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A woman who was abducted as a toddler 51 years ago has been reunited with her family through the help of DNA.
Melissa Highsmith disappeared on Aug. 23, 1971 after she was handed off to a woman claiming to be a babysitter. For decades, the family desperately searched for Highsmith — who had been just 21 months old when she vanished — but this month, a family DNA match on 23 & Me resulted in the happy ending they'd long been hoping for.
“We are beyond thrilled to announce that WE FOUND MELISSA!!!” Sharon Rose Highsmith wrote on a Facebook page managed by the family, alongside photos of an emotional reunion with Melissa. “There are so many details we would like to share, but for now, we would just like to say that we followed a 23 & Me family DNA match that led us to her. 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.”
Melissa, who had been living in Fort Worth, Texas under the name Melanie Walden, reunited with her family over the weekend and is now considering changing her name back to Melissa.
“It’s overwhelming, but at the same time, it’s the most wonderful feeling in the world,” she told CBS affiliate KTVT of learning of her shocking past and being reunited with her biological family.
Melissa disappeared in August 1971 after her 22-year-old mother Alta Apantenco placed an ad in the local newspaper looking for childcare. Apantenco was recently separated from her husband and needed someone to watch her daughter while she worked as a waitress at a local restaurant, according to a previous statement to Oxygen.com from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
A woman answered the ad and agreed to meet Apantenco at the restaurant where she worked, but she never showed up. The same woman later called again and said that she really wanted the job and had other children she took care of during the day.
Apantenco agreed to hire the woman and the babysitter later picked Melissa up from Apantenco’s roommate at their apartment. The roommate described the babysitter as being “dressed to impress” and wearing white gloves. It was some of the only clues investigators had for decades.
The case got a resurgence of media attention in September, when the NCMEC got an anonymous tip that there had been a “possible sighting” of Melissa in the Charleston, South Carolina area. The tip would never pan out, but it did spark a renewed effort to find Melissa.
Melissa’s father Jeffrie Highsmith submitted his DNA to the popular website 23 & Me and was surprised earlier this month to get an email that linked him to Melissa’s three children, Fox News reports.
“One of our sisters called her daughter — the youngest one — and her daughter led us to her mom,” Melissa’s younger brother, Jeff Highsmith, told the outlet.
Melissa, who has been living in Fort Worth not far from where she was abducted from, has taken an official DNA test to confirm the family’s belief that she is the missing toddler, but they are still waiting for the results.
Melissa said she initially didn’t believe that she was the missing toddler.
"The person that raised me, 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 told KTVT.
On Saturday, Melissa met with her biological father and mother in an emotional reunion.
“That was the best day that I ever had in my whole life when I saw Melissa again,” Apantenco said through tears of getting to hug her daughter again.
Melissa told ABC affiliate WFAA that she had a difficult life after getting abducted and struggled to connect with the woman she believed to be her mother.
"I didn't feel loved as a child,” she said. “It was abusive, and 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.”
Melissa said she now plans to officially change her name back to Melissa and even hopes to re-marry her husband in a ceremony so that her father can officially walk her down the aisle.
“My heart right now is just full and bursting with just so much emotion. I’m just really, really happy,” she said.
To date, no arrests have been made in the case.
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