The missing daughter of a family in Texas has been reunited with them after being kidnapped by a baby sitter at only 22 months of age 51 years previously.
Melissa Highsmith, now aged 53 years, rejoined her long-lost family after DNA samples sent to an ancestry website produced a match.
After years of searches that yielded nothing, the Apantenco family worked with an amateur genealogist to help use DNA results to find records of her.
Babysitter kidnapped Apantenco’s daughter from her home
At the time of the kidnapping, Highsmith’s biological mother Alta Apantenco had separated from the girl’s father and moved to Fort Worth, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The single mother had placed an ad for a babysitter in a local newspaper, and the woman who answered it for a job said she preferred watching the girl from her own house. Ms. Apantenco agreed however, on a fateful August 23 1971, when the purported babysitter picked the girl up and never brought her back.
Reports from ABC affiliate WFAA said she simply vanished with the baby, sparking a decades-long hunt by the Highsmith family, police and federal authorities.
Year after year as the search went on, Mrs. Highsmith was unaware that anyone was looking for her, in fact, she suspected it was a scam when the family contacted her through Facebook.
In a meeting filled with long-overdue hugs and joyful tears, now plans to change her name from ‘Melanie Brown’ back to Highsmith.
Family finally reunites
In September, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received an anonymous tip from someone who reported a possible sighting of Melissa in South Carolina.
On November 6, a breakthrough in the case finally came, connecting Mrs. Highsmith, her birth parents and two of her siblings. They all met on November 26 for the first time.
The family wrote in a Facebook post that they conducted “further official and legal DNA testing” and are awaiting “official confirmation for the naysayers in this world”.
Melissa’s family is nevertheless absolutely certain Melissa is their missing daughter because she has the same birthmark and birthday.
The family further posted on Facebook, “Our finding Melissa was purely because of DNA. Not because of any police or FBI involvement, podcast involvement, or even our family’s own private investigations or speculations.”
Ms. Apatenco said she “just couldn’t believe” that the family had been reunited after so many years. “I thought I’d never see her again,” she said.
She furthermore told WFAA, “I’m just elated; I can’t describe my feelings. I’m so happy to see my daughter that I didn’t think I would ever see again.
Highsmith expresses joy at homecoming
“It’s overwhelming,” Highsmith told BBC’s US partner CBS. “But at the same time, it’s the most wonderful feeling in the world.
“My heart right now is just full and bursting with just much emotion. I’m just really, really happy. I feel like I am dreaming and I keep having to pinch myself to make sure I’m awake,” she added.
“It was just a mixture of joy and terrifying,” Melissa Highsmith told KDFW-TV, “being terrified and excited and just trying to understand, you know, make sense of everything.”
Whereabouts of kidnapper of missing daughter still unknown
When asked about the kidnapper who raised her, Highsmith admitted to knowing she was not her biological mother.
No other information has been given at this time about the person who pretended to be her mother for decades. “That just made it real,” Mrs. Highsmith said.
The Fort Worth Police Department said in a statement that it will continue the investigation in order to piece together what happened.
The Highsmith family explained that they are making up for that lost time now by getting to know one another, while the police continue with to look into the abduction.
Sisters couldn’t hide their happiness
Melissa’s sister, Victoria Garner wrote on Facebook, “I couldn’t stop crying, 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.”
“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.
Family never gave up hope
“I’m so glad we have Melissa back. I’m also grateful we have vindication for my mom.”
On their Facebook group page, the family wrote: “The joy is palpable amongst all family members … Thank you for your support over the years!”
“We had several tips,” Mr. Highsmith said. ” We would go off to other states. We would go off and talk to different girls, have DNA made, and our hopes were dashed, It was hard.”
They also expressed their amazement that she had been living only a half hour away from them in Fort Worth all those years.