It has taken more than half a century, but one of the oldest missing person cases in the US has finally been solved.
It was on August 23, 1971, when 21-month-old toddler Melissa Highsmith was kidnapped from her Fort Worth, Texas home by a woman claiming to be a babysitter.
Now, 51 years later, she has been reunited with her family in an emotional Thanksgiving celebration after an anonymous tip and DNA testing solved the incredible decades-long mystery, the New York Post reports.
“It’s overwhelming, but at the same time, it’s the most wonderful feeling in the world,” Melissa, who was raised with the name Melanie, told CBS News.
“I’m just elated. I can’t describe my feelings,” her birth mother, Alta Apantenco, told WFAA.
“I’m so happy to see my daughter that I didn’t think I would ever see again.”
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At the time of Melissa’s disappearance, Ms Apantenco had separated from her partner, Jeffrie Highsmith, and moved to Fort Worth as a 21-year-old single mum.
Needing to begin a job as a waitress, she placed an advertisement in the local newspaper looking for a babysitter.
She hired a supposed sitter, Ruth Johnson, who picked up the 21-month-old baby girl from the care of Ms Apantenco’s roommate while she was at work.
The roommate said the woman who came to get the toddler seemed “nice” and “dressed to impress,” wearing white gloves, sunglasses and a bonnet around her head, according to the US National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).
But she never returned with Melissa, nor could anyone reach her.
Ms Apantenco called the police when her daughter wasn’t brought back, and has been searching for her ever since, with few leads or evidence ever surfacing.
Then, in September 2022, the NCMEC received an anonymous tip of a potential sighting in Charleston, South Carolina.
The person claimed to have recognised the woman from NCMEC’s digitally age-progressed faces of their open cases.
The lead turned out to be a dead end, but then dad Jeffrie Highsmith took a 23AndMe DNA test, which connected him to Melissa’s own children.
A quick internet search soon brought up her Facebook page, and Mr Highsmith and Ms Apantenco’s other children contacted the 23AndMe connection and persuaded her to meet them.
“I started crying … after 51 years, it’s so emotional,” Mr Highsmith told CBS News.
Seeing her baby photos and sharing a particular birthmark convinced the family that it was, in fact, Melissa.
Ms Apantenco has since learned that her baby girl was being raised fewer than 20 minutes away and lived in Fort Worth most of her life.
Melissa, who was married and going by the name Melanie Walden, had no idea she was kidnapped but said she “didn’t feel loved as a child,” describing the household she grew up in as “abusive”.
“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,” she said.
Melissa said she was initially unsure about the wild story she was given by the family, but was persuaded to take a DNA test by her now-brother, Jeff.
“He said, ‘Wouldn’t you like to be 100 per cent 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,’” she said.
But she was especially swayed by photo evidence.
“Once I saw the baby picture, and I put my baby picture against it – it’s like my twin,” she said.
Melissa confronted the person who raised her and had her questions answered.
“I asked her, ‘Is there anything you need to tell me?’ And it was confirmed that she knew that I was baby Melissa, so that just made it real,” she said.
No other information about her kidnapper has been released.
Melissa told WFAA that she plans to legally change her name back to Melissa and remarry her husband so that her father can walk her down the aisle with her whole family in attendance.
“It’s a Christmas miracle,” Melissa told WFAA.
This article originally appeared in the New York Post and was reproduced with permission