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."
He was at work at the time and planned to head to his mother's birthday party afterward.
When his two children called a second time, this time after dark, he decided to return home.
"I went to the house and there wasn't anything out of place. Everything was right where it was supposed to be. I waited and waited. Around 8 o'clock or so, I called the police," he said.
An exhaustive investigation followed. For months, local, state and federal investigators interviewed dozens of family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers to no avail, said the Lititz Borough police news release.
Four days after she disappeared, Brenda Heist's car was found legally parked in a parking spot in a nearby city.
There was no damage to the car, but it was parked near a bus station.
When police scoured bus and airline schedules, they couldn't find any bookings for Brenda Heist, according to case details provided by the Monroe County Sheriff's Office.
Lee Heist even became a suspect, though he was eventually cleared.
"The police always asked me if I wanted to have an attorney present, I said 'No, I don't need one.' I gave them total access to the house, to the computer, whatever they needed. I wanted answers," Lee Heist said.
The investigation continued for several years.
Six years after Heist went missing, Lititz police invited the Lancaster County Major Crimes Unit to join them in conducting a cold case investigation.
Detectives from all over the county interviewed several old and new witnesses, poring over every bit of evidence collected during the original investigation, said the Lititz police news release.
"We couldn't overlook anything, so it went in many different directions. We would have calls every so often where somebody would say that they saw her. Many people became persons-of-interest," Schofield said.
"We'd get a call from someone who said she was buried in the woods, only to find out it was only a dirt mound when we went to investigate. Individuals were acting suspicious, calling saying they knew where she was. We'd just find out later that they were mentally unstable."