In what might be the best Christmas gift ever, Melissa Highsmith was reunited with her family on Nov. 26, 51 years after she went missing as a toddler.
The parents finally located her through a 23andMe DNA test, according to KXAS-TV.
Melissa went missing in August of 1971, when she was just 22 months old.
Her mother, Alta Apantenco, was working as a waitress at the time.
Since she needed a babysitter to continue working, she placed an ad in the newspaper.
Apantenco was unable to wait for the babysitter to arrive at her apartment to pick up Melissa, so a roommate passed off the toddler to the babysitter. But the sitter never brought Melissa back to her home.
“We never gave up hope looking for her through the years. We had several tips, we would go off to other states. We would go off and talk to different girls, have DNA made, and our hopes were dashed. It was hard,” Jeff Highsmith, Melissa’s father, told KDFW-TV.
The family said they faced the horror of law enforcement accusing Apantenco of murdering her own daughter and hiding the crime.
When Facebook came into existence, the family even started a Facebook page entitled, “Finding Melissa.” (The page has now been renamed to “WE FOUND MELISSA!”)
It was through the suggestion of a genealogist that they discovered 23andMe.
“Every time my mother got her hopes up. 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,” Victoria Highsmith, Melissa’s sister, told KXAS. “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.”
She said they found her sister within three weeks, and that she was overjoyed that her mom is able to feel a certain amount of peace and satisfaction after all the unjust police accusations.
After all their efforts to travel around the country chasing down false leads, they were shocked to learn that Melissa was living in Fort Worth, only 20 minutes away from her biological mother, according to WFAA-TV.
The family was reunited during a celebration at a Fort Worth church.
“I couldn’t stop crying. I was overjoyed and I’m still walking around in a fog trying to comprehend that my sister is right in front of me and that we found her,” Victoria Highsmith told KXAS. “It’s a Christmas miracle! It’s amazing meeting her. It was like looking into myself — she looks like me, like us. She’s overjoyed to be in our lives.”
Melissa told KXAS that she had a difficult upbringing and that she ran away from home at 15.
She told KDFW, “I feel like it’s God giving me a second chance.”
Melissa and her newfound family told KDFW that they believe the woman who raised Melissa is the kidnapper, even though the woman told Melissa she bought the child “off the street for $500” when she was a baby.
KDFW reported that the Fort Worth Police Department will be conducting its own DNA testing to confirm Melissa’s identity.
In a statement, the department said that, “[e]ven 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.”
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