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It's what relatives of so many missing people hold on to: the hope that their loved one will be found alive days, months, even years after disappearing. But for Brenda Heist, the Pennsylvania woman found this week in Florida 11 years after she vanished, the circumstances surrounding her disappearance have tainted the news for her family.
"I'm hurt so much that she got up and left me and my brother," Morgan Heist, Brenda Heist's 19-year-old daughter, told NBCPhiladelphia.com. "It's not that I hate her. It's just that I don't think she deserves to be in my life at this point."
Heist went missing from her Litiz, Pa., home in February 2002. Dinner for her two children — 8 and 12 at the time — was found defrosting in the kitchen on the day she disappeared, and the laundry had been started. Days later, Pennsylvania authorities found her abandoned car.
On Wednesday, Heist, 54, turned herself into a sheriff's deputy in Key Largo, Fla., telling him she thought she was wanted in a neighboring county. When authorities ran her name through their database, it came up as "missing and possibly deceased," the Monroe County Sheriff's Office said.
According to Lititz Borough police, Heist was overwhelmed with her life when she decided to abandon her family. She and her husband were going through an amicable divorce at the time, but she had just learned she had been denied housing support, police said.
“She explained to me that she just snapped,” Lititz Borough Police Det. John Schofield, who met with Heist on Monday, told The Associated Press.
Heist's hair, brown when she went missing, is now blond with gray roots. Her face is sunken. According to Lititz Borough police, feeling overcome by the pressures of her life, she went to a park near her central Pennsylvania home on the day she left her home in 2002. There, as she cried, she met a group of homeless hitchhikers who reached out to her, reported The AP.
She joined the hitchhikers, who were Florida-bound, and once arriving there, she slept under bridges and in tents, and ate food thrown out in restaurant dumpsters, according to what she told police.
Heist then moved in with a man in a camper in Key West for about seven years, working odd jobs, Lititz police said. She recently became homeless again, however, and according to Schofield, turned herself in because "she said she was at the end of her rope, she was tired of running."
Her husband, Lee, had briefly been investigated as a suspect in Heist's disappearance, but was cleared.
"I thought for probably about two years based on some of the information that she had been carjacked," he told NBCPhiladelphia.com after learning the woman he had asked courts to declare legally dead several years ago was still alive. "I just wish her that she'll get well, whatever the problems are."
Lee Heist has since remarried.
"I think there's nothing we have to say to each other," Lee told NBCPhiladelphia.com.
Neither he nor his daughter Morgan have plans to reunite with Heist right now.
"I don't want her to tell me she missed me. I don't want her to tell me she loves me. I don't want a sob story," Morgan said.
Heist, who had worked as a car dealership bookkeeper, apologized for what she did to her family.
"She has a birth certificate and a death certificate, so she's got a long ways to make this right again," Schofield said.
Her daughter said an apology doesn't make up for her mom's absence.
"It was tough," Morgan told NBCPhiladelphia.com. "Every prom -- my brother graduated from high school and college, I graduated [from high school]. She wasn't there, you know? She wasn't there for the most important parts of my life."
It's unclear what's next for Heist, who was put in protective custody but did not require medical treatment when she turned herself in, according to the Monroe County sheriff's office.
"She appeared to be in relatively good health. She said she was tired," Becky Herrin, spokesperson for Monroe County sheriff's office, said.
Her mother, Jean Copenhaver of Brenham, Texas, told The AP she has spoken with her daughter since she turned herself in.
"She just said she thought the family wouldn't want to talk to her because of her leaving," Copenhaver said. "And we all assured her that wasn't the case and we all loved her and wanted to be with her."
Brian Hamacher of NBCMiami.com and Monique Braxton of NBCPhiladelphia.com contributed to this report.