A Michigan man who prosecutors said hatched a plot to demand ransom money for the return of Tammy Brannen's missing 5-year-old daughter was sentenced in federal court yesterday to seven years and eight months in prison.

U.S. District Judge James C. Cacheris in Alexandria, saying "a parent's worst nightmare is to lose a child," rebuked Anthony Girard McCray for taking advantage of Tammy Brannen's grief over her daughter's disappearance from a Dec. 3 Christmas party near the Brannens' Fairfax County home.

However, Cacheris questioned whether McCray played a dominant role in the extortion plot and imposed a prison term lower than the 108-month maximum determined by federal sentencing officials.

McCray, 23, from Canton, Mich., was convicted in late April on charges of conspiracy, extortion, threatening violence, possessing ransom money and illegal use of a telephone. Neither he nor conspirator Emmett Muriel Grier III was ever connected with Melissa Brannen's disappearance, and no one has been charged in that case. The girl, whose sixth birthday was in April, has not been found.

Grier, 20, a Detroit resident and former Howard University student, testified against McCray at the latter's trial and was sentenced last week to 46 months in prison for his role in the scheme.

U.S. Attorney Henry E. Hudson, arguing that the court should impose a sentence even greater than the 108-month maximum, laid much of the blame for the crime on McCray. "Mr. Grier testified that it was Mr. McCray who devised the scheme, and it was Mr. McCray who fashioned the script that was read to Mrs. Brannen," Hudson said.

Hudson also said McCray caused the Brannen family "extreme psychological injury."

Grier, who pleaded guilty before trial, conceded in court that on Feb. 14 he called Tammy Brannen, telling her he had her daughter and that if she hoped to see Melissa again she would have to come up with $75,000.

Grier said he called Tammy Brannen again the following day, instructing her to take the money to a drop-off point near Union Station. Shortly after an unwitting courier picked up the money and took it to a Howard dormitory, Grier and McCray were arrested by FBI agents.

Ferris R. Bond, McCray's attorney, acknowledged that "the Brannen family has gone through a lot of agony," but argued that his client should be held no more accountable for the extortion plot than Grier.

McCray's "involvement in this offense was of an equal nature," said Bond, who pointed out that his client had not completed high school. "His ability to control Mr. Grier, a college student, that's clearly not feasible," Bond said.

Cacheris agreed at least in part, saying that even if McCray had dictated a script for the two phone calls to Tammy Brannen, Grier ad-libbed several responses to questions she asked him. Ultimately, Cacheris concluded, the roles played by the two defendants were "relatively equal in the criminal enterprise."