A woman abducted as a toddler has been reunited with her biological parents after 51 years, thanks to DNA testing. The reconnection was enabled by the genealogy website 23andme, where Jeffrie Highsmith was surprised to find his DNA matched three grandchildren he didn’t know he had.
They’re the children of Melanie Brown, his biological daughter, who was living in Forth Worth, Texas, oblivious to this dark part of her family history. The reunion “was just a mixture of joy and terrifying. Being terrified and excited and just trying to understand, you know, make sense of everything,” Melissa Highsmith told KDFW-TV. Read on to find out more.
Babysitting Offer Leads to Abduction
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Melissa Highsmith’s biological mother, Alta Apantenco, had recently separated from the girl’s father and placed a newspaper ad seeking a babysitter. A woman who answered the ad said she would watch the girl at her own house, and Apantenco agreed. The babysitter picked up the baby from Apantenco’s roommate on Aug. 23, 1971, and never brought her back.
The Highsmith family has been searching for her ever since. As late as October, family members took a trip to South Carolina to check out a tip that Melanie was living there. Then came the 23andme results.
Detective Work Leads to Reunion
The Highsmith family worked with an amateur genealogist, Lisa Jo Schiele, to interpret the results and pored over public records to locate Melissa. “This is not the hardest genealogy puzzle I’ve ever solved,” said Schiele. “I hope what I do gives other families the confidence to do the same. Never give up.”
Melanie and her parents were reunited in Fort Worth last month. She said she plans to change her name back to Melissa. She also hopes to renew her wedding vows to officially be married under that name.
“Overwhelming and Incredible”
“It’s overwhelming and incredible to me,” said Sharon Highsmith, Melissa’s younger sister. “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.”
Jeffrie Highsmith told KDFW the family never stopped hoping that Melissa would be found. “We had several tips, we would go off to other states. We would go off and talk to different girls, have DNA made, and our hopes were dashed,” he said. “It was hard.”
Melanie said she thought the woman who raised her was her mother and that she didn’t have a happy childhood. “I didn’t feel loved as a child,” she told WFAA. “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.”
The Fort Worth Police Department said it was “overjoyed” that Melissa was reunited with her family and the investigation into her disappearance continued. They said they would be looking into the possibility that the woman Melanie lived with as a child was responsible for her disappearance. But the statute of limitations for criminal charges has long passed.
“The FWPD Major Case Unit will be working with the Highsmith family to continue the investigation into Melissa’s disappearance,” the police department said. “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.”