The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fairfax police still seek killer of 5-year-old Melissa Brannen, who vanished in 1989

Caleb Hughes was convicted in the abduction and served 29 years, but the child’s body was never found.

The disappearance of 5-year-old Melissa Brannen from a Christmas party in 1989 horrified the Washington area and set off a search for her that came up empty. A groundskeeper at her Fairfax County apartment complex was later convicted of abducting Melissa and served nearly 30 years in prison. For many, that was the end of the case.

But Melissa’s body was never found, and her disappearance is officially considered an unsolved homicide by Fairfax police. As the 30th anniversary of the abduction approached, Fairfax’s cold-case detectives decided to intensify their efforts to find her remains and identify her killer, releasing new photos of Melissa and her abductor, reexamining the evidence with new technology and again appealing for help from the public.

“The Fairfax police never cease to amaze me with their dedication to this case,” said Tammy Brannen, Melissa’s mother, “what they’re doing and what they’ve done all along. They’ve never stopped.” Brannen’s pain remains constant. “It becomes part of the fabric of your life. I miss my daughter every day. It’s been 30 years, but that doesn’t stop me from missing her.”

The conviction of Caleb D. Hughes in 1991 for abduction with intent to defile did not provide closure for Melissa’s mother or the police. “This case over the years,” said homicide detective Connie Bates, “has always been on every cold-case detective’s radar … no one has been held accountable for a murder.” She said new technology could provide fresh leads in the case, and she has been consulting with both the FBI and the Virginia state crime lab about evidence testing that might not have existed in the early 1990s.

Hughes was sentenced to 50 years in prison on the abduction charge, but that was in the days before parole was abolished in Virginia. He was paroled in August and is living in a halfway house in Lynchburg. He could not be reached for comment.

Hughes, now 53, has maintained his innocence. After his conviction in 1991, his lawyer, Peter D. Greenspun, said, “Caleb Hughes denies he abducted with any intent Melissa Brannen. He denies he killed her, disposed of her or harmed her in any way.” Greenspun said Monday that he stood by that comment.

Melissa and her mother were at a Christmas party at their apartment complex in Lorton when they started to leave about 10 p.m. on Dec. 3, 1989. Melissa asked if she could go for one more handful of potato chips, and her mother said yes. Melissa did not return. Her mother found a window open in a utility room and began screaming for help.

Hughes had been the groundskeeper at the complex for only three weeks, and he was gone as well. Though he lived in Woodbridge, less than 10 miles from Lorton, it was more than 2½ hours before he returned home, and when he did he immediately washed his clothes and shoes.

While police zeroed in on Hughes, a massive search for Melissa was launched and the Washington area was riveted by a video her family had taken of her singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which played repeatedly on local news shows. Reporters staked out Hughes’s home and his favorite watering hole, Hillbilly Heaven, in Lorton. In January 1990, Hughes was arrested on a parole violation for a prior conviction of auto theft.

The FBI crime lab found that 50 blue acrylic fibers on the passenger seat of Hughes’s car were microscopically consistent with fibers on the blazer worn the night of the party by Tammy Brannen, which could have transferred to Melissa’s clothes and then to Hughes’s car, prosecutors theorized. Fibers that could have come from Melissa’s sweater and rabbit fur that could have come from her mother’s coat also were found in Hughes’s car, though none were conclusively matched and many clothes had similar fibers and fur.

Rather than simple abduction, Fairfax prosecutors charged Hughes with abduction with intent to defile, which carried a possible maximum sentence of life in prison. After convicting Hughes, the jury settled on a 50-year sentence. “They figured at 50 years, his sex desire was over with,” one juror told The Washington Post at the time.

Tammy Brannen declined to have her daughter declared dead, and she maintained hope that Melissa was alive. Brannen and her father began working with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which produced an age-progressed image of Melissa as a 21-year-old. When she remarried, Tammy Brannen kept her name so that her daughter could find her.

“There’s the not knowing what happened,” Brannen said. “There’s the not knowing if she suffered. The not knowing where she is. What would she have become? What grandkids would I have now? All of these things I wonder about, at least periodically.”

Brannen even tried speaking to Hughes. In 1991, after he was convicted, Brannen told The Post that she had spoken with him once, briefly, without revealing the circumstances. “He did not deny taking my daughter, but he did not confirm it,” she said. “I told him I knew he had taken my daughter; all I wanted to know is where she was. At one point I thought he was going to tell me, but he didn’t.”

Bates said police are hoping that people who knew Hughes in 1989 “will feel compelled to come forward now.” Bates said Hughes was harboring runaway teenagers in the 1980s, which led to a conviction for contributing to the delinquency of a minor for giving beer to a 15-year-old in 1987. “There are people out there who can provide us with more background and information we can use,” Bates said.

When Hughes was questioned by police about why he took so long to get home from the party, he said that he took a long route and stopped to buy beer at a High’s convenience store. High’s no longer operates in Virginia, and police are trying to determine where that store was located. Bates said that Hughes’s wife was tracking the mileage on their car and that she told police he had driven more than 50 miles on the night of Melissa’s disappearance.

Police released a new photo of Hughes, taken after his arrest in 1990, and a photo of the Honda Civic he was driving when Melissa vanished in 1989. They also released two new photos of Melissa, supplied by her mother, in hopes of jogging memories of potential witnesses.

Brannen said police had continued to press Hughes during his imprisonment, speaking with his cellmates and distributing articles about the crime, hoping to develop new leads. Maj. Ed O’Carroll, commander of the police Major Crimes Bureau, would not comment on specifics of the investigation, including whether detectives have spoken with Hughes since his release. “The department has always put resources into this case,” O’Carroll said, “and will continue to do so until there’s closure.”

As Hughes’s release date approached, Fairfax prosecutors asked Virginia state officials to consider an indefinite civil commitment, which is used to keep sex offenders who are likely to re-offend in confined treatment after their criminal sentences are served. But after a review by Virginia’s Corrections and Behavioral Health departments and the attorney general’s office, no petition for commitment was filed. Brannen said she was told that Hughes did not meet the criteria for such commitment.

“The Melissa Brannen case has haunted the prosecution team for decades,” said Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh, who assisted former commonwealth’s attorney Robert F. Horan in the case against Hughes. Morrogh recently lost a reelection bid and will step down next month.

“I had hoped I would still be prosecuting when it was solved,” Morrogh said. “Nevertheless, Melissa’s remains are out there somewhere and law enforcement will never give up on the case. She and her family deserve nothing less.”

Anyone with information about the case is asked to call the Fairfax police Major Crimes Bureau at 703-246-7800. Press 8 for the Cold Case Squad.