By Ashley Killough and Ed Lavandera, CNN
A family in Fort Worth, Texas, has been reunited with their daughter who was kidnapped as a baby more than five decades ago thanks to a DNA match from the ancestry service 23andMe, the family announced Sunday.
Melissa Highsmith was just 22-months old in 1971 when she was allegedly abducted by a woman who was hired to babysit her, according to posts by the family over the years.
Highsmith — raised with the name Melanie — has lived in Fort Worth for much of her life, never knowing she was missing, according to CNN affiliate KTVT.
She had no idea her family was searching for her until they reached out to her through Facebook, she told the affiliate. At first, she thought the message may be a scam.
“My father texted me on messenger and he told me, ‘You know, I’ve been looking for my daughter for 51 years,'” Highsmith told KTVT.
The family found Highsmith through a DNA match with one her children on 23andMe, KTVT reported.
“The person that raised me, 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,” Highsmith told the affiliate.
Highsmith’s parents reunited with her for the first time Saturday and did further “official and legal DNA testing,” the family wrote online.
“Although in the moment we saw her pictures, found out about her birthmark, and realized her ‘birthday’ is so close to our Melissa, WE KNEW beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was OUR GIRL,” the family added in a Facebook post announcing the news.
A profile of Highsmith’s case by the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System notes that the missing baby had a birthmark on her upper back. The report also includes a sketch of the alleged babysitter and age progression photos of Melissa.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” her mother, Alta Apantenco, told KTVT through tears, recalling the reunion. “I thought I would never see her again.”
“Our finding Melissa was purely because of DNA, not because of any police / FBI involvement, podcast involvement, or even our family’s own private investigations or speculations,” one of the Highsmith family members wrote on Facebook.
The Fort Worth Police Department was “overjoyed” that 23andMe led the family to Melissa, it said Monday in a statement, adding it would conduct official DNA testing to confirm Melissa’s identity.
The criminal statute of limitations expired 20 years after Melissa’s 18th birthday, but the department said it would continue the investigation to “uncover all of the available information concerning Melissa’s abduction that occurred 51 years ago.”
At the time of Highsmith’s disappearance, her mother said she put an ad in the paper looking for a babysitter to care for her baby while she worked, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.
Apantenco said a woman responded to the ad, offering to watch Melissa at her home, the newspaper reported. When the woman arrived to pick up the baby, she said, Apantenco’s roommate was looking after the child. The roommate handed the baby to the woman, she told the paper, and the woman never returned.
The incident has always haunted Apantenco, who went on to have four more children, according to the Highsmith family.
“My mom did the best she could with the limited resources she had. She couldn’t risk getting fired. So, she trusted the person who said they’d care for her child,” Sharon Highsmith, Melissa’s younger sister, said in a news release. “For 50 years, my mom has lived with the guilt of losing Melissa. She’s also lived with community and nationwide accusations that she hurt or killed her own baby. I’m so glad we have Melissa back. I’m also grateful we have vindication for my mom.”
The family says they want others who are missing loved ones to keep believing.
“Never give up hope,” Sharon said. “Chase every lead.”
™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.