"If you'd asked me a year ago if I could go a year without my daughter, I'd have said no," the tearful mother of Melissa Brannen told about 150 well-wishers last night, a year to the day since the child's disappearance.
Tammy Brannen spoke at a candlelight vigil in front of the Woodside Apartments in Lorton where Melissa, who was 5 years old at the time of her disappearance, was last seen at a Christmas party on the night of Dec. 3, 1989.
Tears streaming down her cheeks, Tammy Brannen said she hoped those in the crowd would "care about all children the way you care about your own. I'd hate to see this happen to me or to anybody else's family, because I know how it's torn us apart."
The half-hour vigil, with speeches, hymns and prayers, was held in a wind-whipped rain as candles flickered against the darkness. Its purpose, according to organizers, was to gain support for various children's programs and renew interest in finding missing children across the country.
Two weeks ago, a 24-year-old groundskeeper who had worked at the apartment complex was indicted in Fairfax Circuit Court on charges of abducting Melissa with intent to defile. If convicted, Caleb D. Hughes, of Woodbridge, could be sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.
Hughes, who was serving time in a Virginia prison for violating parole in an unrelated matter before he was indicted, was the last person seen with Melissa at the apartment complex party, according to police.
Melissa disappeared shortly after 10 p.m., as she and her mother were preparing to leave the party. Melissa asked if she could take some potato chips home with her, according to her mother, who said she vaguely remembers seeing Melissa standing next to her, holding a green plate with chips on it.
According to an affidavit filed last December by the FBI and released last week, police found clothing and tennis shoes in the dryer at Hughes's home and took them into evidence. Tests determined that several pieces recently had been cut out of the shoes, and that an area on the right shoe contained human protein "consistent with human blood," the affidavit said.
Hughes also could not explain where he had been for the two hours after he was last seen at the party, and police also found traces of black dyed rabbit hair in Hughes's car that were consistent with the coat Tammy Brannen wore to the party, the affidavit said.
Melissa Brannen's grandfather, Larry Pigue, also spoke at the vigil last night, as did David Gordon, father of Rosie Gordon, a Fairfax County 10-year-old who was abducted and later found slain last year. They urged the crowd to sign a petition to enact child protection laws.
Tammy Brannen recalled that last Dec. 3, she had taken Melissa to her office and that the 38-pound youngster had drawn a colorful dress on a chalkboard.
"She told me she wanted to be a fashion designer," Brannen said, crying. Twenty years from now, if she sees a bright dress on the street, Brannen said, she will wonder if Melissa, living somewhere else, designed it.