A Texas woman who was kidnapped as a baby more than 50 years ago has been reunited with her family members thanks to a home DNA testing kit.
Melissa Highsmith was just 22 months old when a babysitter allegedly kidnapped her from her parents’ Fort Worth apartment in August 1971, according to NBC Dallas-Fort Worth.
Highsmith's mother, Alta Apantenco, who was working as a waitress at the time, placed an ad in a local newspaper in order to find child care for her daughter. After a woman answered the ad, Apantenco hired her without meeting her first. The woman allegedly took Apantenco's daughter and never returned.
Apantenco, her husband, Jeffrie Highsmith, and her family members spent the next five decades searching for the missing child, even turning to social media in the digital age by creating a Facebook page called “Finding Melissa.”
All the while, the grieving mother faced accusations from local law enforcement who suspected her of murdering her missing daughter, family members told NBC Dallas-Forth Worth.
After a recommendation from a genealogist, the family decided to use the home DNA testing kits Ancestry and 23andMe in an effort to track down Highsmith. The idea worked: A promising DNA match turned up on 23andMe.
Melissa Highsmith's sister Victoria Highsmith told NBC Dallas-Fort Worth that the DNA matched samples from Melissa Highsmith’s children. Her parents then provided their own DNA samples.
Within three weeks, the Highsmiths were reunited with their long-lost daughter, now 53.
“It was like, ‘Boom, boom, boom,’ we found her,” Victoria Highsmith said.
“I couldn’t stop crying. 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,” she added. “It’s a Christmas miracle! It’s amazing meeting her. It was like looking into myself; she looks like me, like us. She’s overjoyed to be in our lives.”
On Nov. 27, family members shared a jubilant post about the reunion on the Facebook page, which has since been renamed "We Found Melissa." The post included several photos of Melissa Highsmith hugging her parents and other loved ones.
“Our finding Melissa was purely because of DNA, not because of any police / FBI involvement, podcast involvement, or even our family’s own private investigations or speculations,” the family said in the post. “DNA WINS THIS SEARCH!”
According to NBC Dallas-Fort Worth, Melissa Highsmith, who grew up believing her name was Melanie, lived most of her life in Fort Worth and had no idea she had been kidnapped.
A spokesperson for 23andMe told NBC News that the company had never heard of an account like this one.
“There are really no words to describe how incredible this story is. We are so grateful Melissa and her family were able to reunite after such a long period of time, and we wish them all the best in getting to know one another,” the spokesperson said.
The Fort Worth Police Department did not provide details about the case to NBC News but stated that officers were “overjoyed to hear about how the Highsmith’s use of 23andme led them to Melissa.”
“The Fort Worth Police Department will be conducting official DNA testing to confirm Melissa’s identity, and the department will provide an update once the official results have come in,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement on Nov. 29.
The statement noted that no arrests can be made in Melissa Highsmith's case because the criminal statute of limitations expired 20 years after her 18th birthday. However, investigators are still working to uncover all available information related to the kidnapping.