51 years later... “We are going to find her”
Jeff Highsmith never met his eldest sister, who was abducted nine years before he was born in Fort Worth, Texas. But even as a little boy, hearing about 21-month-old Melissa from his three big sisters, he wanted to find her and put his family back together. He’s never stopped looking.
It's been 51 years since she was abducted.
“Since I was a kid, I always thought it was my responsibility to find her,” said Jeff, 42, whose wife of seven years has joined him in the search. “We just feel that she’s alive. Something is missing in my family. We’ve got to put it back together. It’s just not right.”
Jeff, age 2, with his mother, Alta.
Melissa’s missing case lit up social media recently – to the couple’s delight – after an anonymous tip was called into the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). The tipster, who had seen the age-progression of what Melissa might look like at age 51, called our hotline, 1-800-THE-LOST, with a possible sighting on Daniel Island in the Charleston, South Carolina area.
“We’re delighted about the tip,” said Sgt. Amelia Heise, a spokeswoman for the Fort Worth Texas Police Department. “We hope it’s her, and we hope we can find her.”
Heise said they will investigate the tip and ask anyone with additional information to call 817-392-4222.
John Bischoff, head of our Missing Children Division, said receiving tips in cases that are decades old is rare but does happen.
“At NCMEC, we will never forget about a missing child, and we’re happy to see much of the community has not forgotten about Melissa either,” said Bischoff. “The fact that a person looked at our age-progression, recognized something and reported it is outstanding. All it takes is one person. We’re unsure if this tip will go anywhere but it’s clear the public has not forgotten about Melissa, nor has law enforcement, nor have we.”
Melissa’s 51-year-old missing case is one of the oldest in the country, occurring at a time when Richard Nixon was president, gas was 40 cents a gallon and the voting age was dropped to 18. She vanished on Aug. 23, 1971, when a woman Melissa’s mother had hired to babysit her picked her up and never brought her back.
Melissa’s 22-year-old single mother Alta Highsmith, a waitress, had placed an ad in a newspaper in Fort Worth, Texas where she had recently moved, looking for someone to care for her child. A woman answered the ad and agreed to meet her at the restaurant where she worked but didn’t show up. The babysitter called again, saying she really wanted the job, had a nice big yard and cared for other children as well.
Alta hired her and let her roommate know when the babysitter would be picking up Melissa at their apartment since she had to be at work. The roommate said the babysitter seemed nice and was dressed up, even wearing white gloves. But the babysitter did not return Melissa, could not be located and her frantic mother immediately called police. Melissa has never been found and would be turning 53 on Nov. 6.
Although the FBI and NCMEC consider “infant abductions” to be children six months or younger, there are many similarities in these types of cases with what happened to 21-month-old Melissa. People, nearly always women, who abduct infants typically take them because they want a child for themselves or someone else, not to harm them, leaving their parents devastated. There have been several high-profile cases in which adults abducted as infants figured out who they were later in life, including at least two who viewed age progressions on our missing posters and called NCMEC. https://www.missingkids.org/content/ncmec/en/blog/2019/post-update/who-would-steal-a-baby.html
Jeff and his wife, Rachel, 37, have worked hard to find Melissa, hiring a private investigator, setting up a special Facebook page, Help find Melissa Highsmith, and trying to ensure no one forgets about her.
At various times over the years, Jeff said, three women who thought they might be Melissa have come forward, but DNA tests discounted them. Genetic databases have also not yielded clues – so far. His parents are alive, but don’t want to talk about what happened until there is a resolution. It’s just too painful, and it’s been so long, he said.
Growing up, Jeff and his siblings were kept close to home because of what happened to Melissa and were not allowed to go to sleep-overs with friends. Even though non-family abductions are rare, Jeff and Rachel are equally protective of their own young son.
Jeff and his sisters celebrate their mother, Alta's, 70th birthday.
Jeff hopes that advances in DNA and genetic testing and the power of social media will help them find Melissa – or help Melissa find them.
“I believe we are going to find her,” Jeff said. “It is my faith that sustains us and my faith that makes me think she is alive and will be brought back to us.”
If you have any information, please call Fort Worth police at 817-392-4222 or NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678.)