The brother of the woman kidnapped by a babysitter in 1971 said “God answered my prayers” after an emotional reunion with the sister he had spent most of his life searching for.
Jeff Highsmith, 42, told DailyMail.com he was just six years old when his parents told him about the kidnapping of his sister Melissa Highsmith.
He said at the time that he was too young to understand, but around the age of thirteen he started to do his own research and became obsessed with her disappearance.
“It was a horrible tragedy and we never thought we’d find her and we just moved on, but it haunted me and consumed me,” said Jeff.
Melissa, now 53, was abducted from her mother’s home in Texas just months before she was two. It wasn’t until Thanksgiving night 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 Fort Worth, Texas. Jeff says one of the most remarkable things was that until now Melissa didn’t even know she had been kidnapped.
Jeff – who lives in Keller, a town in Tarrant County, Texas in the Dallas-Fort Worth area – has been looking for his sibling for years. Meanwhile, she lived just 10 miles away in Fort Worth, Texas under the name Melanie Walden.
“As a child, it was a lifelong dream to find my sister. me always [thought about] how would I react. From the moment we saw each other, I started to cry. We talked for two hours and it felt so comfortable,” Jeff said.
Jeff Highsmith, 42, first met his sister Melissa, 53, (pictured together) on Thanksgiving. Jeff said his sister’s disappearance ‘haunted and consumed him’
Melissa and her mother Alta, who left her in 1971 with an unknown babysitter in Fort Worth
Melissa hugs her father, Jeffrie Highsmith, for the first time in more than five decades
Alta Apantenco (left) and Jeffrie Highsmith (right) reunite with their daughter Melissa (center) after 51 years of searching for her
On Saturday, Jeff introduced Melissa to her long-lost parents – Alta and Jeffrie Highsmith, whom she hadn’t seen in over five decades
Sharon Highsmith wrote about her found miracle sister in a Facebook post.
“Our find of Melissa was purely because of DNA, not police or FBI involvement, podcast involvement, or even our family’s private investigations or speculation,” 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 remarry — she got married in April 2022 — so her “daddy can walk her down the aisle,” he said.
While Jeff says he and his family have no doubts that Melissa is their relative, she did take a second DNA test to confirm it. She will give the results this Tuesday or Wednesday.
“We know it’s Melissa,” the brother said.
Jeff told the Daily Mail that a woman named Patricia “Sugar” Lewis raised his sister and posed as her mother after the kidnapping. Jeff said his sister thinks Lewis was the person who kidnapped her. However, officials have not confirmed that she was the babysitter who kidnapped Melissa.
Jeff says Lewis claims she was 19 years old when she started taking care of Melissa and theories have been circulating that she bought her from a bar for $500.
“I don’t believe in the story. I think she’s lying,’ he said. “She tried to defend herself and confessed to the crime on Facebook before deleting it.”
Jeff says it’s not clear if Lewis or anyone else was the person who kidnapped his sister 51 years ago.
“We go to the police and say, ‘We found Melissa, now it’s your job to find the person who kidnapped her.'”
Jeff now said his sister was a young widow who had three children – a daughter and two sons.
Her husband had muscular dystrophy, and after his death, social services took away her children, who were just babies at the time.
Their ages are now 35, 37 and 38 years old.
“Life was hard for her,” he said. “My new prayer is for my sister to be reunited with her children. We hope her children will have compassion.
Jeff said his mother was only 20 when his sister was kidnapped. 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 remarried. Melissa’s disappearance had brought them together.
Jeff says their parents had more children after Melissa’s abduction – four in all. His three other siblings – all sisters – all live in different parts of the country, Spain, Chicago and Fort Worth, Texas.
An emotional clip filmed on Thanksgiving showed Melissa hugging her mom and dad for the first time in more than 50 years — as the parents embraced their beloved, long-lost daughter.
Her family would celebrate Melissa’s birthday without her every year. During the last birthday they spent without her, Melissa’s father told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “We’re looking for her and still care about her.”
Later that day, the family discovered a clue that would reunite them with her several weeks later, after decades of agony.
It was caused by a DNA test and detective work by Lisa Jo Schiele, a clinical lab scientist and amateur genealogist who encouraged the family to try a 23andMe DNA test.
Melissa’s father Jeffrie Highsmith sent a DNA sample to 23andMe, which turned up a 100 percent match with three people. Those three people were the children of Joe Brown and his wife Melania, including Melissa.
“It’s overwhelming and incredible to me,” says Sharon Highsmith, Melissa’s younger sister.
“For decades, my parents have been chasing clues, hiring their own labs and researchers, and yet these DNA tests, available to everyone, have helped us find our lost love.”
Melissa said she would officially change her name to reflect the name she was given at birth.
“Now that we have Melissa home, we’ll all be together — the grandchildren, the great-grandchildren, the great-nephews,” he said. “We haven’t all been together in 20 years.”
Melissa Highsmith (pictured) was kidnapped by a babysitter in 1971 when she was just 22 months old
Melissa went missing on August 23, 1971. Her mother Alta Apantenco, who had recently divorced her father, was in dire need of a nanny to look after Melissa while she worked as a waitress.
After placing an advertisement in the local newspaper, Apantenco finally found someone to do the job.
During a short telephone conversation with a woman who identified herself as Ruth Johnson, Apantenco was assured by the babysitter that her child would be well cared for.
The woman agreed to meet Apantenco at the restaurant where she worked, but did not show up.
Then the potential babysitter called again and insisted she was right for the job.
“She said, you know, I really like kids and I have a huge backyard and the kids love to play there, and I was desperate, I needed a babysitter because I could support myself” Apantenco told Fox4 in 2019.
She left Melissa with a roommate she lived with at 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 who knew her until earlier this month.
“My mother did her best with the limited resources she had. She couldn’t risk being fired. So she trusted the person who said they would take care of her child,” said Sharon Highsmith, Melissa’s sister.
“For 50 years my mother has lived with the guilt of losing Melissa. She has also lived with accusations from the community and the entire country that she hurt or killed her own baby.
“I’m so glad we got Melissa back. I’m also thankful that we have a justification for my mom.”
Sharon now lives in Spain and although she has never met Melissa, she is looking forward to doing so this Christmas.
Melissa’s brother Jeff Highsmith speaks after finally reuniting with his sister
Jeffrie Highsmith told the local Fort Worth newspaper earlier this month that he would continue to search for his daughter. He didn’t find her until weeks later
Melissa (left) and another sibling Victoria Highsmith (right)
Earlier this year in October, the family was led 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 after her baby photos.
When the family got there, they were met with disappointment. Then they stared thinking about DNA testing and got connected to her kids.
“We had coffee with her on Thanksgiving night, and when I looked at her, I just knew. I knew it,” said Jeff Highsmith, 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 that mismanaged this case,” Sharon said.
“Right now we just want to get to know Melissa, welcome her into 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.