After 51 Years, Melissa Highsmith Reunites With Family After Being Abducted as Toddler in 1971, Relatives Say

Melissa Highsmith
Baby photos of Melissa Highsmith, left, and Melanie Walden, who are the same person, relatives say.Facebook

Melissa Highsmith was reported missing in 1971, after the 21-month-old was never returned by a babysitter, her family said.

After more than half a century of searching, the family of Melissa Highsmith say they've finally found her, in the same Texas town where she was abducted as a toddler.

Highsmith was kidnapped in 1971, allegedly by a babysitter who picked up the toddler but never brought her home. And after 51 years of looking, her relatives say they finally found her, thanks to a DNA genealogy site.

"I'm trying not to cry," brother Jeff Highsmith told Inside Edition Digital on Monday. "My whole life I've dreamed of meeting my older sister."

The family was reunited over the Thanksgiving weekend, ending decades of despair and wondering what had become of the 21-month-old. The meeting came after a circuitous trek through DNA records on 23andMe, relatives said.

"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," sister Sharon Highsmith wrote on Facebook.

The genetic records of the missing woman's children matched members of the Highsmith family, Jeff said. Eventually, they were able to obtain contact information for a woman who had been living under the name Melanie Walden in Fort Worth, not far from where Melissa Highsmith had been abducted.

"My dad contacted Melanie, he said 'Your children are a 100% match to me and my ex-wife and our grandchildren,'" Jeff recounted.

The woman said she did not think she was his long-lost daughter, but she would be happy to provide a DNA sample if that would help the family, Jeff said.

"Then Melanie looked on our Facebook page and she realized those baby photos were really her. She said 'Oh, God, that's me,'" Jeff said.

The Highsmith family has not yet reported to the Fort Worth Police Department that they have found their missing relative, Jeff said. They are awaiting results of DNA testing based on the sample provided over the weekend by Melissa Highsmith, her brother said.

Investigators were never able to find a concrete clue to Melissa's disappearance and her police file remains open, authorities said. 

"We are 100% sure it's her," Jeff said. But just to have everything wrapped up, "we're waiting for her DNA results and then we're going to take those results to the police," he said. The family was meeting Monday with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to "close Melissa's case file," the brother said.

Jeff and his family met with Melissa on Saturday, and his mother saw her firstborn child again after 51 years.

"My dad and mother, it was a reunion for them and their baby girl," Jeff said, his voice breaking. 

"I knew it was her. She looked just like my mom, she's the spitting image of one of my sisters. She looked just like my dad's sisters. i couldn't take my eyes off of her. She was just so pleasant and easy to talk to. Just such a sweet, sweet woman. It wasn't awkward. It wasn't hard to talk to her," her brother said. 

The family had many false leads over the years about Melissa's whereabouts, Jeff said. Ultimately, the family established a Facebook page asking for leads. In September, their hopes were raised once again when an anonymous tip came into the NCME.

The tipster had seen an age-progression photo of Melissa posted by the organization, and said a woman matching that description had been seen on Daniel Island, near Charleston, South Carolina.

That too turned out to be a dead end.

Two months later, the 23andMe match came back.

"We want the world to know, don't ever stop looking," Jeff said. "Don't ever stop. God answers prayers."

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