Jeff Highsmith never met his eldest sister, Melissa, who was abducted in 1971 before he was born – until now. On Thanksgiving Day, 51 years after she was kidnapped in Fort Worth, Texas by a woman claiming to be a babysitter, Jeff finally met Melissa.
Jeff says it was all confirmed through DNA testing - a link was made between Melissa’s children and her biological parents on “23andMe,” a genetic testing company.
It turns out that Melissa, who is now 53 and was abducted when she was 21 months old, grew up with the name Melanie and was living in Fort Worth all this time.
“It is overwhelming but at the same time, it’s just the most wonderful feeling in the world,” said Melissa, who looked at baby pictures of herself for the first time during an interview with the CBS 11 News in Dallas-Fort Worth.
Her parents, sitting next to her, were overcome with emotion and said that after 51 years they feared this day would never come.
“I feel that was the best day I ever had in my whole life when I saw Melissa again,” said her mother, Alta Apantenco.
“After 51 years, it’s so emotional,” said her father, Jeffrie Highsmith.
Melissa Highsmith hugs her father, Jeffrie (left) and mother, Alta (right).*
“This case is a perfect example of why we never give up hope here at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC),” said John Bischoff, who oversees NCMEC’s Missing Children Division. “We are overjoyed by the news that Melissa Highsmith has been reunited with her biological family who has been tirelessly searching for her for so long. This is a wonderful reminder to the public and to other families who have missing loved ones that answers are possible, even after five decades.”
According to Jeff, it was just before Thanksgiving when “23andMe” linked his parents’ DNA with Melissa’s three children. Once they found out there were grandchildren, they were ecstatic. They gasped: “We found her!”
Believing they made the connection to their long-lost sister, the Highsmith family reached out to Melissa’s children and got her email. The dad wrote to her, but she was skeptical. “I’ll be praying for you, but I don’t think I’m your daughter,” Jeff said she wrote back.
That sentiment changed when Melissa’s husband found the Facebook page the family had created and saw the baby photos they had posted. She began to wonder if she might be the missing woman and agreed to take a DNA test.
According to Jeff, Melissa is estranged from the woman who raised her. When Melissa asked the woman about her true identity, the woman claimed she bought Melissa in a bar in 1972 for $500. The woman said she knew that the toddler was, in fact, Baby Melissa.
“That just made it real,” said Melanie, who plans to change her name back to Melissa. “My heart right now is full and bursting with so much emotion. I’m just really, really, really happy.”
The family made their exciting announcement Sunday on Facebook:
“We are beyond thrilled to announce that WE FOUND MELISSA! There are so many details we would like to share, but for now, we would just like to say we followed a 23andMe family DNA match that led us to her. Our finding Melissa was purely because of DNA, not because of any police/FBI involvement, podcast involvement, or even our family’s own private investigations or speculations. DNA WINS THIS SEARCH!”
Jeff said the family is now taking the case to the police in hopes that they will investigate. Melissa’s story made headlines back in September. An anonymous tipster had seen NCMEC’s age-progression showing what Melissa might look like at age 51 and reported a possible sighting of her in the Charleston, S.C. area. NCMEC launched a media storm when it announced that there had been a fresh tip. “Thanks to NCMEC bringing credibility to Melissa’s case and that tip, it spring boarded our family into a national story,” said Jeff. That publicity breathed new life into their search. They even traveled to Charleston hoping to track down their own answers.
A forensic artist at NCMEC created this age progression image of Melissa Highsmith at age 51.
In 1971, his mother Alta, then single and 22 years old, placed an ad for a babysitter in a newspaper in Fort Worth, Texas where she had recently moved. A woman answered the ad and agreed to meet her at the restaurant where she worked but didn’t show up. The babysitter called again, saying she really wanted the job, had a nice big yard and cared for other children as well.
Alta hired her and let her roommate know when the babysitter would be picking up Melissa at their apartment since she had to be at work. The roommate said the babysitter seemed nice and was dressed up, even wearing white gloves. But the babysitter did not return Melissa, could not be located and her frantic mother immediately called police.
Although the FBI and NCMEC consider “infant abductions” to be children six months or younger, there are many similarities in these types of cases with what happened to 21-month-old Melissa. People, nearly always women, who abduct infants typically take them because they want a child for themselves or someone else, not to harm them, leaving their parents devastated. There have been several high-profile cases in which adults abducted as infants figured out who they were later in life, including at least two who viewed age progressions on our missing posters and called NCMEC.
“Meeting her for the first time is hard to put into words,” said Jeff. “It’s a dream come true.”
The Highsmith family met together for the first time on Saturday, Nov. 26.*
*Photos courtesy the “WE FOUND MELISSA!!!” Facebook page.