Fort Worth

‘It's a Christmas Miracle': Texas Woman Reunited With Family 51 Years After Kidnapping

Melissa Highsmith was kidnapped from her parents' Fort Worth home in 1971 when she was just 22 months old

NBCUniversal, Inc.

Here's a Christmas miracle — after years of searching, a Fort Worth family has found their long-lost daughter and sister 51 years after she was kidnapped.

Melissa Highsmith went missing in 1971 when, at just 22 months old, she was taken from her parents' Fort Worth home by a babysitter.

More than 50 years later, Highsmith's family tracked down their missing loved one using a 23andMe DNA test, "without help from law enforcement or other outside involvement."

MELISSA HIGHSMITH'S DISAPPEARANCE

In August 1971, Melissa's mother Alta Apantenco was working as a waitress and in need of a babysitter, so she put an advertisement in the newspaper. Apantenco hired a woman who expressed interest in the job without meeting her in person.

While Apantenco was at work, her roommate handed Melissa over to a babysitter who allegedly abducted the 22-month-old and never returned.

According to the family, Apantenco faced years of accusations from law enforcement that she had possibly killed her daughter and hidden the crime.

Loved ones looked for Melissa for years but never gave up. In recent years they even created a Facebook page named "Finding Melissa."

Victoria Highsmith
(Courtesy, Victoria Highsmith)

The Highsmith family tracked Melissa down using Ancestry and 23andMe after a recommendation from a genealogist. The family said their mother was hesitant since she had done DNA tests with six different women throughout the years, and they all came back negative.

"Every time my mother got her hopes up. After 51 years, she didn't want to submit another DNA test. She was tired and she was hurt and guilty from carrying this all these years," said Victoria Highsmith, Melissa's sister. "I'm thankful that we got her to agree to submit her DNA ... It is because of that, and my dad submitting, that we were able to find Melissa."

Victoria said they didn't find Melissa through her own DNA sample but through her children's DNA and that the match came back quickly after both of her parents submitted their samples.

"Within three weeks we found my sister. It was like, 'Boom, boom, boom,' we found her," said Victoria Highsmith.

Decades-old crimes are being solved using genetic genealogy. Here’s what you need to know.

Victoria also said she is so happy that her mother can now feel vindicated after being accused by police when she had nothing to do with Melissa's disappearance.

"She has carried this pain and this guilt for 51 years, and I have watched her cry for three days of joy. I have never seen my mother so happy," said Victoria Highsmith.

REUNITING WITH MELISSA HIGHSMITH

Melissa has been living in Fort Worth for most of her life and never knew she had been kidnapped, her family wrote in posts on a Facebook page named “WE FOUND MELISSA!!!”

On Saturday, during a celebration at a church in Fort Worth, Melissa reunited with her mother, her father and two of her four siblings, sharing tears, hugs and smiles.

Victoria Highsmith
Melissa Highsmith was reunited with her parents, Alta Apantenco and Jeffrie Highsmith, 51 years after she was kidnapped in Fort Worth, Texas. (Courtesy, Victoria Highsmith)

“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,” said Victoria Highsmith. "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."

Melissa said she didn't have a good life and she ran away from home at the age of 15. She also confirmed that she will be changing her name from Melanie and back to her birth name.

Another sister, Sharon Highsmith, who lives in Spain and plans to meet Melissa this Christmas, described how her relatives had turned to law enforcement officials for assistance but that it was their own private search for Melissa, which included the 23andMe test, that paid off.

NBC 5 reached out to the Fort Worth Police Department for an update on the kidnapping case or confirmation Melissa had been found, but we're still waiting for an answer.

Contact Us