Clinical laboratory scientist who aided in the investigation compared DNA test results with publicly available genetic information
In an interesting twist in the solving of crime, genetic test results—along with help from a clinical laboratory scientist (CLS) turned amateur genealogist—guided relatives of Melissa Highsmith to her whereabouts after she was allegedly kidnapped as a toddler over half a century ago. According to The Guardian, the CLS helped locate Melissa by “interpreting the key DNA results and mining publicly available records.”
Highsmith’s abduction was one of the oldest missing person cases in the country and demonstrates how clinical laboratory skills can be applied outside the laboratory to help solve other problems—in this case, helping a family search for a kidnapped daughter—using genetic testing technologies that until recently were not available to the general public.
Thanks to a 23andMe at-home DNA test—and a tenacious clinical laboratory scientist/amateur genealogist—Melissa Highsmith (shown above at time of kidnapping and today) has been reunited with her birth family. This shows how genetic testing is being used in remarkable ways outside of the clinical laboratory. (Photo copyright: Highsmith family/People.)
Back in 1971, Melissa’s mother, Alta Apantenco, placed an advertisement in a local newspaper in Fort Worth, Texas, to hire a babysitter to care for her 21-month-old daughter. Apantenco hired Ruth Johnson to babysit her daughter without meeting the woman in person. Because Apantenco had to be at work, the child was handed over to Johnson by Apantenco’s roommate. The babysitter then allegedly abducted Melissa and disappeared with her.
Melissa’s family reported her missing to the police and searched for the snatched baby for more than 51 years. The family even organized a Facebook page called “Finding Melissa Highsmith” and sought outside assistance from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in locating their lost relative, according to the New York Post.
The police and the FBI also got involved in the case, but few leads emerged over the decades.
Then, in September of 2022, Melissa’s family received a new lead regarding her location based on her father’s 23andMe DNA test results. Those results, along with a birthmark and date of birth, confirmed that Melissa was alive and well and residing in the Charleston, South Carolina area.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, Melissa was reunited with her mother, her father Jeffrie Highsmith, and two of her four siblings at a church in Fort Worth. She hopes to meet her remaining two siblings over the Christmas holidays.
“I can’t describe my feelings. I’m so happy to see my daughter that I didn’t ever think I would see again,” Apantenco told Saint Paul, Minnesota, television station KSTP.
“I couldn’t stop crying,” said Melissa’s sister Victoria Garner in a family statement. “I was overjoyed, and I’m still walking around in a fog trying to comprehend that my sister [was] right in front of me and that we found her,” The Guardian reported.
Clinical Laboratory Scientist Aids in the Investigation
The 23andMe test results alerted the family to the existence of a few unknown relatives that could be connected to the DNA of Melissa’s father. The family then contacted a genealogist and clinical laboratory scientist from Minnesota named Lisa Jo Schiele to help them interpret the results and potentially locate the missing woman. Schiele compared the DNA results with public records to help find Melissa Highsmith.
“I was able to use what we call traditional genealogy to find marriage records and things like that to find where Melissa was right now,” Schiele told KSTP. “At first glance, you look at these matches, but I’m like, ‘Holy cow, is this too good to be true?’ I’m very happy to help them navigate all of this.”
One of Melissa’s sisters, Sharon Highsmith, stated that her mother experienced deep feelings of guilt after Melissa’s abduction and had even faced accusations that she had something to do with the disappearance of her daughter.
“My mom did the best she could with the limited resources she had. She couldn’t risk getting fired, so she trusted the person who said they’d care for her child,” Sharon said in a family statement. “I’m grateful we have vindication for my mom,” The Guardian reported.
“I keep having to pinch myself to make sure I’m awake,” Melissa, who now resides in Fort Worth, told KSTP.
“It’s a miracle,” Apantenco said.
“A Christmas miracle,” Melissa added.
Due to the statute of limitations, which expired 20 years after Melissa turned 18, the babysitter who allegedly took Melissa cannot be criminally prosecuted.
“I’m angry our family was robbed for 51 years,’’ Melissa told Fort Worth news station WFAA.
This remarkable story illustrates how clinical laboratory skills combined with genetic testing results can be used outside of medical laboratory testing purposes to aid in solving criminal cases and other mysteries involving missing people.
Further advances in DNA testing combined with genetic databases that include DNA from greater numbers of people could result in more reunions involving missing persons who were identified because of genetic matching.