One of the oldest missing person cases in the country has finally been solved after a half-century.
Melissa Highsmith was kidnapped in Fort Worth, Tex., on Aug. 23, 1971, when she was just 21 months old.
Now, decades later, she has finally reunited with her family after an anonymous tip and DNA testing solved the incredible 50-year mystery.
“It’s overwhelming, but at the same time, it’s the most wonderful feeling in the world,” Melissa told CBS News of the reunion on Thanksgiving.
“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,” her birth mother, Alta Apantenco, told WFAA.
At the time of Melissa’s disappearance, her mother had separated from her partner, Jeffrie Highsmith, and moved to Fort Worth as a 21-year-old single mother.
Apantenco placed an advertisement in the local newspaper, desperate for a babysitter to watch over her young daughter as she began working as a waitress.
She hired a supposed sitter, Ruth Johnson, who picked up the 21-month-old baby girl from the care of her mother’s roommate while Apantenco was at work. The roommate said the woman who came to get the toddler seemed “nice” and “dressed to impress,” wearing white gloves, sunglasses and a bonnet around her head, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).
However, she never returned with Melissa, nor could anyone reach her. Apantenco called the authorities when her daughter wasn’t returned — and has been searching for her ever since, with few leads or evidence ever surfacing.
Then, in September 2022, the NCMEC received an anonymous tip of a potential sighting in Charleston, SC. The tipster claimed to have recognized the woman from NCMEC’s digitally age-progressed faces of their open cases.
While the Highsmith family then traveled from Texas to Charleston in October to talk to locals about the case themselves and spread awareness, the tip turned out to be a dead-end.
However, Highsmith’s father Jeffrie took a 23AndMe DNA test, which connected him to Melissa’s own children. A quick internet search soon brought up her Facebook page, and Jeffrie and Apantenco’s other children reached out to the 23AndMe connection and persuaded her to meet.
“I started crying … after 51 years, it’s so emotional,” Jeffrie told CBS News.
Seeing her baby photos and sharing a particular birthmark was the final confirmation the family needed to know that they had found one another.
Apantenco has since learned that her baby girl was being raised fewer than 20 minutes away and lived in Fort Worth most of her life.
Melissa, who was married and going by the name Melanie Walden, had no idea she was kidnapped but “didn’t feel loved as a child,” saying she grew up in an “abusive” household.
“I ran away at 15 years old. I went to the streets. I did what I had to do to get by … I worked the streets,” she shared.
Melissa said she was initially unsure about the wild story she was given but was persuaded to take a DNA test by her now-brother, Jeff. “He said, ‘Wouldn’t you like to be 100% sure?’ He said, ‘I’ll pay for the DNA test,’ and I told him, ‘I’ll take the test but I really didn’t think I was that girl,’” she said.
But she was especially swayed by photo evidence. “Once I saw the baby picture, and I put my baby picture against it — it’s like my twin,” she said.
Melissa confronted the person who raised her and had her questions answered.
“I asked her, ‘Is there anything you need to tell me?’ and it was confirmed that she knew that I was baby Melissa, so that just made it real,” she said.
No other information about her kidnapper has been released.
Melissa told WFAA that she plans to legally change her name back to Melissa and re-marry her husband so that her father can walk her down the aisle with her whole family in attendance.
“It’s a Christmas miracle,” Melissa told WFAA.