More than 50 years after her babysitter kidnapped her as a baby in Texas, an American woman has reunited with her family, who tracked their missing loved one down with a DNA test and without help from law enforcement or other outside involvement.
The incredible story of the disappearance of Melissa Highsmith ended in South Carolina, US on Saturday, November 26 according to a report from the Charleston television news station WCIV as well as a news release from her family.
Highsmith was a year old in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1971 when her mother, Alta Apantenco, published a newspaper advertisement asking for a babysitter.
Apatenco hired a woman who expressed interest in the job without ever meeting her in person.
When the woman came to start the job, Apatenco’s roommate handed baby Melissa over to the babysitter, who allegedly abducted her and never returned her.
Loved ones of Highsmith reported her missing to police and for over 50 years her family threw birthday parties for her every November.
Recently they also created a Facebook page named “Finding Melissa Highsmith” and solicited help in finding their missing relative.
Then, in September this year, loved ones of Highsmith received an anonymous tip that she was around Charleston, which is more than 1,100 miles from Fort Worth.
The family used the results of a DNA test, a birthmark on Melissa and her birthday to confirm that she indeed was the girl who had been taken from them 51 years ago.
On Saturday, during a celebration at the family’s church in Fort Worth, Melissa reunited with her mother, her father and two of her four siblings, the group said in a statement obtained by the Guardian on Monday.
“I couldn’t stop crying,” sister Victoria Garner said in the statement. “I was overjoyed, and I’m still walking around in a fog trying to comprehend that my sister [was] right in front of me and that we found her.”
In the family’s statement, 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 it was their own private search for Melissa, which included the 23andMe test, that paid off.
Sharon Highsmith said her family connected with a clinical laboratory scientist and amateur genealogist named Lisa Jo Schiele to help them with interpreting the key DNA results and mining publicly available records to locate Melissa.
“Our family has suffered at the hands of agencies who have mismanaged this case,” Sharon Highsmith said. “Right now, we just want to get to know Melissa, welcome her to the family and make up for 50 years of lost time.”
It wasn’t immediately clear Monday what happened to the babysitter.
Sharon Highsmith said she was particularly thankful for her mother, who in addition to being filled with guilt after Melissa’s disappearance had faced accusations that she had possibly killed her missing daughter and hidden the crime.
“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’s statement said. “I’m grateful … we have vindication for my mom.”
The family statement said Melissa’s mother, her father Jeffrie Highsmith, and her siblings – Garner, Sharon Highsmith, Rebecca Del Bosque, and Jeff Highsmith – all had a simple message for people searching for missing loved ones.
“Never give up,” the statement said. “Chase every lead.”