Where Is Melissa Highsmith? News That Toddler Abducted 51 Years Ago May Have Been Seen Fills Family With Hope

Missing Toddler
Melissa Highsmith as a baby, and in an age-progression photo of what she might look like now. National Center for Missing & Exploited Children

Melissa Highsmith was abducted as a toddler in Texas in 1971.

For nearly as long as he can remember, Jeff Highsmith has been searching for a sister he's never met.

His mother did not speak of baby Melissa, who was picked up by a babysitter on a hot August day in 1971 and hasn't been seen since.

When he was 7, Jeff remembers his father sitting him down and telling him about Melissa, who had been taken nine years before he entered the world. She was born in November, and from then on, his father remembered his lost daughter on each of her birthdays.

"My mom never talked about it. She feels like its her fault," Highsmith told Inside Edition Digital on Wednesday as he explained how his family is yet again filled with hope that Melissa, who would now be 52, is out there somewhere, just waiting to be found.

The internet lit up this week when an anonymous tip was called into the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. 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.

Highsmith has given many interviews in the past few days. His sister's 51-year-old abduction in Fort Worth has appeared this week on local and national news outlets. It's even gotten play in Spain and France.

"We're hoping that it reaches Melissa and that she sees it," Highsmith says, his voice cracking. "I talked to my dad. He was really excited and started crying on the phone.

"He prays every day for her. It still hurts. He's hopeful this is her. We need something to break," the 42-year-old son says. "My mom and dad are 72 and 73. They're healthy, but the decades go by fast. We have to find Melissa before they pass on."

 

Melissa was the firstborn of the Highsmith children. Her mother, Alta, was 22 and recently separated from her husband, Melissa's father. Working as a waitress in Fort Worth and sharing an apartment with her best friend from high school, Alta was looking for a babysitter.

She placed an ad in the local paper and posted a notice in the laundry room of her apartment complex.

"Someone responded and called my mom at work," Highsmith said, recounting a story he's heard many, many times.

"My mom said, 'OK, would you come to the restaurant for an interview?' But she never showed up."

The next day, the woman called back and apologized, saying something had come up and she wasn't able to make it. But she really wanted the babysitting job.

"She convinced my mom that Melissa would be safe, and she said had a big backyard with a playset," Highsmith said.

"My mom called her roommate and said, 'The woman is coming, would you get Melissa ready?'"

The woman arrived, wearing long gloves and a hat in the August Texas heat. The roommate would remember thinking that odd, and for years she beat herself up for handing Melissa to the woman, Highsmith said.

"She has lived with this trauma for 50 years," Highsmith said. "That was the last time anyone saw Melissa."

There were no leads. Highsmith says detectives focused at the time on his mother, a young mother separated from her husband with very limited means. And the case went cold.

Highsmith's parents eventually reconciled and stayed together for another 30 years, having four more children before splitting again. 

Over the years, as news stories emerged about various anniversaries of Melissa's abduction, women came forward, believing they could be the missing child. 

But DNA proved all of them wrong, including a woman in 2019 who looked a lot like Melissa's mother and had a reddish birthmark on the back of her neck, just like Melissa.

That proved too much for the missing girl's parents.

"My dad said, look we can't do this anymore, it's too painful. Until we have concrete proof, we don't want to do this anymore," Highsmith said.

His son said he understood.

"But I just couldn't give up," Highsmith said. "My sisters can't give up. There's a hole in your heart. Something is missing."

So he and his sisters, and his wife, have established and maintain a Facebook page dedicated to finding Melissa. 

To his dying day, Highsmith says he will never stop searching for the sister he doesn't know.

"We're just going to keep looking," he said. "I have faith that God will restore my family, that there's a reason and there's a purpose. My faith is all that I have."

Anyone with information about Melissa Highsmith is asked to call the Fort Worth Police Department at 817-392-4222 or the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at 800-843-5678.

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