Woman kidnapped as child found 51 years later still in Fort Worth, reunited with family
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A woman abducted as a child 51 years ago has been identified by DNA and found still alive in Fort Worth, her family said Sunday after they were reunited with her this weekend.
Melissa Highsmith was 22 months old when she was kidnapped by a babysitter in 1971. Growing up in Fort Worth, she never knew she had been kidnapped, her family wrote in posts on a Facebook page titled "WE FOUND MELISSA!!!"
Melissa's mother, Alta Apantenco, had left the toddler in the care of her roommate, who turned her over to the babysitter on Aug. 23, 1971, the family said in a press release Sunday.
"Though she was missed for decades, the family has never forgotten Melissa," the press release reads. "They have continued to throw birthday parties for her, including the last one in November. On the same day, the family found a match in the DNA results.”
Melissa's father, Jeffrie Highsmith, recently submitted his DNA to 23andMe, a website where customers can find relatives and create a family tree. The database found a match for three grandchildren who are Melanie Brown's children, her husband John Brown wrote on Facebook. A DNA test of Melanie Brown revealed she is Melissa Highsmith, he wrote.
The family worked with an amateur genealogist who helped them understand DNA results and search public records to locate their long-lost loved one, according to the press release. The weekend after Thanksgiving, Melissa reunited with her parents and two of her four siblings for the first time.
"I couldn't stop crying," said Victoria Garner, Melissa's sister, according to a Facebook post. "I was over the moon and I'm still walking around in the fog trying to realize that my sister is right in front of me and that we found her."
The family held a celebration at their church in Fort Worth on Saturday.
"It's overwhelming and incredible to me," said Sharon Highsmith, Melissa's younger sister. "We have been cooperating with law enforcement and attempting to conduct our own private family investigations. For decades, my parents have been chasing leads and hiring their own labs and investigators. And yet these DNA tests, available to everyone, helped us find our lost loved one.”
Her own detective work helped link the family to Lisa Jo Schiele, a clinical laboratory scientist and amateur genealogist, the press release said. Schiele helped the family interpret the DNA results. From there, she searched publicly available records to find Melissa.
"This isn't the hardest genealogy puzzle I've ever solved," Schiele said in the press release. "I hope what I'm doing gives other families the confidence to do the same. Never give up."
Sharon said her siblings and her parents encouraged other families with missing loved ones to keep believing.
"Never give up hope," she said. "Follow every lead."
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