TODAY

TODAY   |  May 02, 2013

Pennsylvania woman missing 11 years found alive

After dropping her children off at school 11 years ago, Brenda Heist disappeared without a trace and was later declared legally dead. She recently turned herself into Florida authorities, revealing she’d been in the state since she disappeared. NBC’s Kerry Sanders reports.

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>>> a pennsylvania woman missing for so long declared legally dead has turned up this week very much alive. kerry sanders has her story.

>> brenda disappeared 11 years old after dropping off her 8-year-old and 10-year-old children at school. the pennsylvania mother vanished without a trace. police in her hometown were baffled by the case. eventually, they had the 42-year-old declared dead. but now, 53 years old, frail looking, skin weathered by the florida sun, hair bleached blond, she is alive living in the florida keys .

>> alive? oh, my gosh. after all these years as a neighbor, i never thought you'd find her. never.

>> when brenda disappeared, she and her husband lee were divorcing. lee heist was a suspect in what many thought was murder.

>> there were people in the neighborhood who would've not allowed their children to play with my children.

>> police say facing mounting health problems, brenda turned herself into florida deputies that she confessed under pressure more than a decade ago, she snapped, fled to florida , lived under a bridge. at times, scrounged food from dumpsters.

>> she said she thought of her family and her children every day and her parents. however, she never acted on that and never made any phone calls, not one.

>> police say there is no crime, so no charges because they declared her dead, brenda 's husband collected on her life insurance and the two children who never knew what happened to their mother are now young adults .

>> how did you feel?

>> shocked in the beginning, a lot of mixed emotions. i think the best emotion i had was i think it's a good thing for my kids.

>> brenda , despite a death certificate, alive and no longer in hiding. for "today," kerry sanders , nbc news, miami.