By DEANNA BOYD Fort Worth Star-Telegram Feb. 22, 2006 FORT WORTH — Alta Apantenco packed away her mementos of her eldest daughter long ago. Her ex-husband, Jeff Highsmith, keeps the little girl's photograph in his bedroom, where he can see it every day. They are parents who have coped with the loss of their daughter in very different ways. What they share is a grief that few others know, grappling not with the untimely death of a child but with a mystery that's gone unsolved for 34 years. That's when Apantenco says a woman who answered an ad she placed for a baby sitter picked up 21-month-old Melissa Suzanne Highsmith from the single mother's south Fort Worth apartment and never brought her back. Now the abduction case has been reopened, and police hope modern technology may finally bring answers. "I want it to be true, that they're going to be able to actually find her through this. But I'm not going to get my hopes up, because I've gotten my hopes up so many times and it's provided nothing," said Apantenco, 57, now remarried and living in Aurora, Ill. "It would make me the happiest person on Earth if I could find her, even after all this time." Jeff Highsmith, 55, who also lives in Aurora, gets goose bumps imagining that he might someday see his daughter again. "I've never really given up hope. I feel like someone took this kid and raised her as their own child," Highsmith said. "She's probably got kids of her own, and she doesn't even know her real name. She's probably content and happy, thinking the person who raised her is her parent." TODDLER DISAPPEARS Melissa vanished on a Monday morning. A few months before, Apantenco, then 22, had returned to Fort Worth after separating from Highsmith, a musician. A waitress at a downtown restaurant, Apantenco placed an ad in the Star-Telegram seeking a baby sitter for the rambunctious toddler, who loved spaghetti and cookies. The reply from a woman who identified herself over the telephone as Ruth Johnson seemed too good to be true. "She said that she had a nice big house, had a big back yard and other children to watch," Apantenco recalled in a recent interview. "I said that sounds really good, because Melissa loves to play outside." The two made plans to meet at Apantenco's job, but Johnson never showed up. The woman later called Apantenco again and convinced the young mother that she really wanted the job. In a decision she regrets, Apantenco agreed that Johnson could pick up the girl that Monday morning. "She sounded like somebody who would be capable of taking care of Melissa," Apantenco recalled. "I didn't like the idea of not meeting her, but that's just the way it happened. … I think of all the mistakes I made. It's too late to go back." When Johnson arrived at the Spanish Gate apartments on East Seminary Drive on Aug. 23, 1971, Apantenco was already at work. Apantenco's roommate would later tell police that the woman seemed nice, was wearing white gloves and appeared dressed to impress. The roommate handed the woman a pink dress, a pair of white sandals and some diapers for Melissa, and the woman and child left. Apantenco returned home from work and waited for her daughter to be brought back. "She didn't come, and so I thought, well she's running a little late. I waited an hour. I was starting to get a little bit worried. Two hours went by and I said, 'Something's wrong.'" With no way to reach the woman, Apantenco called police. Within days the FBI would join in the search for Melissa. A composite of the suspect was released to the media. Days slipped into weeks, and weeks dissolved into months, with no word of Melissa's whereabouts. Apantenco said she felt police and some of her relatives suspected that she was behind Melissa's disappearance, something she strongly denies. "That baby was all I had. That was my world. When my world was taken away, I was crushed," she said. Apantenco said that for a time, she turned to alcohol and drugs. "I cursed God," she said. "I said, 'Why don't you just kill me? You took my baby. Why don't you just kill me now?'" Later, Apantenco said, she reclaimed her life, reuniting with Highsmith, whom she remarried in 1973. Although she would never understand Melissa's disappearance, Apantenco said she came to accept it. "I just believe that she was raised somewhere where someone loved her and was taking care of her," Apantenco said. "Maybe I wasn't a fit mother. I was young and stupid. Maybe God thought someone else needed to take care of her. "But I've always believed that she was alive somewhere. I've never felt in my heart that she was dead." SEARCHING FOR A SISTER Highsmith and Apantenco had three more daughters and a son together before separating again in 1998. Their first daughter, Rebecca, born in 1974, seemed the spitting image of the older sister she would never meet. "I couldn't believe how much this baby looked like Melissa," Highsmith said. "You can never replace one child with another, but it was like the Lord was saying, 'I know you've lost your daughter, but I'm giving you more children.' I felt some joy in that." Rebecca Delbosque, 31, said she grew up knowing she had an older sister. "There were a few times when my parents actually thought they found her. I remember them taking trips," Delbosque said. "Then it turned up not being her. I think that kind of discouraged them. They kind of gave up because no one was really helping them." Delbosque said her father was open about talking about Melissa. She remembers poring through a file he kept at work filled with newspaper clippings about the abduction. But in front of her mother, the topic of Melissa was taboo. "I think my mom probably feels very guilty about what happened," Delbosque said. "She's very hurt." Apantenco said the pain was then, and is still now, too great. "When they brought her name up, I said I'm not going to talk about it. It hurts. It hurts so much," Apantenco said, breaking into tears. "I didn't put her photo in a frame where I could see it. I stored it all away. I kept them, and every once in a while I'd look through them for a few minutes and then put it away." But the photographs that had been tucked away are seeing light again. Detective Bryan Jamison reopened the case after a caller to the Star-Telegram raised questions about it. Although that call hasn't led to a break in the case, Jamison said he is hopeful that Melissa is still alive. "I think they were probably correct initially when they assumed it was someone with a maternal instinct that wanted to have a child of their own and, for whatever reason, didn't," Jamison said. Because of Melissa's age when taken, Jamison believes that her kidnapper could have easily concealed the girl. As the girl grew older, he theorizes, the woman could have enrolled her in school under a new identity. "She could possibly be walking around today at 36 years of age, having no idea whatsoever that her mother is not her natural birth mother," Jamison said. Using old photographs of Melissa and her parents, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has created a computer-generated photograph of what Melissa might look like today. Jamison said he plans to send DNA samples from Melissa's parents to the University of North Texas Health Science Center. The database compares DNA samples from family members with unidentified remains. "That's not exactly the ending we're looking for, but at least it would allow for closure," Jamison said. For Melissa's family, any news would be welcome. "Even if she doesn't turn out to be living, at least my family will have the knowledge of how she grew up and what happened in her life, and we'll have some closure," Delbosque said. But, like her parents, Delbosque said she believes her sister is alive. She'd like Melissa to one day meet her 9-year-old daughter, Caitlin Melissa Delbosque. "I might have nieces or nephews or a brother-in-law I don't know about," Delbosque said. "Family is very important to me. I think it's important for my family — my kids — to know they have an aunt that is out there somewhere that they just don't know." Anyone with information about the case is asked to call Jamison at (817) 392-4440.