Melissa Highsmith kidnapping: Fort Worth family not giving up

Melissa Highsmith remains one of the oldest missing persons cases in the country.

FORT WORTH, Texas – For his entire life, Jeff Highsmith is constantly reminded of a day that occurred nine years before he was even born.

It is a mixture of heartbreak and hope passed down from his mother and father.

“Growing up as kids, we always knew about our sister who was kidnapped,” Highsmith said. “My parents scared us to stay close and not run off because we knew our sister was taken away from us.”

That sister, Melissa Highsmith, remains one of the oldest missing persons cases in the country and a mystery Jeff and his family are still trying to answer.

On Aug. 23, 1971, their mother, Alta, advertised for a babysitter and spoke with a supposed sitter by the name of Ruth Johnson, who agreed to come pick up the 21-month-old Melissa from the family’s apartment building on East Seminary in Fort Worth .

Since Alta had to be at work, her roommate handed Melissa to Johnson, who was described as well-dressed and wearing white gloves.

That evening, Johnson never returned to Melissa and could not be reached. Fort Worth police and the FBI were soon involved, but more than 50 years later, very few leads have surfaced.

Police at the time said they discovered no evidence Melissa was harmed and hoped Johnson or whoever had the baby was taking good care of her.

Jeff and his family have several theories about what might have happened, including the possibility that Ruth Johnson was actually a man dressed as a woman.

“I pass by Seminary often and every time I do, my mind just races,” Jeff said.

In an interview archived at the SMU Jones Film Library, Alta Highsmith spoke to WFAA in the days following the kidnapping.

“I can’t give up hope. I have got to see her again, ”she said. “I don’t know what to think.”

Alta would later have Jeff and three of his sisters but lived her life with the pain, regret and guilt of having her first-born taken from her. Jeff had never seen the archived interview until recently yet still recognized his mother’s sadness.

“She sounds the same, her face is the same, her heartbreak is still the same,” Highsmith said. I almost wanted to start crying. It hurts. ”

But advances such as social media and DNA testing give hope to the Highsmith family that they will still find Melissa or she will find them.

They hope the Facebook page “Help Find Melissa Highsmith” will reach women around the age of 50 who might have questions about the identity of their biological parents. Over the years, a few women have come forward to be DNA tested, including one who heard the story on the “Gone Cold” podcast.

And in 2005, Fort Worth police reopened the case the request of the family.

Even though none of the women matched the family’s DNA profile, the possibility offers more than a glimmer of hope and optimism. The more they can keep attention and publicity on the case alive, the greater the chance someone recognizes a resemblance to Jeff’s three other sisters whom he says share similar facial features.

“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.”

It’s a hope he has held his entire life and one he wants for his mother more than anyone.

“My parents are 71 and 72 years old,” said Highsmith.

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