Jeff, 42, told DailyMail.com that he was only six years old when his parents told him about his sister's abductionMelissa Highsmith, 53, was kidnapped 51 years ago by a babysitterShe was reunited with her parents and siblings who found her using a DNA testOn Thanksgiving, Jeff met his sister for the first time. He said that his sister did not even know she was abducted until now The family searched the country but she was only miles away in Fort WorthA tip of a possible sighting in North Carolina was a dead endThe family felt let down by law enforcement agencies but are glad for 23andMe Now the family hopes police will find the person who abducted their sister
The brother of the woman kidnapped by a babysitter in 1971 said ‘God answered my prayers’ after an emotional reunion with the sister he’s been searching for most of his life.
Jeff Highsmith, 42, told DailyMail.com that he was only six years old when his parents told him about his sister Melissa Highsmith’s abduction.
He said at the time he was too young to understand, but around thirteen he began to do his own research and became obsessed with her disappearance.
‘It was a horrible tragedy and we never thought we would find her and we just moved on but it haunted me and consumed me,’ Jeff said.
Melissa, now 53, was kidnapped from her mother’s Texas home just months before she turned two. It wasn’t until Thanksgiving eve that Jeff’s prayers were answered. After decades of dead ends, cold leads and unanswered questions, the siblings met for the first time.
They reunited at a Starbucks in the Forth Worth, Texas. Jeff says one of the most remarkable things was Melissa did not even know she was abducted until now.
Jeff – who lives in Keller, a city in Tarrant County, Texas in the Dallas–Fort Worth area – has spent years searching for his sibling. Meanwhile, she was living just 10 miles away in Fort Worth, Texas under the name Melanie Walden.
‘As a child it has been a lifelong dream to find my sister. I always [thought about] how would I respond. The minute we saw each other I started crying. We talked for two hours and it felt so comfortable,’ Jeff said.
Jeff Highsmith, 42, met his sister Melissa, 53, (pictured together) for the first time on Thanksgiving. Jeff said his sister’s disappearance ‘haunted and consumed’ him
Melissa and her mother Alta, who left her in the care of an unknown babysitter in Fort Worth in 1971
Melissa hugging her dad, Jeffrie Highsmith for the first time in more than five decades
Alta Apantenco (left) and Jeffrie Highsmith (right) are reunited with with their daughter Melissa (center) after searching for her for 51 years
On Saturday Jeff introduced Melissa to her long lost parents – Alta and Jeffrie Highsmith, who she hadn’t seen in more than five decades
Sharon Highsmith wrote in a Facebook post about her miracle sister that was found.
‘Our finding Melissa was purely because of DNA, not because of any police or FBI involvement, podcast involvement, or even our family’s own private investigations or speculations,’ she said.
Jeff said the moment she met their parents she told them she wanted to change her name back to Melissa Highsmith.
She also said she wanted to get remarried – she got married in April 2022 – so her ‘daddy can walk her down the aisle,’ he said.
Though Jeff says he and his family have no doubt that Melissa is their family member, she did take a second DNA test to confirm. She will provide them with results this Tuesday or Wednesday.
‘We know it is Melissa,’ the brother said.
Jeff told the Daily Mail a woman by the name of Patricia ‘Sugar’ Lewis, raised his sister, posing as her mother, after the abduction. Jeff said that his sister think Lewis was the person who abducted her. Though, officials have not confirmed that she was the babysitter who kidnapped Melissa.
Jeff says Lewis claims she was 19-years-old at the time she started taking care of Melissa and theories swirled that she bought her for $500 at a bar.
‘I don’t buy the story. I think she is lying,’ he said. ‘She tried to defend herself and admitted to the crime on Facebook before she took it down.’
Jeff says it is not clear if Lewis or someone else was the person who abducted his sister 51 years ago.
‘We will go to the police and say, “We found Melissa now it is your job to find the person who abducted her.”‘
Jeff said now his sister was a young widow who had three children – a daughter and two sons.
Her husband had muscular dystrophy and after he died social services took her children away from her, who were only infants at the time.
Their ages are now 35, 37 and 38 years old.
