A Texas woman reunited with her family 51 years after she was kidnapped as a baby, and then raised by another family, legally restored her birth name in court last week.
Now 53 years old, Melissa Highsmith grew up as Melanie Miyoko after she was taken from her parents' home in Fort Worth in August of 1971 by a woman posing as a babysitter. Last November, a family DNA match on 23 & Me finally reunited Melissa with her birth family, who never stopped searching for their lost child.
The woman formerly known as Melanie Walden stood before a judge in Fort Worth and changed her first and last names last Wednesday. As seen in footage shared on Twitter by an NBC-DFW reporter, the entire courtroom stood for a thunderous standing ovation.
Jeffrie Highsmith, Melissa's father, could be heard telling the judge, "Thank you, your honor." Then, the judge stood up and joined in the courtroom's applause before posing with the Highsmith family for a photo.
John Brown, Melissa's husband, posted about the emotional proceeding on Facebook.
"My breathtaking wife and an amazing woman has officially been given her identity back as Melissa Highsmith," he wrote. "She is an inspiration to all and a beacon of hope to many... We want to thank the Lord for this great work that he has done by reuniting Melissa Highsmith back to the Highsmith family."
In an interview with People last November, before police confirmed the family's private DNA test results this month, Highsmith said she was raised just 10 minutes away from where she was kidnapped by someone who posed as a babysitter.
"The whole time I was there, it was a bad childhood," Highsmith said of life with her captor.
"I wasn't allowed to go outside and play, and she always sheltered me," she recalled. "And she said the reason she sheltered me was because I was born at home and that I had brain damage ... I used to wonder, 'Why did she even have me if she didn't want me?'"
Highsmith ran away from the woman who raised her at just 15 years old, according to ABC 7.
"It was abusive, and I ran away at 15 years old. I went to the streets," Melissa told ABC. "I did what I had to do to get by. What does that mean? I worked the streets."
Highsmith's biological mother, Alta Apantenco, posted a newspaper ad for a babysitter shortly before her daughter was kidnapped. A woman responded to the ad, agreeing to meet then-21-year-old Alta at the diner where she worked, but never showed, according to the Star-Telegram.
The prospective babysitter called later, telling Apantenco that she really wanted the position and had previously babysat other children in her large backyard. Without meeting in person, Apantenco hired the woman over the phone out of desperation, having recently separated from Jeffrie Highsmith.
On August 23, 1971, a well-dressed woman wearing white gloves showed up to her Seminary Road apartment. While Apantenco was asleep, the woman told Apantenco's roommate that she had "come to pick up the baby" and took away Melissa, who was last seen wearing a pink dress and white sandals, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
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Two weeks after Melissa was taken, Apantenco published a plea to her kidnapper on the front page of the Star-Telegram. "I beg of you to call me," Alta wrote. "I've been going out of my mind."
After years of searching, now 73-year-old Apantenco told People that she had nearly given up hope. But the family continued to keep their missing relative in their hearts, throwing birthday parties for her each year after her disappearance.
"My family believed that she was still alive and I wanted to believe it, but I had been disappointed so many times that I just told them, 'Leave me out of it,'" Apantenco told People. "I said, 'You go ahead, you try to find Melissa, but please leave me out of it because I don't want to get involved.' I wanted to lay it to rest, but they didn't want to."
The Highsmith family hopes to press charges against the woman who kidnapped their daughter. However, due to the expired statute of limitations, it may not be possible to press criminal charges.
But in a statement to CBS last November, the Fort Worth Police Department said that "even though the criminal statue of limitations expired 20 years after Melissa's 18th birthday," they are "committed to completing this investigation to uncover all of the available information concerning Melissa's abduction."