years.
"Everything seemed to be going against her while she was on the street. She was just worn out and at the end of her rope. She didn't want to continue on with her secret life down there," Schofield said.
Meanwhile, her family remained in Pennsylvania, searching for answers.
A long wait
"I remember my children calling me and saying that mom wasn't home," Lee Heist told CNN. "I thought she just got tied up somewhere."