A story last Saturday incorrectly described the charge against Caleb Daniel Hughes in the Melissa Brannen abduction case. Hughes was convicted of abduction with intent to defile. (Published 3/15/91)

Caleb Daniel Hughes, a quiet groundskeeper accused of taking 5-year-old Melissa Brannen from a 1989 Christmas party, was convicted yesterday and sentenced to 50 years in prison by Fairfax County jurors.

The verdict, delivered to Circuit Court Judge Johanna L. Fitzpatrick after nine hours of deliberation, resolved a highly circumstantial case in which the county's chief prosecutor used microscopic clothing fibers to show that Melissa was inside a car driven by Hughes.

Jurors convicted Hughes of assault with intent to defile, a charge that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Hughes, 25, is to return to court April 19 for final sentencing by Fitzpatrick. Under Virginia law, a judge can reduce a jury's sentence, but cannot increase it.

The girl's mother, speaking in a halting voice outside the courthouse, said the verdict did not ease her pain or resolve the fate of Melissa, who has not been found.

"This isn't really a victory because I still don't have my daughter back," Tammy Brannen said. "We still don't know where Melissa is. Until I know what happened to my child it isn't over for me."

About 5 p.m., the 12 jurors filed into a silent courtroom, where Tammy Brannen sat trembling between her parents. When the verdict was read, Hughes sat motionless with his feet crossed at his ankles. His wife, who sat on a bench directly behind him, merely blinked. The jury was polled, one by one. Then Hughes and the secret of what happened to Melissa were locked up.

Hughes became a suspect hours after the girl vanished seemingly without a trace from a Dec. 3, 1989, party at her Lorton apartment complex. There were no witnesses, no cries for help, and police found no fingerprints.

Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. built a circumstantial case out of tiny bits of evidence, piecing together clothing fibers, rabbit hairs and a single strand of human hair found in the car Hughes drove home from the party. FBI analysts determined that 50 acrylic fibers matched a Big Bird sweater identical to one Melissa was wearing.

Horan also cited Hughes's behavior in the hours after the disappearance.

Hughes, who had been employed at the Woodside apartment complex for three weeks, could not explain to investigators why it took him nearly three hours to drive the 7.9 miles to the Woodbridge town house where he lived. And he denied ever seeing the girl, even though partygoers saw him with her several times. When police Investigator William H. Whildin accused him of taking Melissa, Hughes said, "Prove it."

Although defense lawyer Peter D. Greenspun vigorously fought the circumstantial case -- at one point getting one FBI expert to reject testimony by another FBI agent that traces of blood found in the car could have belonged to Melissa -- several jurors said there was little question among them about Hughes's guilt.

One, who asked not to be identified, said the evidence was "overwhelming." Another, Emily Bucur, of Falls Church, said, "The forensic evidence, the fibers, that was really what we based our decision on. That carried a lot of weight."

The jury foreman, John Groff, said outside the courthouse that the jury considered the evidence and testimony carefully. "It's been a very difficult job for us, with a touch of emotion here and there, and we're very glad to have it all behind us."

One juror, Bobby Zirk, of Springfield, said the panel's first vote, on whether Hughes had abducted Melissa, was unanimous. The jury later voted, again unanimously, that he had taken the girl with the intention of molesting her.

That finding had a significant influence on the final sentence: Abduction with intent to defile is punishable by up to life in prison, whereas simple abduction has a maximum sentence of 10 years.

Zirk, 49, a machinist at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, said the jurors based their decision about Hughes's motive on the fact that Melissa has not been found. "If he hadn't planned to defile her, he would have brought her back," Zirk said. He said jurors also considered testimony that Hughes was rejected by two women at the party.

Zirk said the jurors spent about two hours discussing how long they would sentence Hughes to prison. Some wanted life, some wanted 40 years, some wanted 50, so they went back over the evidence and agreed on 50 years. "They figured at 50 years, his sex desire was over with," Zirk said.

Melissa's abduction came just months after another child, 10-year-old Rosie Gordon was abducted from her Burke neighborhood and slain, and the two cases traumatized parents throughout the area. Melissa's image flashed again and again before television viewers, who watched home-video footage of a tiny, brown-haired girl parading in a new dress and singing a Christmas song.

Greenspun argued that police targeted Hughes as a suspect from the first day, then went about proving a case against him. He told jurors that the resulting case left ample room for reasonable doubt.

"We don't know how Caleb Hughes supposedly took Melissa Brannen out of that clubhouse," Greenspun said after the verdict. "I have every reason to believe Caleb Hughes is innocent." Greenspun said he has not decided whether he will appeal the case.

Horan said he was "delighted," adding, "I always believed the jury was going to think there was evidence she was in the car. Then the question became, what was she there for."

Horan said that if police find the girl slain, a murder charge could be sought. "Without finding her, there is nothing we can do," he said.

Larry Pigue, Melissa's grandfather, told a thick knot of reporters that the verdict removed a man from society who "clearly shows no morals, no conscience, no remorse, no consideration for the rights of life of others. The only regret I have today is it is only 50 years. But you take what you can get, and maybe as a 75-year-old, he'll be less likely to do those kinds of things."

During the trial, Tammy Brannen testified that she last saw her daughter as their eyes met across the party room, when Melissa was heading for a table to fill a green plate of potato chips to take home with her.

"She smiled at me and I smiled at her," said Brannen, who then shifted her gaze. After she bade several friends goodbye, she testified, "I turned, expecting Melissa to be standing next to me and she wasn't there."

Yesterday, Brannen said Fairfax police promised her they will not stop looking for Melissa. "Maybe it will save another child pain, and another mother anguish and another family tragedy by putting him away," she said. "I'm going to do, and our family's going to do, everything in our power to make sure he never makes parole."

Staff writers Steve Bates, Stephanie Griffith, Thomas Heath, Jane Seaberry, Avis Thomas-Lester and Pierre Thomas contributed to this report.