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Woman kidnapped as child found 51 years later, reunited with family in Texas

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A woman who was kidnapped as a child 51 years ago was identified through DNA and found still living in Fort Worth, Texas, 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 has lived in Fort Worth most of her life and never knew she had been kidnapped, her family wrote in posts on a Facebook page called “WE FOUND MELISSA!!!”

Family members wrote on Facebook that they don’t know what happened to the woman who took the child and that they expect police will investigate.

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 news 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 Melissa’s sister Victoria Garner, 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.

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“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.”

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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 and 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.”

Melissa’s mother was working as a waitress in August 1971, according to an account of the case from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. She had just separated from Melissa’s father and moved to Fort Worth. She placed an ad in a newspaper looking for someone to care for her child.

A woman answered the ad and agreed to meet Melissa’s mom at the restaurant where she worked, but she never showed up. The babysitter called the mother later, saying she really wanted the job, had a nice big yard and cared for other children as well. The mother hired her, and the babysitter picked Melissa up from the roommate at their apartment when Apantenco was at work.

As a single mom who feared losing her job, Apantenco made the difficult choice to hire the babysitter without meeting face to face, the family said.

“My mom did the best she could with the limited resources she had. She couldn’t risk getting fired. So, she trusted the person who said they’d care for her child,” Sharon Highsmith said. “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.”

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In October, members of the family went to South Carolina to investigate a tip about a possible sighting of Melissa, according to her brother, Jeff Highsmith.

The trip didn’t turn up any new leads, but the family didn’t give up.

Sharon Highsmith 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.”

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