FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — A woman who family members believe was the toddler who was kidnapped by a babysitter 51 years ago has been reunited with her family in Fort Worth, in a meeting filled with long-overdue hugs and joyful tears.
Melissa Highsmith was 22 months old when she was abducted by a purported babysitter in 1971. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that she lived in Fort Worth most of her life as Melanie Brown and didn’t know she was kidnapped until her biological father, Jeffrie Highsmith, submitted DNA to 23andMe and learned that he was a match to Brown’s children.
The family said in a news release that they worked with an amateur genealogist to help interpret the DNA results and mine public records to find Melissa, who reunited with her parents and two of her siblings this weekend.
“It was just a mixture of joy and terrifying. Being terrified and excited and just trying to understand, you know, make sense of everything,” Melissa Highsmith told KDFW-TV.
In a statement Monday, the Fort Worth Police Department said it’s “overjoyed” to hear that 23andMe led the Highsmiths to Melissa, and they will conduct official DNA testing to confirm her identity. The investigation into her kidnapping will continue.
“I couldn’t stop crying,” Melissa’s sister, Victoria Garner, wrote on Facebook. “I was overjoyed and I’m still walking around in a fog trying to comprehend that my sister is right in front of me and that we found her.”
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Melissa Highsmith’s biological mother, Alta Apantenco, had recently separated from the girl’s father and moved to Fort Worth when she placed an ad for a babysitter in the newspaper. A woman who answered the ad said she wanted to watch the girl at her own house, and Apantenco agreed. The babysitter picked up the baby from Apantenco’s roommate on Aug. 23, 1971 and never brought her back.
The family said they never forgot about Melissa.
“It’s overwhelming and incredible to me,” said Sharon Highsmith, Melissa’s younger sister. “For 50 years, my mom has lived with the guilt of losing Melissa. She’s also lived with community and nationwide accusations that she hurt or killed her own baby. I’m so glad we have Melissa back. I’m also grateful we have vindication for my mom.”
Jeffrie Highsmith told KDFW that the family never gave up the hope of finding Melissa.
“We had several tips, we would go off to other states. We would go off and talk to different girls, have DNA made, and our hopes were dashed,” he said. “It was hard.”