Melissa Highsmith, kidnapped as a child in 1971, discovered alive

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On many of his long-abducted sister’s birthdays, Jeff Highsmith held a vigil to remember her.

His family gathered this month in Fort Worth, where Melissa Highsmith went missing 51 years ago. They sang “Happy Birthday” and released white balloons as a token of their continued devotion.

That same day, the family made a startling discovery: Melissa may be alive — and reachable.

“When we saw her picture – oh my god,” said her sister, Sharon Highsmith.

“It was amazing,” added another sister, Rebecca Del Bosque. “It was like looking at yourself.”

Melissa, 53, was reunited with her parents and two of her siblings last week for the first time in more than five decades thanks to an at-home DNA test, a marriage certificate and the help of an amateur genealogist, the family said Sunday in an announcement. previously reported by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

After living most of her life as “Melanie,” Melissa awaits the results of a DNA test at the lab to confirm her identity. The Fort Worth Police Department said Monday it would provide a public update upon receiving the results, but was “overjoyed” the family had found their missing member.

The Highsmiths are confident they have found the right person. In addition to a DNA kit from 23andMe linking Melissa’s father, Jeffrie Highsmith, to one of her children, there are all the little things that make it feel right: A birthmark on Melissa’s back that matches what she was born as baby had. The way she puts jalapeños on her nachos reflects her siblings’ love of spicy food. The fact that she has a dog named Charlie, just like one of her sisters.

A flurry of questions remains surrounding Melissa’s disappearance. The family does not know if the woman who raised them was the kidnapper or how she became their guardian. The Fort Worth Police Department said although the statute of limitations on criminal charges had long since expired, they would continue the investigation.

Melissa was 21 months old in August 1971 when her newly separated mother, Alta Apantenco, placed an advertisement in a newspaper looking for a babysitter. A woman replied and said she could meet Apantenco, a waitress, at the restaurant where she worked. But she never came.

Later the would-be babysitter called. She has a large garden and also takes care of other children, she told Apantenco. Could she babysit Melissa there?

Desperate for childcare so she could keep her job, Apantenco agreed. While she was at work, the woman went to her apartment and picked up Melissa from Apantenco’s roommate.

The woman, who the roommate said wore white gloves, never returned the child.

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The family searched for decades. They did podcast and newspaper interviews to keep Melissa in the spotlight. They commented on a Websleuths discussion forum set up for the case. They rushed to other states if they thought they had a lead.

In September, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received an anonymous tip that what looked like a photograph of Melissa advancing in age had been sighted in South Carolina. This hint also fell flat. But the near-breakthrough reinvigorated the family, who devoted themselves fully to finding Melissa.

Then, on November 6th, Jeffrie Highsmith’s 23andMe results came back. He was dating a granddaughter he didn’t know he had. Then Del Bosque looked at her account on genealogy website and saw that the granddaughter shared a surname with two boys who could be her nephews.

“We realized what that meant that it was a sibling game,” said Sharon Highsmith. “These are siblings’ children.”

The sisters forwarded the DNA results to Lisa Jo Schiele, an amateur genealogist who used charts showing the amount of DNA shared between different types of relatives to confirm that the three children belonged to one of the siblings women belonged.

“I came in and tried to see if there were any other options other than playing so closely with Melissa,” Schiele said. “And it didn’t take long for me to realize — I mean, I knew right away there weren’t any.”

Schiele linked to the children’s adoptive father, who remembered the first name Melissa used as well as her ex-husband’s full name. That was enough information for the sisters to find a marriage listing, which led them to Melissa’s Facebook page. They sent her a message.

Melissa didn’t initially believe the Highsmiths were her family. Then they mentioned the birthmark on Melissa’s back and she agreed to a DNA test.

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After more than five decades, Jeffrie Highsmith and Apantenco reunited with their daughter Saturday in an emotional reunion at a lab in Fort Worth, the region where Melissa had spent most of her life. After taking the DNA tests they hope will confirm their connection, they went out to lunch.

“We have no doubt,” Del Bosque said of Melissa’s identity. “We’re just waiting for legal confirmation.”

Melissa’s life without her family of origin was not easy. Her sisters said she had a strained relationship with the woman who raised her and left home when she was 15. Recently confronted, the woman confirmed she knew Melissa was the kidnapping victim, Sharon Highsmith said.

Now Melissa is adjusting to the fact that she has two parents, four siblings, and countless nieces and nephews who were desperate to find her.

“She thought she didn’t have a lot of family, and she just found out that she has a big family that loves her and has never stopped looking for her,” Del Bosque said.

Although Melissa has lived as “Melanie” for most of her life, she now wants to use her original first name, her sisters said. She wants to spend more time with her mother, with whom she immediately felt connected.

And she wants to repeat her marriage to her current husband, her sisters said, so that their father can walk them down the aisle.

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