If you lived in the Washington area in 1989, you remember 5-year-old Melissa Brannen. Starting in the Christmas season, she was repeatedly shown on the local news singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in a home video, as hundreds of police and volunteers scoured southern Fairfax County, Va., looking for her. At a Christmas party with her mother on Dec. 3, 1989, Melissa suddenly vanished. She has never been found.
As the searches continued, the name of a suspect quickly surfaced: Caleb D. Hughes, then a 23-year-old groundskeeper at the Lorton, Va., apartment complex where Melissa lived with her mother, Tammy Brannen. After a year of intense forensic examination by the FBI and Fairfax County police, Hughes was arrested and charged with abduction with the intent to defile. In March 1991, a jury convicted Hughes and sentenced him to 50 years in prison, on top of a four-year sentence he was serving for auto theft.
Now Hughes is set to be released from prison. His case occurred in the era before “truth in sentencing” and before Virginia abolished parole in 1995. Virginia law in 1991 not only allowed for parole, but also automatically reduced sentences based on good conduct during incarceration. Though the Virginia parole board rejected Hughes for parole in 2017 and 2018, he is being granted a mandatory release on Aug. 2 after receiving more than two decades worth of “good conduct allowances.” He will have served more than 29 years of a total 54-year sentence.
Melissa’s mother and her grandfather Larry Pigue could not be located for comment. Tammy Brannen moved from Virginia years ago.
At the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va., the Forensic Imaging Unit, which handles photos of missing children, is named for Melissa Brannen. “We’ve had a longtime relationship with the family caused by Melissa’s disappearance,” said Robert G. Lowery, the center’s vice president in charge of the missing children division. He said Melissa’s mother did volunteer work to help other families in crisis and her grandfather also volunteered for various projects.
“What can you say?” Lowery said. “We are obviously extremely disappointed that an individual like this would be released from custody. He was not only involved in one of the most heinous crimes in this region, but he’s somebody we would be concerned is about to do this again.”
Melissa’s family held a memorial for the girl and placed a bench for her in a cemetery in Arkansas, about nine years ago, Lowery said. “The fact that they don’t know what happened to Melissa,” Lowery said, “they always said that not knowing is the worst part. They’d have to live with that, because the individual never revealed that information.”
Hughes is now 53 and is being held in the medium security Dillwyn Correctional Center in central Virginia. He could not be reached for comment.
The Brannen case was one of the most high-profile cases in Fairfax County history, in part because of the intense media coverage of Melissa’s disappearance, which included a prompt public focus on Hughes just days after the girl vanished. Hughes cooperated with police from the start, but his behavior raised suspicions, and the FBI’s discovery of fibers in Hughes’s car that may have come from Melissa caused then-Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. to have him indicted in November 1990.
Melissa and her mother attended a Christmas party in the clubhouse of the Woodside Apartments complex on Dec. 3, 1989, with about 100 other residents. Hughes was newly hired as a groundskeeper at the complex, after working as a motel clerk and a landscaper elsewhere in Northern Virginia. He also had served a year behind bars in 1986 on a stolen auto charge, with four years of a five-year term suspended.
At the Christmas party, Hughes sat with Tammy and Melissa Brannen, told them Melissa was pretty and retrieved a cupcake for her, witnesses said. He also made comments to others at the party about women there he would like to sleep with, and his advances on two women were rebuffed. An appeals court would later find that those comments and actions indicated he had sexual intent when he abducted Melissa.
Around 10 p.m., Tammy Brannen told her daughter it was time to leave. Melissa Brannen put on her coat and went to scoop up one last plate of potato chips. She did not return. Tammy Brannen searched frantically for her 5-year-old, found a utility room with a window wide open and began screaming for help.
Fairfax police responded quickly and began trying to track down Hughes. In the time before cellphones, they called his home repeatedly, but his wife said he was not there, though he lived less than 10 miles from Woodside. Sometime after 12:30 a.m., Hughes arrived home, his wife testified. Instead of returning the calls from police, he took a shower and tossed his clothes and his shoes in the washing machine. Around 1 a.m., he called back to the apartment complex and then drove back to face questioning.
Police seized Hughes’s car, and later called in the FBI to examine it for trace evidence. Teams of searchers roamed the Lorton area searching for Melissa. Hughes’s name was leaked to the media, and news crews parked outside his Woodbridge home, where Hughes declared his innocence. In January 1990, he was found in violation of his parole for the prior auto theft charge, in part for convictions of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and drunken driving, and was returned to prison to serve the rest of his five-year sentence.
FBI analysts found 50 blue acrylic fibers on the passenger’s seat of Hughes’s car which were microscopically consistent with fibers on the blazer worn that night by Tammy Brannen, and other blue fibers consistent with a sweater worn that night by Melissa. Two rabbit fur hairs on the passenger’s seat were also consistent with hairs in a coat worn by Tammy Brannen, and a human hair on the driver’s side of the car was similar to hair found in Melissa’s hair brush, though not conclusively matched to the girl.
When questioned by police, Hughes denied seeing Melissa at the party and could not explain why it had taken him nearly three hours to get home. There were no witnesses who saw him take Melissa and no fingerprints. When a police investigator accused him of kidnapping the girl, Hughes said, “Prove it.” The investigator, William Whildin, testified that it appeared Hughes had gouged a chunk of material out of one of his sneakers, and one expert said a protein which could have been blood was found on the shoe.
Hughes was indicted in November 1990 and went to trial in February 1991, defended by veteran attorney Peter D. Greenspun. A Fairfax jury deliberated for about nine hours over two days before convicting Hughes of abduction with intent to defile, rather than simple abduction, which has a 10-year maximum sentence. On the defiling charge, the jury could have imposed a sentence of up to life in prison — juries in Virginia also impose sentences, though judges can reduce them — and settled on 50 years. “They figured at 50 years, his sex desire was over with,” juror Bobby Zirk told The Washington Post. Zirk said the jury’s first votes on both abduction and defilement were unanimous.
Pigue, Melissa’s grandfather, told reporters after the verdict, "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.”
“This isn’t really a victory because I still don’t have my daughter back,” Tammy Brannen said after the verdict. “We still don’t know where Melissa is. Until I know what happened to my child it isn’t over for me.” Brannen added, “I’m going to do, and our family’s going to do, everything in our power to make sure he never makes parole.”
In September 2017, Hughes was considered for parole and rejected by the Virginia Parole Board. The reasons listed were the serious nature of his crimes, “release at this time would diminish seriousness of crime,” and “The Board considers you to be a risk to the community.” It is not known if any of Brannen’s family testified against him.
Hughes was considered again for parole in August 2018, but declined to meet with a parole interviewer, a board official said. The board then rejected him again, stating Hughes had “No interest in parole.”
By then, Hughes may have known his term was ending. Under Virginia law before the abolition of parole, there are four classes of “good conduct allowances." For particularly exemplary prisoners, 30 days of credit is given for every 30 days served, meaning a prisoner could cut their sentence in half. A second class allows 20 days credit for every 30 days served, a third class allows 10 days credit for every 30 days served, and a fourth class allows no credit. Prisoners can move from class to class over the years, changing the amount of good conduct time they are credited with. Prison officials said they could not discuss the records of particular inmates.
Hughes has been in custody since January 1990, meaning he will have served 29 years and seven months if he is released in August 2019. That is about 54 percent of his total 54-year sentence, meaning Hughes must have been classified as an exemplary prisoner for much of his term.
Horan and Greenspun declined to comment on Hughes’s pending release, as did current Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh, who was Horan’s deputy at the time.