FORT WORTH, Texas – A DNA test is credited with bringing a family together, more than 50 years after a baby was kidnapped from a Texas home.
In 1971, Melissa Highsmith was allegedly abducted by her babysitter from her Fort Worth, Texas, home when she was just 22 months old, CNN reported.
Melissa’s mother, Alta Apantenco, had hired the woman to babysit the child without ever meeting her in person after placing an advertisement in a newspaper, KXAS reported.
Highsmith’s family spent more than 50 years searching for her, following up on tips that took them as far as North Carolina, KTVT reported.
In the end, it was a 23andMe DNA test, without any help from police or professional investigators, that linked Melissa to her family, KXAS reported. The family had tried DNA tests before, but Melissa’s sister, Victoria Highsmith, said that she convinced her mother to try one more.
“Every time my mother got her hopes up,” Victoria said. “After 51 years, she didn’t want to submit another DNA test. She was tired and she was hurt and guilty from carrying this all these years. I’m thankful that we got her to agree to submit her DNA … it is because of that, and my dad submitting, that we were able to find Melissa.”
When they saw the match, the family reached out to Melissa on Facebook.
“My father texted me on Messenger and he told me, ‘You know, I’ve been looking for my daughter or 51 years,’” Melissa told KTVT.
Highsmith had been raised just 20 minutes away, in Fort Worth, under the name Melanie Walden, KTVT reported.
Highsmith described her life to WFAA as “hard” and said that she had believed the woman who raised her was her mother. Highsmith allegedly confronted the woman who raised her, who claimed she bought her on the street in 1972 for $500, WFAA reported.
The family reunited in person in November, meeting to sing “Happy Birthday” and release white balloons, The Washington Post reported.
“It was incredible,” Rebecca Del Bosque, Melissa’s sister, told The Washington Post. “It was like looking at yourself.”
In a statement, the Fort Worth Police Department said it was “overjoyed” that the family found Melissa, and that it would conduct official DNA testing to confirm her identity, CNN reported.
Melissa told KTVT she is happy to know her true family.
“My heart right now is just full and bursting with just so much emotion. I’m just really, really happy.”
The statute of limitations on the case expired 20 years after Melissa’s 18th birthday, CNN reported.
There is no statute of limitations for federal kidnapping charges, which could be pending based on the outcome of the investigation, WFAA reported.
Highsmith told KTVT she plans to change her name back to Melissa.