Two men who allegedly told Tammy Brannen they would return her missing 5-year-old daughter, Melissa, in exchange for $75,000 in cash were charged with extortion yesterday.

Anthony Girard McCray, 24, and Emmett Muriel Grier III, 20, were apprehended in the District Thursday night by FBI agents just minutes after a package containing the money was picked up by an apparently unwitting courier from an FBI agent posing as the Fairfax County girl's mother.

U.S. Attorney Henry E. Hudson said there was no evidence to suggest that the two men were involved in Melissa's disappearance. "These two individuals did not have custody of the child and there was no indication that they had in the past," said Hudson.

Relatives and federal law enforcement officials described the alleged plot as cruel, targeting an already distraught family whose daughter disappeared Dec. 3 from a neighborhood Christmas party.

Although Melissa is still missing, the impact of her disappearance remains. A home videotape of Melissa in a new dress appears almost nightly on the television news and was run repeatedly in shopping malls during the Christmas season.

"Unbelievable," said Michael Brannen, Melissa's father who lives in Texas, when told of the latest episode by a reporter. "It's a crazy world out there. I just can't believe people would take advantage of a situation like this."

"People who would prey on a tragedy are about as low as the people who would do it in the first place," said Col. Larry Pigue, Melissa's maternal grandfather. Pigue said Tammy Brannen was "emotionally drained" and was not granting interviews.

An intensive 10-week investigation of Melissa's disappearance by the FBI and Fairfax police has been inconclusive. A Prince William County man, Caleb Daniel Hughes, has been identified as a suspect and questioned by police but has never been arrested or charged in the disappearance.

Grier and McCray, who shared a basement apartment in the 1800 block of North Capitol Street NE, were arrested just after 8 p.m. Thursday at Howard University, where Grier had been a student until December. Though the arrest was made in the District, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Alexandria has claimed jurisdiction, in part because of its involvement in the Melissa Brannen investigation.

Hudson's office has requested that the defendants be transferred to Alexandria as soon as possible. A federal magistrate's hearing on that question is scheduled for Tuesday morning.

Meanwhile, U.S. Magistrate Jean F. Dwyer set Grier's bond at $100,000 and ordered that McCray, a Michigan resident, be held for a minimum of 10 days without bail because he is on probation for a conviction in Illinois. It could not be learned what McCray's conviction was for; Grier remained in custody last night.

Dwyer told Grier and McCray that they should not discuss the facts of the case with anyone other than their court-appointed attorneys, though she added that "having seen the affidavit {supporting the charges}, this advice may come a little bit late to do you any good."

An FBI affidavit said that Grier and McCray were questioned by federal agents shortly after their arrest and that both said they played a role in the alleged extortion plot.

According to the affidavit, Tammy Brannen received a call from an unidentified man early Wednesday morning. He said he had Melissa and would return the girl if the family paid a $75,000 ransom.

After Brannen reported the call to Fairfax police, FBI agents tapped the phone to await further instructions from the unknown extortionist.

A second call came Thursday afternoon. Brannen was told to take the money to 111 Massachusetts Ave. NW, and hand it over to a courier at 7 p.m.

The Union Labor Life Insurance Company occupies an eight-story office building at that address, and an employee at the company said she had not heard about the alleged extortion plot.

Just after 7:30 p.m., the agent posing as Tammy Brannen was approached by a runner for a commercial courier company. The runner took the package from the agent, the affidavit said. Nearby agents followed both the courier's car and a second car to a dormitory at Howard University, where the agents closed the trap.

After questioning, the courier and the driver of the second car, a friend of Grier's, were released, according to law enforcement sources. According to the FBI agent's affidavit, Grier "admitted to me that he had called Tammy Brannen at 8:00 a.m. on February 14, 1990, and 4:15 p.m. on February 15, 1990, and demanded the money."

The FBI said a call placed to Tammy Brannen's Fairfax apartment Thursday evening was traced to the same Howard University dormitory, where agents found McCray in a friend's dorm room. The affidavit states that McCray "admitted to being involved with Grier in attempting to obtain the money from Tammy Brannen."

Pigue, Melissa's grandfather, said that he and Tammy had doubts that genuine kidnappers would have waited 10 weeks to place a ransom call. Still, he said, the anonymous call had to be taken seriously.

"Your head tells you that it probably isn't true, but your heart tells you that you hope it is," Pigue said.

In an interview last week, Tammy Brannen said she recently moved from the Woodside Apartment complex in Lorton in part because of daily reminders of Melissa -- her empty bedroom, the clubhouse from which she was abducted, the Christmas tree out front still adorned with yellow ribbons.

In addition, she said, she moved because it seemed the whole world knew where to find her. She was amazed when mail addressed simply "To the mother of Melissa Brannen" arrived at her door. Strangers, most with good intentions, would occasionally drop by unannounced, she said.

"I get some really scary phone calls," said Brannen. Sometimes children call her, saying they are Melissa, she said. Despite that, Brannen said she kept her phone number because Melissa knows it by heart.

"It's lonely and it's empty and her presence isn't there like it was at the other place," said Brannen.

Michael Brannen, contacted by a reporter yesterday, expressed concern about his former wife; they were divorced when Melissa was 3. Brannen now lives with his new wife and baby.

A new family and being hundreds of miles away have not made it easier to live with his daughter's disappearance, he said. Brannen, who was interviewed by People magazine this week for an story about Melissa, said his employer plans to distribute 350,000 color flyers in toy stores seeking information about Melissa.

If convicted of the extortion charge, Grier and McCray face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and fines of up to $50,000.

Staff writers Sari Horwitz and Barton Gellman contributed to this report.