It's every parent's worst nightmare: Melissa was kidnapped at 22 months old and grew up unaware of her past. While she always had a feeling something was off with her "family," 51 years later, she finally learned the truth…
Meet The Apantencos
Back in the 70s, the Apantencos were living happily in Fort Worth, Texas. Parents Alta and Jeffrie were basking in their new chapter of parenthood after welcoming their eldest daughter Melissa into the world.
They lived in a simple apartment in a very family-oriented town. Nothing ever seemed strange to them, which is why they continued to bring up their child in the area. They were comfortable. It was happy days - milk vans and fresh newspapers at the doorstep each morning. No one was ever suspicious of danger. Little did they know...
As the story goes, the happy parents soon decided to relocate to Southern Illinois - which is where things took a sudden turn. The Apantencos began fighting a lot, as the rift between the couple continued to grow. And before they knew it, the two decided to part ways.
Unfortunately, raising a child as a single mother calls for its share of hardships. So, Alta ultimately decided to move back to Fort Worth, where she and baby Melissa settled in with an old acquaintance, Carol. Everything seemed to be falling into place. For now, at least.
At the time, Melissa's dedicated mom was working a local job in their neighborhood. She was committed to providing for her daughter and didn't want to cut down her hours. So, with seemingly no other option, Alta placed an advertisement for an extra set of hands in their local paper.
With a hectic schedule and only so many hands, she could barely carry her baby when she wanted. Of course, Alta was devoted to her little one and wanted the best for her. So, with a 22-month-old now in tow, she was sure a babysitter was the right move for her young child.
Alta had sent out the advertisement for a babysitter. And to her surprise, she got an answer very quickly. A local woman had expressed high interest in 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,'" Alta recalled to Fox 4.
"And I was desperate, I needed a babysitter because I was supporting myself," she continued. The hardworking mother believed Melissa was in safe hands, that nothing could go wrong. Particularly, in her neighborhood, she felt safe and trusted those around her. Sadly, things were about to take a devastating turn.
“If I could go back, I would do things a lot differently,” Alta recalled of the events that transpired shortly after. She had left for work that morning as usual and arranged for the woman to pick up her child from Carol. On paper, it seemed like the perfect plan.
Unfortunately, she was painfully mistaken. The strange woman - who Carol told authorities had been wearing white gloves, sunglasses, and a bonnet around her head - was not who she claimed to be. And as Alta came home from work later that day, life as she knew it would never be the same again...
Gone, Without a Trace
"You didn't hear about kidnappings that much back then, you know," Apantenco recalled. But after returning home later that afternoon, the frantic mother suddenly feared the worst. The stranger had promised to drop her baby back off later that afternoon when she got off work... but still nothing. What was going on here?
Before she knew it, the end of the day approached. Though Alta was trying to remain positive, things were looking hopeless. It seemed she and Jeffrie's little girl would not be returning home anytime soon. Alta's heart sank to her stomach. She could not come to terms with this unfamiliar feeling. Had someone taken her baby?
Without wasting any time, she began to weigh her options. And that's when it hit her - she had never obtained a phone number for the mysterious stranger. How was she supposed to reach Melissa's babysitter? With no contact and her back against the wall, the anxious mother punched in a number we're all familiar with: 9-1-1.
“I [thought] what a horrible mother I was. That I could just let my daughter go with somebody I didn't know,” Alta recalled of the devastating chain of events. Sadly, though, after getting in touch with authorities, there was even more bad news on the way.
The Questions Begin
The police search started immediately, and friends and family were doing everything in their power to help gather clues. This included the name of the babysitter, location, date, and time of possible abduction. They even reached out to sources and scoured for potential clues around their home. But there was nothing.
The possibilities for what could have happened to Alta and her ex's child were endless - and it hurt, badly. But it seemed there was nothing else anyone could do. There were no leads or clues at that time. Despite police developing a suspect sketch, nothing came out of it. Who was this mystery woman? And where was baby Melissa?
As Alta and Jeffrie continued to grapple with the sudden loss of their child, they eventually found their way back to one another. The reunited lovers knew the road ahead was not going to be easy. And as they stuck together, they eventually welcomed more children together - 4, to be exact: Rebecca, Victoria, Sharon & Jeff.
"I think all of us kids have dreamed about meeting her, fantasized about meeting our sister. Someday being able to say hello, we're here, we've always loved you," Melissa's younger brother, Jeff (above), later revealed of growing up without his older sibling.
Decades of Hope
In the blink of an eye, years had passed. But the family never gave up. Decades later, they remained hopeful, no matter how many times the Highsmiths had broken down. The strength they upheld was incredible, to learn their baby might be missing forever, but going to sleep each night praying she would turn up one day.
Alta and her family had kept a promise: They were not going to stop searching for Melissa. "I feel like she's out there somewhere, and she doesn't know," the hopeful mother told Fox 4 at the time. Little did she know, her baby was closer than ever imaginable.
