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Texas police confirm identity of woman who reunited with family after going missing 51 years ago

Melissa Highsmith's disappearance had been one of the country's oldest missing persons cases. She reunited with her family just a few months ago.

FORT WORTH, Texas — Police in Fort Worth, Texas, are hoping a recent DNA test will provide closure to a family who had been missing their daughter for more than 51 years.

Melissa Highsmith's disappearance had been one of the country's oldest missing persons case after she was handed to a babysitter at just 21 months old and was never seen again.

The lives of Highsmith and her biological parents changed forever in November 2022 when a 23andMe DNA test linked them together.

At the time, the Fort Worth Police Department said it would conduct its own official DNA testing. 

And now, several months later, police said the test confirmed Highsmith's identity.

Highsmith told WFAA she was overjoyed to learn of the police department's official DNA confirmation. 

"It’s like God has given me a new beginning," Highsmith said. "I can start over. It’s like a fairy tale, you know, I still wake up every day. Wow."

While the statute of limitations expired 20 years after Highsmith's 18th birthday, police said they still are seeking any information on her abduction from over 51 years ago.

This month, Highsmith, her father, and other family members traveled to Universal Orlando. It was one of the items on Highsmith's bucket list. 

She also plans to renew her vows with her husband soon, so that her father will have the chance to walk her down the aisle. Another item on her bucket list includes a visit to Spain, where one of her siblings lives. 

"All my life I never really felt like I belonged anywhere. I finally belong somewhere, and everybody loves me," Highsmith said. "I just love my family, I just love them so much."

Highsmith told WFAA she looks forward to making memories with her loved ones after decades of missing out on being together. 

This month, she plans to formally change her name back to her birth-given name: Melissa Highsmith. 

Back in November 2022, Highsmith and her parents spoke with WFAA about the reunion.

Credit: WFAA
Melissa Highsmith (right) with her biological mother, Alta Apantenco.

"I feel like I am dreaming, and I keep having to pinch myself to make sure I'm awake," Highsmith said.

"I’m just elated, I can't describe my feelings. I'm so happy to see my daughter that I didn't think I would ever see her again," said Alta Apantenco, Melissa’s mother.

"She's alive... I cried like a baby," said Jeffrie Highsmith, Melissa's father.

The case

Melissa Highsmith's disappearance dates back to Aug. 23, 1971 at an apartment building on East Seminary in Fort Worth.

Apantenco had advertised for a babysitter and ended up speaking with a person by the name of Ruth Johnson, who agreed to pick up 21-month-old Melissa from the apartment.

On that day, Apantenco had to be at work, so her roommate at the time handed the child to Johnson, who was described as being well-dressed and wearing white gloves.

Johnson never returned with Highsmith and could not be reached.

The missing persons case involved Fort Worth police and the FBI but searches came up empty-handed. At the time, police said they did not have any evidence that Highsmith was harmed.

When Highsmith spoke to WFAA in November 2022, she said she thought the woman who raised her was her mother but that she ended up running away from home in her teens due an abusive stepfather.

She also added that she had been living under the name Melanie.

"I didn't feel loved as a child. 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," Highsmith said.

Highsmith had also contacted a woman believed to be the one who raised her.

"The mother confessed, I bought you for $500 on the street, she said in 1972. Melissa thinks she's the one that kidnapped her from the Spanish Gate apartment in Fort Worth, Texas," Jeffrie Highsmith told WFAA.

It turns out Melissa Highsmith had been living just 20 minutes away from her biological mother, Alta Apantenco, in Fort Worth.

While the family was reunited, her parents said they're still trying to seek some sort of justice for the abduction.

"She stole 51 years of my joy with my family. Justice needs to be served," Jeffrie Highsmith said.

Melissa Highsmith told WFAA she wanted to speak face-to-face with the woman who raised her. "I don't want charges pressed. I would like answers," she said.

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