FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — A woman who family members believe was the toddler kidnapped by a babysitter 51 years ago has been reunited with her family in Texas, 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 and is now known as Melanie Brown. They say she 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 past weekend in Fort Worth.
“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. A woman who sent out a news release on behalf of the family said that at this time, Melanie Brown is planning to change her name back to Melissa.
In a statement Monday, the Fort Worth Police Department said it was “overjoyed” to hear that 23andMe led the Highsmiths to Melissa, and added they will conduct official DNA testing to confirm her identity and will provide an update once those official results are in. The investigation into her kidnapping will continue.
“Even though the criminal statute of limitations expired 20 years after Melissa’s 18th birthday, the Fort Worth Police Department is committed to completing this investigation to uncover all of the available information concerning Melissa’s abduction that occurred 51 years ago,” the police department said.
“I couldn’t stop crying,” Melissa’s sister, Victoria Garner, wrote on a Facebook page set up by the family to help find her. “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 his daughter.
“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.”
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