Chasing a New Lead
By 2022, the Highsmiths didn't know what to believe anymore. It had been 51 years. Although they might have chased down bundles of tips and clues, nothing brought them closer to finding her. Where were they going wrong? Alta and Jeffrie didn't give up - and it wasn't getting easier.
That was until one day, they found a glimmer of hope. This was the moment that would change their lives forever, one they had been waiting 5o+ years for. Their minds had wandered for decades, searching for the unsearchable. But, it was their unbreakable mindset that brought them to this fateful afternoon.
Connecting the Dots
The day was November 6th. The year was almost coming to an end. The family thought they were entering another era without Melissa. But they were about to stumble across the ultimate breakthrough in their baby's disappearance. Everything they had ever wondered about was about to fall into place.
They couldn't believe what was happening. What started out as a nightmare suddenly turned into a dream. They tried to rub their eyes to wake themselves up, but it was all too real. After all the searching, notes, and missing person flyers, one decision Jeffrie made had changed everything.
What happened? In September 2022, something incredible emerged. After all these years, someone finally came forward and approached the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The tip was received from an anonymous source, but they reported a possible sighting of Melissa in South Carolina.
After a local news station picked up the story, the Highsmiths were alerted and immediately jumped at the possibility. The family was understandably "overwhelmed... somebody posted it on Facebook," Melissa's brother Jeff added. After endless false leads, could this be the break?
The Facebook Request
They followed the lead, hopping on the first flight to South Carolina. But unfortunately, they were met with a familiar feeling: disappointment. The lead fell flat, and they were heartbroken. But in chasing the tip, they were left inspired. And after coming across a website called 23andMe, offering DNA tests, Jeffrie hatched a new plan.
Sure enough, after taking a DNA test, he was led to a mysterious 'Melanie Brown,' living in Fort Worth. He raced to his computer, typing swiftly into Facebook's search bar. Was this his daughter? It couldn't be - could it? "You know, I've been looking for my daughter for 51 years," the distraught father messaged the online stranger.
It's a Match!
While Melissa was stunned at first, she eventually agreed to take a DNA test to put the speculation to bed. And on November 27, 2022, life as everyone knew it changed forever. "WE FOUND MELISSA!" the family announced on Facebook. In a remarkable twist of fate, the stranger who had been living right under their nose matched with Jeffrie.
Nothing was making sense. But at the same time, everything had just fallen into place. After 51 years apart, the Highsmith family had finally found their missing piece. And all thanks to the power of a DNA test. But while this test confirmed the identity of 'Mrs. Brown,' this wasn't the end. In fact, this was just the beginning.
Despite the excitement and indescribable joy, there were still a few questions remaining. Was this really Melissa? How could they tell? Despite the DNA results, there could have been obstacles that got in the way. Although they prayed this was not a false positive, they stepped in further to know for sure this was Melissa.
There were certain clues they looked out for: Melanie's birthday had to match, and it did. Melanie had a specific tell-tale birthmark, and Miss Brown also confirmed this. Of course, though, it is no surprise they kept questioning whether this was their daughter - it was almost too good to be true. But it was. It was Melissa.
Breaking the News
Prior to the anonymous tip, the Highsmiths had run a Facebook page to help find their daughter. So as soon as they found out the news, they announced it to the dedicated search party, who continued to show support for the grieving family. They wanted everyone else to share in the excitement.
"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," they gushed. Melissa's sister added, "I'm still walking around in a fog, trying to comprehend that my sister is right in front of me."
Home at Last
But their emotions were about to reach new heights. On November 26th, 2022, Alta and Jeffrie came face-to-face with their daughter - 51 years in the making. If someone pinched them, they felt it. It was real life. Both parents took turns separately wrapping their arms around their baby girl, a feeling of warmth like no other.
The Fort Worth Police Department released a statement that they were "overjoyed" to hear the website 23andMe reunited the Highsmith family again. With no negative indication, they declared another official DNA test would be carried out as they had Melissa in front of them. Although, at this point, they seemed confident.
"Terrified and Excited"
Though it was tough, Melissa brought herself to say a few words during this emotional gathering. As she sat in between her biological parents, she expressed a mixture of emotions. Although she could not be more relieved to be back in safe arms, she did raise a few alarm bells.
"It was just a mixture of joy and terrifying," she confessed. "Being terrified and excited and just trying to understand, you know, make sense of everything." Melissa was trying to come to terms with the situation, but throughout the entire ordeal, she didn't even know she was kidnapped.
Tracing the Ad
Although answers were finally being offered to them, back in the day, they had nothing but questions. “These things just don’t make sense to me,” Jeff recalled of the fateful day his sister was taken. Could the original advertisement offer some new insight for the reunited family?
