How DNA Helped A Family Find Their Missing Daughter Half A Century Later

In 1971, Alta Highsmith was a young single mother in Fort Worth, Texas, who had just moved to the area following a separation from her husband. She struggled to make ends meet while caring for her toddler, Melissa Suzanne Highsmith, and needed every penny she could scrape up. She had a roommate to split the rent, and she earned a living while working as a server in a nearby restaurant, per Oxygen. What she didn't have, however, was childcare when she picked up shifts. Alta needed a babysitter who could work with her budget, so she placed an ad in the local paper.

In August 1971, a woman named Ruth Johnson answered the ad and said she would be happy to take on the childcare responsibilities for 22-month-old Melissa Highsmith. Johnson noted that she had a large house with a big yard and babysat other children for Melissa to play with. Per KDFW, the two planned for an in-person interview at the restaurant where Highsmith worked, but Johnson never showed up for the appointment. Soon after, Johnson called Highsmith again and reiterated her desire to care for Melissa. Highsmith felt good about their conversation and, under considerable financial pressure to work, she was in no position to put off hiring a babysitter for Melissa any longer. Although they hadn't met in person, Highsmith arranged for Johnson to pick up Melissa in the coming days.

'Ruth Johnson' reported for duty and never returned

On the morning of August 23, 1971, Ruth Johnson arrived at Alta Highsmith's Fort Worth apartment to pick up Melissa for their first day together. By the time Johnson arrived at 7:30 a.m., Highsmith was already at work. But her roommate was home to hand off the child. Johnson left with Melissa and a bag Alta packed containing a dress, sandals, and some diapers for the day. Everything had gone according to plan as far as Highsmith and her roommate were concerned. However, they would soon realize how mistaken they both were.

Highsmith returned home from her shift at the restaurant and waited for Johnson to drop off Melissa, but the two never per (via WFAA). Then it became clear that they had no way of tracking Johnson down since neither Highsmith nor her roommate had gotten Johnson's address or a phone number. As panic set in, the two realized they had no idea who they were truly dealing with or if they even had the real name of the person who picked up Melissa that day. Ruth Johnson was a believable and relatively common name. Highsmith finally called the police at 8 p.m. to report her daughter missing. She later told the Associated Press (via The Odessa American), "I feel sure Melissa has been kidnapped." She added, "Maybe the woman was just lonely and wanted a child."

Police had few leads

All the police had to go on was a physical description based on recollections from Highsmith's roommate, which were scant at best. According to the local Fox affiliate KDFW, the roommate described Johnson as a well-dressed older woman wearing long white gloves and a scarf tied over her hair. She also noted Johnson was driving a car with a loose muffler. According to the Houston Chronicle, the roommate suspected that Johnson may have even been a man dressed as a woman. Johnson was never positively identified, and police believed "Ruth Johnson" was an alias.

Highsmith (pictured above in 2022) did her best to put her life back together. She eventually remarried, taking on the last name of her new husband, Apantenco. She also had other children. But she said over the decades following Melissa's disappearance, she never lost hope. "They say you can feel it in your heart if your child is dead, and I've never felt that really, that I know of," Alta Apantenco told KDFW. "I feel like she's out there somewhere and she doesn't know." The family and police followed all of the leads they had over the course of more than 50 years and searched territory across the country. They were determined to find Melissa. Apantenco's son Jeff said this to KDFW: "I told my mom as long as I have breath in my body, I'm not going to stop looking."

DNA provides a break in the case

In the fall of 2022, a DNA test from the company 23AndMe connected Melissa's children with the Highsmith/Apantenco family. When the family reached out to Melissa on Facebook, she thought it was some kind of con. For more than 50 years, she had been living as Melanie Walden and had no idea what these people were talking about, according to the New York Post. Then she confronted the woman who raised her, who confirmed that she knew Melanie was actually missing baby Melissa all along. At that point, Melanie agreed to take a DNA test, which backed up what she began feeling in her gut: That she was indeed Melissa Suzanne Highsmith, who disappeared in 1971.

Melissa was in Fort Worth the entire time. Per The Guardian, the family is angry with various local and federal authorities for what they say is a mismanagement of the case, which kept Melissa from reuniting sooner. One of Alta's other daughters, Sharon, saw a positive. Alta, who was filled with guilt for decades, faced accusations that she covered up killing her own daughter with the kidnapping story. "I'm grateful...we have vindication for my mom," Sharon said. As of yet, there are no details on the kidnapper. For her part, Melanie (who said she plans on changing her name back to Melissa) told CBS News, "My heart right now is just full and bursting with so much emotion. I'm just really, really happy."