A Fairfax County grand jury indicted a 24-year-old groundskeeper yesterday in the abduction of 5-year-old Melissa Brannen, almost a year after the girl's disappearance from her Lorton apartment complex shook the Washington region.
Caleb D. Hughes, of Woodbridge, who is serving time in a Virginia maximum security prison for violating parole in an unrelated case, will be brought to Fairfax later this week and arraigned on a felony charge of abduction with intent to defile. If convicted, Hughes would face a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Melissa vanished Dec. 3 during the closing minutes of a Christmas party at her apartment complex. She has not been found, despite search efforts by hundreds of police officers and rescue workers.
Sources said hair and fiber evidence have linked Hughes to the case for months, but said investigators held off on filing charges against Hughes in the hope that Melissa's fate could be determined. Sources also said that a small amount of blood found in Hughes's car did not link him to the case.
Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. said his case against Hughes is circumstantial and essentially based on scientific evidence, which he declined to specify.
"We're coming up on the year mark, and the girl has not been found," Horan said. "If there was a body found, we would have charged him with murder."
However, if Melissa's body is discovered in the future, Horan said, a recent Supreme Court ruling may hinder his ability to prosecute Hughes on murder charges. He said the ruling limits the ability of prosecutors to use the same physical evidence in more than one criminal case against a defendant.
Although Hughes was not charged in the case until yesterday, his name surfaced as a suspect soon after Melissa's disappearance. Hughes, who had worked at the apartment complex for about three weeks, was seen talking to Melissa outside the Christmas party, sources said. They also said he gave police conflicting accounts of where he spent the two hours after her disappearance.
Evidence gathered Hughes includes what police believe is fur from the coat Melissa's mother was wearing, according to sources. Police believe hair from the coat may have rubbed off on Melissa's clothing. In addition, sources said, other fiber evidence linked Hughes to the case.
Melissa's mother, Tammy Brannen, declined to comment yesterday.
"It still doesn't resolve the question of where Missy is," said the girl's father, Michael Brannen, who is divorced from Melissa's mother and lives in Texas. "I want to know, where is Missy."
Neither Hughes nor Alexandria attorney James Clark, who has represented Hughes in earlier hearings associated with the case, could be reached for comment.
In the days after Melissa's disappearance, many in the Washington area became enraptured by the 38-pound youngster with sparkling blue eyes. Residents came to know her as they watched her model a new ruffly dress in a haunting home video that was played again and again on the nightly news.
Tammy Brannen made a tearful appeal to the child's abductor to bring her daughter home. The disappearance was especially painful for Northern Virginians, who also followed the disappearance and slaying last year of another Fairfax County child, 10-year-old Rosie Gordon.
Despite "Bring Melissa Brannen Home for Christmas" bumper stickers, few solid leads emerged about what happened to the girl. Police combed nearby forests and waterways for months.
Melissa vanished a little after 10 p.m. Dec. 3, 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 the mother, who said she vaguely remembers seeing Melissa standing next to her, holding a green plate with chips on it. Then the girl was gone.
After residents said they had seen Hughes talking with the girl, he was questioned by police. Police searched a car Hughes was driving and found traces of what they believed was blood.
Although police never publicly named Hughes as a suspect, his name appeared last December on television and in publications, including The Washington Post, after a federal warrant was obtained to search his Woodbridge town house. The seach warrant remains sealed by court order.
The same month, a federal grand jury ordered Hughes to submit to blood and other forensic tests for the FBI, which helped Fairfax police with their investigation.
Hughes is in Augusta Correctional Center in Craigsville, Va. He has been imprisoned since January for violating parole on a 1985 conviction in Prince William for unauthorized use of a car. According to Virginia Department of Corrections records, Hughes was in prison from September 1985 through December 1986 on the original charge.
In 1987, Hughes also was convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor after giving a beer to a 15-year-old and harboring a youth who had run away from home.
Hughes dropped out of high school in the 11th grade and had various odd jobs. He worked as a laborer in Blacksburg, as a motel desk clerk in Woodbridge and as a landscaper in McLean. Hughes took a groundskeeper job at Woodside Apartments in Lorton in November 1989.
If what happened to Melissa is learned someday, prosecutors could face difficulties in filing more serious charges against Hughes because of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that broadens constitutional protections against double jeopardy, Horan said.
Horan said the ruling casts a "substantial cloud" over the question of whether physical evidence used in an abduction case can be reintroduced in another trial. But Horan said the ruling would not preclude him from seeking a murder charge if Melissa is found to have been slain.
Michael Brannen said yesterday that he hopes some answers about what happened to his daughter are revealed in a courtroom. Brannen, who lives with his wife and 19-month-old baby in Texas, recently gave up his job as a manager in a Dallas toy store because it was too painful.
"He just couldn't handle all the little kids," said his wife, Sara. "And all the ladies bringing in their little girls and saying, 'You stay here, I'll go shop.' That was too much for him."
Staff writers Avis Thomas-Lester and Robert F. Howe contributed to this report.