‘Life was tough for her,’ he said. ‘My new prayer is for my sister to get reunited with her children. We are hoping her children will have compassion.
Jeff said his mother was only 20 when his sister was abducted. He said his father, Jeffrie, who was 19 years old, left his mother and ran off with another woman. He said, his parents eventually reunited and got remarried. Melissa’s disappearance had brought them together.
After Melissa’s abduction, Jeff says their parents went onto have more children – four in total. His three other siblings – all sisters – all live in different parts of the country, Spain, Chicago and Forth Worth, Texas.
In an emotional clip filmed on Thanksgiving, Melissa was seen hugging her mother and father for the first time in over 50 years – as the parents embraced their beloved long-lost daughter.
Her family would celebrate Melissa’s birthday each year without her. During the last birthday they spent without her, Melissa’s father told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: ‘We are looking for her and still care.’
Later that day the family uncovered a lead that would unify them with her just weeks later, after decades of agony.
It was brought about by a DNA test and detective work by Lisa Jo Schiele, a clinical laboratory scientist and amateur genealogist who encouraged the family to try a 23andMe DNA test.
Melissa’s father Jeffrie Highsmith submitted a DNA sample to 23andMe, which returned a 100 percent match with three people. Those three people were the children of Joe Brown and his wife Melania – one of which was Melissa.
‘It’s overwhelming and incredible to me,’ said Sharon Highsmith, Melissa’s younger sister.
‘For decades, my parents have chased leads, hiring their own labs and investigators and yet, these DNA tests, which are available to anyone, helped us find our lost loved one.’
Melissa said she would be changing her name officially to reflect the one she was given at birth.
‘Now that we have Melissa home all of us are going to be together – the grandkids the great grandkids, the great nephews,’ he said. ‘We haven’t all been together in 20 years.’
Melissa Highsmith (pictured) was kidnapped by a babysitter in 1971 at just 22-months-old
Melissa went missing on August 23, 1971. Her mother Alta Apantenco, who had recently separated from her father, desperately needed a babysitter to care for Melissa while she worked as a waitress.
After putting up an advertisement in the local newspaper Apantenco eventually found someone to do the job.
During a brief phone call with a woman who identified herself as Ruth Johnson, Apantenco was assured by the babysitter that her child would be in good care.
The woman agreed to meet Apantenco at the restaurant she worked at, but never showed up.
Then the potential babysitter called up again insisting she was right for the job.
‘She said, you know, I really love kids and I’ve got this huge backyard and the kids love to play out there, and I was desperate, I needed a babysitter because I was supporting myself,’ Apantenco told Fox4 in 2019.
She left Melissa in the care of a roommate with whom she was living in the Spanish Gate Apartments on East Seminary Drive in Fort Worth, who then handed Melissa over to the unknown babysitter.
Melissa was never seen again by anyone that knew her until earlier this month.
‘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 sister said.
‘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.’
Sharon lives in Spain and although she has never met Melissa is looking forward to doing so this Christmas.
Melissa’s sibling Jeff Highsmith speaking after he had finally been reunited with his sister
Jeffrie Highsmith told the local Fort Worth newspaper earlier this month that he would continue looking for his daughter. He found her just weeks later
Melissa (left) and another sibling Victoria Highsmith (right)
Earlier this year in October the family were lead to North Carolina to investigate a tip that Melissa had been seen there.
She was identified based on a computer generated prediction of what Melissa would look like fifty years on from her baby photos.
When the family got there they were faced with disappointment. That’s when the they stared thinking about DNA tests and were connected with her children.
‘We had coffee with her on Thanksgiving night, and when I looked at her, I just knew. I knew,’ Jeff Highsmith said, adding later that he ‘couldn’t take’ his eyes off her when they met because she looked ‘just like’ his mother, he told Fox.
‘Our family has suffered at the hands of agencies who have mismanaged this case,’ Sharon said.
‘Right now, we just want to get to know Melissa, welcome her to the family and make up for 50 years of lost time.’
Sharon, her siblings and their parents encouraged other families with missing loved ones to keep on believing.