According to reports, the woman who had responded to the ad had gone by the name "Ruth Johnson." Unfortunately, despite all the theories and speculation, the mystery woman was never officially identified. Nonetheless, Melissa still had lots to say about her puzzling childhood.
Growing up, the abducted child knew something was always off with her family dynamic. Raised Melanie Miyoko, according to The New York Times, something didn't sit right with her, despite her young age. She developed a strained relationship with the woman who raised her. And so, she eventually ran away from home at the age of 15.
"I was seeking a better life," Melanie later recalled of her painful childhood. According to People, she grew up "in a sheltered childhood." More specifically, she felt out of touch with who she was meant to be. Little did she know all of the answers were right under her nose.
Recalling the Red Flags
Melissa stepped back into her childhood to try and fit the pieces of the puzzle together. She recalled feeling as if she didn't belong but could never understand why. Not to mention, her mother was no help at all, considering she wasn't present throughout her pivotal teenage years.
Melissa recalled to People, "Why is my mom like this? Why is she like this?" She continued, "I just thought she had two boys, and she had me, and maybe she didn't want a little girl. Maybe she wished that I was born a boy, and I used to wonder, 'Why did she even have me if she didn't want me?" It was a mystery she thought she'd never solve.
The Escape Plan
While Melissa felt she never fit in with her family, she questioned why she had to stay. She felt there was no one who would care otherwise and tell her to stay. She told People, "Me and my mom were never close… And the whole time I was there, it was a bad childhood."
Melissa wanted a way out. She just didn't know how or where to turn to. At the time, she was far too young and naive to realize what type of environment she was being brought up in - and especially how she got there in the first place. She had been a Miyoko since 22-months-old. How was she supposed to know otherwise?
A Sigh of Relief
Despite her heartbreaking past, all that mattered was that Melissa was back with her birth family. She had missed out on so many occasions, wondering how they could ever fill in those missing gaps. There was so much to learn - not just about each other but also about how they spent their years apart.
According to ABC News, Sharon Highsmith, Melissa's younger sister, said, "For 50 years, my mom has lived with the guilt of losing Melissa. She's also lived with the 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."
Plans for the Future
As the family gathered back together, it was a mystery how they would even begin to spend their time or where they would start to tell stories. There was an overwhelming load of information to take in, but it was up to the family when they were ready. However, Melissa's sisters had a few special tricks up their sleeves.
Melissa's sisters, Sharon and Victoria, told The Washington Post "that she plans to redo her wedding to her current husband so that her biological father can walk her down the aisle." Melissa, now 53, is about to re-live every childhood dream, acknowledging the limited time left and cherishing every second.
Her Mother Speaks Out
When Mrs. Highsmith finally gathered up the energy and strength to speak, she confessed, "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." It is difficult to truly grasp the emotions the Highsmiths felt.
They could not make the end of 2022 more magical than it already was. It was truly the best moment of the family's entire life - one they will never forget. Although they might want to forget the past 51 painful years, it is hard to ignore the fact the person behind the anonymous tip chose to remain unknown. Who was this?
Confronting Melissa's 'Mother'
Even when Melissa was reunited with her parents, there was no further information or indication of who her abductor was. However, she found strength within herself to confront the so-called 'mother' who had been raising Melissa her entire life. And she was left even more stunned.
"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 recalled. It was a painful blow - but something she needed to hear for herself.
A Symbol of Hope
Given the remarkable reunion, Melissa's story inspired others around the world who were in a similar situation. As her sister, Sharon, put it, "Never give up hope... Chase every lead." And that's exactly what Rusty Arnolds has been doing after his two sisters suddenly disappeared in a parking lot - leaving nothing but a car behind.
Rusty was brave enough to be interviewed in accordance with the Highsmiths' story and admitted to searching for his sisters for over 45 years. He explained the process came at "a steep price" and confessed the situation has "torn his family apart" as he spends the majority of his time searching rather than living.
Never Stop Searching
In an interview with WFAA, Arnolds took the cameramen through his home and into what used to be his home office. When the crew entered, they were taken back by a room with barely enough space to walk through. Rusty explained it was his lair - a research room and search party of one.
Arnolds revealed masses of files, paperwork, folders, and pictures symbolizing 48 years of searching. His hard work did not come easy - but he doesn't plan on stopping any time soon. Hearing about Melissa's incredible release and reunion only gave him hope that one day he too hopes to reunite with his family.
The Case Continues...
After 51 endless years, the Highsmith family is finally complete. "My heart right now is just full and bursting with just much emotion… I'm just really, really happy," Melissa gushed. And though her parents are now separated, she has served as the family anchor. But it's not over yet.
While the statute of limitations expired 20 years after Melissa’s 18th birthday, The Fort Worth Police Department is just getting started. They have vowed they will not let the kidnapper get away and will continue to search to fully understand what truly happened that fateful day in August 1971…