A woman who disappeared 51 years ago as a baby was reunited with her parents in Fort Worth this weekend.
Melissa Highsmith, 53, was kidnapped by a babysitter at her mother’s Texas home in 1971, months before she turned two.
For more than half a century her parents and siblings had been looking around the country for her – but she had been living just ten minutes away.
In an emotional clip filmed on Thanksgiving, Melissa was seen hugging her mother and father for the first time in over 50 years – as the parents embraced their beloved long-lost daughter.
Her family would celebrate Melissa’s birthday each year without her. During the last birthday they spent without her, Melissa’s father told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: ‘We are looking for her and still care.’
Later that day the family uncovered a lead that would unify them with her just weeks later, after decades of agony.
It was brought about by a DNA test and detective work by Lisa Jo Schiele, a clinical laboratory scientist and amateur genealogist who encouraged the family to try a 23andMe DNA test.
Melissa’s father Jeffrie Highsmith submitted a DNA sample to 23andMe, which returned a 100 percent match with three people. Those three people were the children of Joe Brown and his wife Melania – one of which was Melissa.
‘It’s overwhelming and incredible to me,’ said Sharon Highsmith, Melissa’s younger sister.
‘For decades, my parents have chased leads, hiring their own labs and investigators and yet, these DNA tests, which are available to anyone, helped us find our lost loved one.’
Melissa said she would be changing her name officially to reflect the one she was given at birth.
Melissa Highsmith (pictured) was kidnapped by a babysitter in 1971 at just 22-months-old
Alta Apantenco (left) and Jeffrie Highsmith (right) are reunited with their daughter Melissa (center) after searching for 51 years
Melissa and her mother Alta, who left her in the care of an unknown babysitter in Fort Worth in 1971
The father and daughter were brought together after he submitted a DNA sample to 23andMe which linked him to her children
Melissa went missing on August 23, 1971. Her mother Alta Apantenco, who had recently separated from her father, desperately needed a babysitter to care for Melissa while she worked as a waitress.
After putting up an advertisement in the local newspaper Apantenco eventually found someone to do the job.
During a brief phone call with a woman who identified herself as Ruth Johnson, Apantenco was assured by the babysitter that her child would be in good care.
The woman agreed to meet Apantenco at the restaurant she worked at, but never showed up.
Then the potential babysitter called up again insisting she was right for the job.
‘She said, you know, I really love kids and I’ve got this huge backyard and the kids love to play out there, and I was desperate, I needed a babysitter because I was supporting myself,’ Apantenco told Fox4 in 2019.
She left Melissa in the care of a roommate with whom she was living in the Spanish Gate Apartments on East Seminary Drive in Fort Worth, who then handed Melissa over to the unknown babysitter.
Melissa was never seen again by anyone that knew her until earlier this month.
Melissa, whose name has been Melanie Brown, now has three children with Joe Brown
Jeffrie Highsmith told the local Fort Worth newspaper earlier this month that he would continue looking for his daughter. He found her just weeks later
‘My mom did the best she could with the limited resources she had. She couldn’t risk getting fired. So, she trusted the person who said they’d care for her child,’ Sharon Highsmith, Melissa’s sister said.
‘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.’
Sharon lives in Spain and although she has never met Melissa is looking forward to doing so this Christmas.
Melissa’s sibling Jeff Highsmith speaking after he had finally been reunited with his sister
Melissa (left) and another sibling Victoria Highsmith (right)
Jeffrie Highsmith (left) and Melissa (right)
Earlier this year in October the family were lead to North Carolina to investigate a tip that Melissa had been seen there.
She was identified based on a computer generated prediction of what Melissa would look like fifty years on from her baby photos.
When the family got there they were faced with disappointment. That’s when the they stared thinking about DNA tests and were connected with her children.
‘We had coffee with her on Thanksgiving night, and when I looked at her, I just knew. I knew,’ Jeff Highsmith said, adding later that he ‘couldn’t take’ his eyes off her when they met because she looked ‘just like’ his mother, he told Fox.
‘Our family has suffered at the hands of agencies who have mismanaged this case,’ Sharon said.
‘Right now, we just want to get to know Melissa, welcome her to the family and make up for 50 years of lost time.’
Sharon, her siblings and their parents encouraged other families with missing loved ones to keep on believing.