23andMe DNA Technology Helps Family Find Kidnapped Daughter After 51 Years

Melissa Highsmith disappeared from her home as a baby in Fort Worth, Texas in 1971.

learn more about Gabrielle Bienasz

By Gabrielle Bienasz

Highsmith Family / Facebook
Alta Apantenco and daughter Melissa Highsmith.

Melissa Highsmith went missing in 1971. But after 51 years, she has reunited with her family thanks to a 23andMe DNA test.

"We are beyond thrilled to announce that WE FOUND MELISSA," biological sister Sharon Rose Highsmith wrote in a post on a Facebook group page related to the case.

"There are so many details we would like to share, but for now, we would just like to say that we followed a 23 & Me family DNA match that led us to her," she added.

According to the family, Melissa Highsmith was kidnapped while being babysat at her home in Texas at just 22 months old. The person who raised Melissa did not tell her how she came to be, according to CBS news.

"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," Melissa told the outlet.

"The joy is palpable amongst all family members, and we invite you to celebrate and rejoice with us," the family's statement added.

The search for Melissa had gone on for 50 years, the family told CBS, but a recent tip that she was spotted in North Carolina (it turned out to be a dud) helped restart the search and public interest.

The family has been active on a public Facebook page called Finding Melissa, which they started in 2018.

"I just couldn't believe it. I thought I'd never see her again," Melissa's mom, Atla Apantencl, said.

The Highsmith family credited the DNA testing company, 23andMe, and not the true crime community, police, or other such efforts.

"Our finding Melissa was purely because of DNA, not because of any police / FBI involvement, podcast involvement, or even our family's own private investigations or speculations. DNA WINS THIS SEARCH," Rose Highsmith added in the Facebook post.

The Fort Worth Police Department said in a statement that even though the statute of limitations has expired, it would continue to investigate the case. They also said the department will conduct official DNA testing.

The department is "overjoyed to hear about how the Highsmith's use of 23andme led them to Melissa," the statement said.

The person who kidnapped Melissa is not named. It's also not yet clear who took the DNA tests among Melissa and her family members that led to the discovery.

Founded in 2006 by Anne Wojcicki, Linda Avey, and Paul Cusenza, 23andMe offers at-home saliva collection and tests that analyze your DNA for health and heritage data. You can also choose to share your information and find other people to whom you are related.

The company — and similar ventures like Ancestry.comhave led to other dramatic discoveries, like accomplished memoirist Dani Shapiro discovering her biological father was not the man who raised her, but, rather, someone who donated sperm at a dodgy fertility clinic.

But these DNA-analyzing companies have also faced criticism for sharing genetic data with other companies and law enforcement. 23andMe did not respond right away to a request for comment.

Sharon Highsmith added in a press release she hopes the story inspires other people looking for missing relatives.

"Never give up hope," she said. "Chase every lead."

Gabrielle Bienasz

Entrepreneur Staff

Gabrielle Bienasz is a staff writer at Entrepreneur. She previously worked at Insider and Inc. Magazine. 

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