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Crime News Missing Persons

DNA Test Confirms Texas Woman Is 1971 Kidnapping Victim Melissa Highsmith

Melissa Highsmith was abducted from her family home in Fort Worth by a woman responding to a newspaper ad for a babysitter in 1971.

By Christina Coulter

Last Thursday, Fort Worth Police confirmed the true identity of a Texas woman who reunited with her birth family 52 years after she was abducted as a toddler.  

Now 53 years old, Melissa Highsmith — known as Melissa Brown by marriage — grew up as Melanie Miyoko after she was taken from her parents' home in Fort Worth in August of 1971 by a woman posing as a babysitter.

In an interview with People last November, before police confirmed the family's private DNA testing results this week, Highsmith said she was raised just ten minutes away from where she was kidnapped. 

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"The whole time I was there, it was a bad childhood," Highsmith said of life with her captor.

"I wasn't allowed to go outside and play, and she always sheltered me," she recalled. "And she said the reason she sheltered me was because I was born at home and that I had brain damage... I used to wonder, 'Why did she even have me if she didn't want me?'"

Highsmith ran away from the woman who raised her at just 15 years old, according to reporting by ABC 7

"It was abusive, and I ran away at 15 years old. I went to the streets," Melissa told ABC. "I did what I had to do to get by. What does that mean? I worked the streets."

Highsmith's biological mother, Alta Apantenco, posted a newspaper ad for a babysitter shortly before she was kidnapped. A woman responded to the ad, agreeing to meet then-21-year-old Alta at the diner where she worked, but never showed, per the Star-Telegram. The prospective babysitter called later, telling Alta that she really wanted the position and had previously babysat other children in her large backyard. Without meeting in person, Alta hired the woman over the phone out of desperation, having recently separated from her husband, Jeffrie Highsmith.

On August 23, 1971, a mysterious, well-dressed woman wearing white gloves showed up to her Seminary Road apartment. While Alta was asleep, the woman told the Apantenco's roommate that she had "come to pick up the baby" and took away Melissa, who was last seen wearing a pink dress and white sandals, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

The girl wasn't seen again by her biological family for over 50 years. 

Two weeks after Highsmith was kidnapped, her mother Alta wrote a plea to her unknown kidnapper to be published on the front page of the Star-Telegram. "Open letter to a kidnapper," began the letter, which appeared in print on September 8 that year. "I beg of you to call me... I've been going out of my mind."

After years of searching for her long-lost daughter, 73-year-old Alta told People she had nearly given up hope.

Handouts of Melissa Highsmith from NCMEC

"My family believed that she was still alive, and I wanted to believe it, but I had been disappointed so many times that I just told them, 'Leave me out of it,'" Alta explained. "I said, 'You go ahead, and you try to find Melissa, but please leave me out of it because I don't want to get involved.' I wanted to lay it to rest, but they didn't want to."

The Highsmith family continued to throw birthday parties for Melissa after her disappearance. On Melissa's 53rd birthday, 23andMe returned a match for recently submitted DNA, according to the outlet.

The Ancestry service linked her biological father Jeffrie Highsmith's sample to those of Melissa's three children with husband John Brown. 

On the weekend after Thanksgiving, Melissa — who had no idea she had been abducted — reunited with her parents and two of her four siblings, according to family social media posts reviewed by the Star-Telegram.

“I couldn’t stop crying,” wrote Melissa’s biological sister Victoria Garner in 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.”

Sharon Highsmith, Melissa's younger sister, said that the discovery was "overwhelming and incredible."

“We have worked with law enforcement and we’ve tried to do our own private family investigations," she said. "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.”

Sharon told the Star-Telegram that her family had "suffered at the hands of agencies who have mismanaged this case" and "media outlets who've sensationalized our family's pain" for decades before their family was reunited. 

“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.”

The Highsmith family credited their long-awaited reunion with Melissa to their strong Christian faith.

"We give all the credit to God. We really believe it was — we're people of faith, and we believe it was through prayer," Jeffrie, 72, told People.

"God is an amazing God, and he can do anything. He's a way maker, a miracle worker, a promise keeper, a light in the darkness. That's my God," Alta added. 

Despite their years-long ordeal, the family is unable to prosecute Melissa's kidnappers — authorities told them the statute of limitations for the Texas crime ran out 48 years ago. 

“The FWPD Major Case Unit will be working with the Highsmith family to continue the investigation into Melissa’s disappearance,” the police department said, per the Star-Telegram. “Even though the criminal statute of limitations expired 20 years after Melissa’s 18th birthday, the Fort Worth Police Department is committed to completing this investigation to uncover all of the available information concerning Melissa’s abduction that occurred 51 years ago.”

Melissa told People she recently stopped communication with the woman pretending to be her mother.

Now, Melissa told ABC, she wants to remarry her husband so that her biological father can walk her down the aisle. 

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