Woman kidnapped as child found 51 years later still in Fort Worth, reunited with family

Courtesy of the family

A woman who was kidnapped as a child 51 years ago was identified through DNA and found still living in Fort Worth, her family announced on Sunday after being reunited with her this weekend.

Melissa Highsmith was 22 months old when she was abducted by a babysitter in 1971. She grew up in Fort Worth and never knew she had been kidnapped, her family wrote in posts on a Facebook page called “WE FOUND MELISSA!!!”

Melissa’s mother, Alta Apantenco, had left the toddler in the care of her roommate, who handed her off to the babysitter on Aug. 23, 1971, the family said in a news release Sunday.

“Though missing for decades, the family never forgot about Melissa,” the release said. “They continued to throw birthday parties for her, including the most recent one in November. That same day, the family found a match in DNA results.”

Melissa’s father, Jeffrie Highsmith, recently submitted his DNA to 23andMe, a website customers can use to find relatives and create a family tree. The database found a match to three grandchildren, who are the children of Melanie Brown, her husband, John Brown, wrote on Facebook. A DNA test of Melanie Brown determined she is Melissa Highsmith, he wrote.

The family worked with an amateur genealogist who helped them understand the DNA results and research public records to find their long-lost loved one, according to the release. Melissa reunited with her parents and two of her four siblings for the first time on the weekend after Thanksgiving.

“I couldn’t stop crying,” said Victoria Garner, Melissa’s sister, according to a Facebook post. “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.”

The family hosted a celebration Saturday at their church in Fort Worth.

“It’s overwhelming and incredible to me,” said Sharon Highsmith, Melissa’s younger sister. “We have worked with law enforcement and we’ve tried to do our own private family investigations. 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.”

Their own detective work helped connect the family to Lisa Jo Schiele, a clinical laboratory scientist and amateur genealogist, the release said. Schiele helped the family interpret the DNA results. From there, she mined publicly available records to find Melissa.

“This is not the hardest genealogy puzzle I’ve ever solved,” Schiele said in the release. “I hope what I do gives other families the confidence to do the same. Never give up.”

Sharon said her siblings and their parents encourage other families with missing loved ones to keep believing.

“Never give up hope,” she said. “Chase every lead.”