More than 70 Fairfax County police and Army personnel searched in and around a Lorton area apartment complex yesterday for a 5-year-old girl who disappeared from a community Christmas party Sunday night. Melissa L. Brannen was last seen about 10:30 p.m., not long after her mother sent her to fetch her pink ski jacket. They had been attending the "Annual Yuletide Fest" at the Woodside Apartments, according to police. By 11 p.m. Sunday, an extensive search had begun for the missing youngster, described as having brown hair and blue eyes and weighing 48 pounds. The search continued through the frigid night and into daylight. Police and volunteers scoured the thick woods around the complex, conducted a door-to-door search of the apartment buildings and even looked under the complex's manholes. The search was called off about noon yesterday, but the investigation continued. Melissa's mother, Tammy Brannen, remained secluded in the two-bedroom apartment where she and her daughter live. Police said the girl's father lives in Texas. Late yesterday the girl's grandfather, Army Lt. Col. Larry Pigue, released a handwritten statement in which the family thanked the community, police and Fort Belvoir personnel for searching for Melissa. "Please study her photo carefully, and if anyone sees a 5-year-old girl that may be her, please notify the police immediately," the message implored. "The only way the police can find her is with your help and your prayers. We thank everyone for their kindness. If someone watching this has Melissa, please have mercy and let her rejoin her family." Neighbors at the complex, in the 7500 block of Woodside Lane just off Route 1, described Melissa as a shy child who rarely left her mother's side, a girl who would take the trash to the dumpster and dash back to her mother waiting at the top of the steps. Before Melissa's disappearance, 75 to 100 residents joined the festivities at the clubhouse, where guests nibbled on shrimp wrapped in bacon and a Santa passed out candy canes to the children. Melissa played hide-and-seek near the Christmas tree but was wary of Santa, her next-door neighbors said. "She wouldn't even come close enough to him to get a candy cane," said Kim Murphy, whose father-in-law played Santa. Wayne Dellibove, another neighbor, said he saw Melissa leave the party in her pink coat and mentioned it to her mother. "She said, 'No, she wouldn't do that, she's scared of the dark,' " said Dellibove, 18. Her mother began looking for her anyway, and soon "went into hysterics," Dellibove said. Dellibove joined the search, which grew as the night wore on and residents became aware of the drama unfolding in their quiet apartment complex. Kathy Mitchka got the word when police knocked on her door about midnight. "I bent down and said my prayers," Mitchka, 25, said yesterday. "Then I said, 'Wait. What am I saying prayers for when I could be helping?' " Like many others who did not know Melissa, Mitchka stayed up all night searching the dense woods around the complex, which has 252 units. About 30 Army personnel from nearby Fort Belvoir lent a hand. The search also was aided by an Army helicopter equipped with a sophisticated heat-seeking device. The helicopter pilot "could have reached out and snatched a pine cone off any one of these trees," said officer Michael Proffitt, a police spokesman. "I mean he was that close." A one-square-mile ground search was conducted around the complex and residents were questioned as they drove by the "Now Renting" sign, Proffitt said. But the search produced no sign of the girl, who was wearing a navy turtleneck and red plaid skirt when she disappeared. Theories flew around the complex yesterday as residents tried to figure out what had happened. Some recalled seeing an unidentified man with blond hair smoking a cigarette outside the glass doors of the clubhouse the night of the party. Others said a ladder was discovered leaning against the outside of the stockade fence that borders part of the complex. Throughout the day, residents recalled Rosie Gordon, who disappeared from her Lake Braddock community on July 2. Two days later, her body was found five miles from her home. She had been sexually assaulted and asphyxiated. Many prayed it hadn't happened again. "This is the first time something like this has ever happened," said Brenda Sebrell, a resident. "It's a nice place to stay. There are a lot of children here. When I heard about this, I said, 'No, this is too close to home.' It makes me wonder how safe it is to send your children outside to play."
DeNeen L. Brown DeNeen L. Brown, who has been an award-winning staff writer in The Washington Post Metro, Magazine and Style sections, has also worked as the Canada bureau chief for The Washington Post. As a foreign correspondent, she wrote dispatches from Greenland, Haiti, Nunavut and an icebreaker in the Northwest Passage. Follow