On many birthdays of his long-ago kidnapped sister, Jeff Highsmith would hold a vigil to remember her.
His family gathered this month in Fort Worth, where Melissa Highsmith had disappeared 51 years ago. They sang "Happy Birthday" and released white balloons as a sign of their continued devotion.
The same day, the family made a stunning discovery: Melissa might be alive - and reachable.
"When we saw her picture - oh my God," said her sister, Sharon Highsmith.
"It was incredible," added another sister, Rebecca Del Bosque. "It was like looking at yourself."
Melissa, 53, reunited last week with her parents and two of her siblings for the first time in more than five decades thanks to a home DNA test, a marriage certificate and the help of an amateur genealogist, the family said Sunday in an announcement, previously reported by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
After living most of her life as "Melanie," Melissa is awaiting the results of a lab DNA test to confirm her identity. Fort Worth police said Monday that they would provide a public update after receiving the results but were "overjoyed" that the family had found its missing member.
The Highsmiths are confident that they have found the right person. In addition to a 23andMe DNA kit that linked Melissa's father, Jeffrie Highsmith, with one of her children, there are all the little things that make it feel right: A birthmark on Melissa's back that matches one she had as a baby. The way she puts jalapeños on her nachos, mirroring her siblings' love of spicy foods. The fact that she has a dog named Charlie, just like one of her sisters.
A swirl of questions remains around Melissa's disappearance. The family doesn't know whether the woman who raised her was the kidnapper or how she came to be her guardian. Fort Worth police said although the statute of limitations for criminal charges has long expired, they would continue to investigate.
Melissa was 21 months old in August 1971, when her newly separated mother, Alta Apantenco, placed an ad in a newspaper seeking a babysitter. A woman responded and said she could meet Apantenco, a waitress, at the restaurant where she worked. But she never came.
Later, the prospective babysitter called. She had a large backyard and also cared for other children, she told Apantenco. Could she watch Melissa there?
Desperate for child care so she could keep her job, Apantenco agreed. While she was at work, the woman went to her apartment and picked up Melissa from Apantenco's roommate.
The woman, who the roommate said was wearing white gloves, never returned the child.
For decades, the family searched. They did podcast and newspaper interviews to keep Melissa in the spotlight. They commented on a Websleuths discussion forum set up for the case. They rushed to other states when they thought they had a lead.
In September, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children got an anonymous tip that someone who looked like an age-progressed photo of Melissa had been spotted in South Carolina. That clue, too, fell flat. But the almost-breakthrough reinvigorated the family, who rededicated themselves to finding Melissa.
Then, on Nov. 6, Jeffrie Highsmith's 23andMe results came back. He had matched with a granddaughter he didn't know he had. Then Del Bosque looked at her account on the genealogy site Ancestry.com and saw that the granddaughter shared a last name with two boys who might be her nephews.
"We realized what that meant was that's a sibling match," Sharon Highsmith said. "Those are a sibling's children."
The sisters referred the DNA results to Lisa Jo Schiele, an amateur genealogist who used charts showing the amount of DNA shared between different types of relatives to confirm that the three children belonged to one of the women's siblings.
"I came in and tried to look at if there were any other possibilities besides these being such close matches to Melissa," Schiele said. "And it didn't take me long to realize - I mean, I knew right away that there wasn't."
Schiele connected with the children's adoptive father, who remembered the first name that Melissa was using, as well as her ex-husband's full name. That was enough information for the sisters to find a marriage record, which led them to Melissa's Facebook page. They sent her a message.
Melissa didn't believe at first that the Highsmiths were her family. Then they mentioned the birthmark on Melissa's back, and she agreed to take a DNA test.
So after more than five decades, Jeffrie Highsmith and Apantenco re-met their daughter Saturday in an emotional reunion at a lab in Fort Worth, the region where Melissa had lived for most of her life. After taking the DNA tests that they hope will confirm their connection, they went out to lunch.
"There's no doubt in our mind," about Melissa's identity, Del Bosque said. "We just are waiting for the legal confirmation."
Melissa's life without her family of origin wasn't easy. Her sisters said she had a strained relationship with the woman who raised her and left home at age 15. Confronted recently, the woman confirmed knowing that Melissa was the kidnapping victim, Sharon Highsmith said.
Now, Melissa is adjusting to the fact that she has two parents, four siblings, and countless nieces and nephews who were desperate to find her.
"She thought she didn't have a lot of family, and she just found out that she has a huge family who loves her and never stopped looking for her," Del Bosque said.
Despite living as "Melanie" for most of her life, Melissa now wants to use her original first name, her sisters said. She wants to spend more time with their mother, with whom she felt an immediate connection.
And she wants to redo her wedding to her current husband, her sisters said, so her father can walk her down the aisle.