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'Dead' woman turns up in Florida

American mother Brenda Heist went missing in 2002. This week she entered a police station in Florida and told her story, much to the anger of her children and estranged husband.

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

Brenda Heist told police she travelled there on a whim with homeless hitchhikers, slept under bridges and survived by scavenging food and panhandling, authorities said.

She has a birth certificate and a death certificate so she's got a long ways to make this right again 

The 53-year-old had been declared legally dead, Lititz Borough Police Detective John Schofield said. The detective said he met with her in Florida on Monday and she expressed shame and apologised for what she did to her family.

Brenda Heist: disappeared after dropping her children off at school.

Brenda Heist: disappeared after dropping her children off at school. Photo: AP

Ms Heist was going through an amicable divorce in 2002 when she got some bad news about future housing plans, Detective Schofield said. She was crying in a park when some strangers befriended her, then invited her to join them as they began a month-long hitchhiking journey to south Florida, he said.

Her ex-husband got the courts to declare her legally dead two years ago and he has remarried, Detective Schofield said.

"She has a birth certificate and a death certificate so she's got a long ways to make this right again," Detective Schofield said. "She's got to take it slow with her family, I'm sure, and it's going to be a long process."

Inside her home the day she disappeared, dinner was defrosting and the laundry was half done. Police located her car in a neighbouring county but none of her personal belongings were taken.

When Detective Schofield called to meet with her ex-husband Lee Heist and their daughter, they assumed he would be notifying them that her remains were found, the detective said.

Lee Heist struggled financially after his wife disappeared, losing his job and his house, the detective said. She had been a bookkeeper at a car dealership.

Ms Heist turned herself in to Monroe County sheriff's deputies in Key Largo, Florida, on Friday, regarding some outstanding warrants, and then informed them she was a missing person. She had apparently been homeless for the past two years, most recently living in a tent community run by a social service agency.

"She said she was at the end of her rope, she was tired of running," said Detective Schofield.

For about seven years she lived with a man in a camper in Key West and worked odd jobs. Detective Schofield said she never had access to a computer and never checked to see if she was being sought, although she assumed she was.

Ms Heist's daughter is now a West Chester University sophomore, and her son recently graduated from the same college.

Detective Schofield said police in Florida were trying to sort out the warrants issue, but she was expected to be released soon.

The Monroe County Sheriff's Office said Ms Heist was in "protective custody", although not with the office.

Ms Heist has a brother in Florida and another brother and her mother live in Texas, Detective Schofield said.

AP