FORT WORTH, Texas — Melissa Highsmith’s case was one of the oldest missing person cases in the country.
But four days ago, her life changed forever. The family said a 23andMe DNA case linked the family together.
In a sit-down interview with WFAA, Highsmith said, "I feel like I am dreaming, and I keep having to pinch myself to make sure I'm awake."
"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.
On Aug. 23, 1971, Apantenco advertised for a babysitter and spoke with a supposed sitter by the name of Ruth Johnson, who agreed to pick up 21-month-old Melissa from the family’s apartment building on East Seminary in Fort Worth.
Since Apantenco had to be at work, her roommate handed Melissa to Johnson, who was described as well-dressed and wearing white gloves.
That evening, Johnson never returned little Melissa and could not be reached. Fort Worth police and the FBI were soon involved, but more than 50 years later, very few leads have surfaced.
Police at the time said they discovered no evidence Melissa was harmed and hoped Johnson or whoever had the baby was taking good care of her.
Highsmith said she had a hard life and that all this time, she thought the woman who raised her was her mother.
"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.
WFAA asked if Highsmith spoke to the woman she called "mom"; she felt hurt sharing the details. But her father, Jeffrie, said Highsmith contacted the woman through Facebook messenger, saying, "Do you have anything to tell me? She said, 'Am I this little girl?'"
"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," said Jeffrie.
Highsmith was living 20 minutes away from her biological mother in Fort Worth, and they had no idea.
Apantenco said her ex-husband got an email three days ago that linked them.
"He was going through his DNA, and these three names popped up, and he didn't know who they were. But it has his DNA, and it had her DNA. It was two boys and a girl. He didn't understand, and he called his daughter Rebecca who had been working on it. Then my son reached out to her with a friend request, and she accepted it. And he was telling her all these things about Melissa being kidnapped, and she said, 'I'm sorry, I don't think I'm that person,'" said Apantenco.
Highsmith wasn’t sure if she should believe it. She said Jeff, her brother, told her, "He asked me; I don't think I'm that girl I'm so sorry. He said wouldn't you like to be 100% sure? He said I'll pay for the DNA test, and I told him I'll take the test, but I really didn't think I was that girl. Once I saw the baby picture, and I put my baby picture against it, it's like my twin."
From here on, Highsmith said she plans on officially changing her name from Melanie back to Melissa. She also plans on re-marrying her current husband so her father can walk her down the aisle and so her family can be at her wedding.
"The Fort Worth Police Department (FWPD) is overjoyed to hear about how the Highsmith’s use of 23andme led them to Melissa. The Fort Worth Police Department will be conducting official DNA testing to confirm Melissa’s identity, and the department will provide an update once the official results have come in," said the department in a statement. "The FWPD Major Case Unit will be working with the Highsmith family to continue the investigation into Melissa’s disappearance. 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."
The family wants justice served.
"She stole 51 years of my joy with my family. Justice needs to be served. Right now, I want to spend time with my daughter," said Jeffrie.
Who faces justice?
The nationwide coverage of Highsmith being reunited with her family has raised questions, too.
Many of these surround the woman who Highsmith thought was her mom all these years and if she will face any charges.
A spokesperson for the Fort Worth Police Department wouldn't elaborate on which criminal statute of limitations expired, but the only one WFAA could find that expires 20 years after a victim's 18th birthday was aggravated kidnapping.
The statute of limitations is set at seven years for kidnapping.
Former Dallas Police Department Assistant Chief Craig Miller told WFAA that these truths must be frustrating for investigators.
"There's a lot of moving parts in a criminal investigation like this," Miller said. "It's a Christmas miracle that this family has been able to reunite with a lost child like this--but it's unlikely that there will be any criminal charges filed."
That doesn't mean that Highsmith can't pursue a case civilly against the woman who raised her, Miller added.
"What might be intriguing for detectives is going back and looking at the case and seeing if this person was ever a suspect," Miller said. "Maybe in their own minds, they can get some form of closure."
Federal kidnapping charges could still be filed, however, which carry no statute of limitations.
The criteria that need to be met for those charges to be filed are more stringent, per Dr. Alex Del Carmen, a criminologist and trainer for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
"If the individual crossed state lines, you could file charges. If they used the mail or any form of communicating on a national level to execute the kidnapping--that could be another instance," Dr. Del Carmen said.
"Thirdly, if ransom money was somehow involved, that could also get federal involvement. Still, I think investigators will have a really hard time being able to piece all of this together, considering how long ago this happened."
A source told WFAA that the FBI has not been fully involved with this case as of yet.