Police investigators believe they have fiber and other evidence that links a Woodbridge man to the disappearance of 5-year-old Melissa Brannen, and Fairfax County's chief prosecutor is considering seeking an abduction charge against him, sources said yesterday.
Discussion of an abduction charge has grown as investigators have begun to lose hope of finding Melissa, who vanished from a Christmas party at her Lorton apartment complex as it was winding down the evening of Dec. 3, the sources said.
The sources declined to describe the fiber evidence that police believe links the case to Caleb D. Hughes, a groundskeeper who worked for the Woodside apartment complex and was seen near Melissa shortly before she disappeared.
Police officials have never publicly named Hughes as the prime suspect in the case, but police searched his home in December and a federal court in Alexandria ordered him to surrender forensic samples, including hair and blood.
WUSA-TV (Channel 9), quoting unnamed sources, reported yesterday that Fairfax prosecutors plan to seek an indictment this month charging Hughes with abduction.
Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. was in Ireland and could not be reached for comment yesterday. Horan's deputy, Raymond Morrogh, said he could not confirm the television report.
"Honestly, it's the first I've heard about it, but I'm not involved in the case," Morrogh said. "Mr. Horan is in charge of that case."
Police spokesman Warren Carmichael said that neither the police department nor the chief investigator in the case had been informed that an indictment would be sought on Monday. Others, including Melissa's mother, Tammy Brannen, said it was also news to them.
"I'm like everybody, I'm waiting to see what happens," said Tammy Brannen. "I don't really know what's going on. I don't really know if anything is going to happen on Monday."
Hughes's attorney, James C. Clark, said, "Everybody seems to be pretty positive, so I guess I believe it. But the 'everybody' are TV reporters."
"I don't know what's going on or what precipitated it," said Clark. "I'll just have to wait with everyone else and see what happens."
Hughes, who is serving time in prison on an unrelated parole violation charge, could not be reached for comment. He is not eligible for release until November at the earliest, a state corrections official said yesterday.
The FBI, which is helping Fairfax police in the investigation, declined to comment on the case yesterday.
According to sources, the general strategy in the case has been to let the case against Hughes strengthen over time, and there has been reluctance to charge Hughes until some trace of Melissa is found. Because the prime suspect was already behind bars on an unrelated charge, there was no threat to the public, the sources said.
But the time since Melissa vanished has now stretched over seven months, and there is still no evidence of exactly what happened to the 38-pound girl, the sources said.
Another reason for waiting, the sources said, was that bringing an abduction charge poses potential legal risks. If an abduction case were rejected in court, evidence from the first trial, including the fiber samples, could not be used in a second case if Melissa were to be found.
When she disappeared, Melissa was wearing a navy blue sweater with a yellow Big Bird applique, a blue and red plaid skirt and red tights.
The fact that Melissa is news again has not reopened old wounds, her mother said yesterday. Brannen said, "I can't say that it opens old wounds because they're not old."
Staff writer Robert F. Howe contributed to this report.