Disappearance Of Melissa Brannen | The FBI Files
The disappearance of Melissa Brannen occurred on December 3, 1989 at the Woodside Apartments in Lorton, Virginia. She was the five-year-old daughter of Tammy Brannen, a single mother who lived in the complex. She disappeared while attending a party held at the complex for its residents. A handyman for the complex was convicted in her kidnapping and sentenced to 50 years in prison. Her body has never been found, she has never been proven to be dead, and murder charges have never been filed.
The story of her disappearance was told on The FBI Files in the twentieth episode of the first season. It has also appeared on an episode of Forensic Files the fifth episode of the fourth season, entitled "Innocence Lost".
On December 3, 1989, a Christmas party, with approximately 80 guests, was taking place at the apartment complex where Tammy Brannen lived with her daughter Melissa. As they were leaving the party, Melissa headed back in to get some potato chips, and never came back. When she was not found, foul play was suspected. A search began almost immediately, with over 300 volunteers participating.
Groundskeeper Caleb Hughes became the prime suspect that very evening through witness accounts. Multiple women reported that Hughes made crude sexual propositions to them during the party, and others reported that Hughes had given unusual levels of attention towards the children at the party including Melissa. Police visited his apartment during the night, where Hughes's wife cooperated with police. The entire outfit of clothes including the shoes Hughes was wearing at the time of the disappearance were found in the Hughes' washing machine, having immediately been put there for washing by Hughes himself when he arrived home. Police seized them as evidence. Police also took the vehicle Hughes had been driving and examined the passenger's seat for fiber evidence. A polygraph examiner concluded that Hughes showed evidence of deception when questioned about his role in Melissa's disappearance.
Hughes' wife Carol was key in the investigation. She reported his arrival home from work several hours later than usual and also that extra mileage was on his car's odometer. Her husband explained the mileage as resulting from a side trip he took to purchase a 6-pack of beer and then taking a longer route home. Hughes never explained why he had driven out of his usual way to come home.
Fibers were extracted from the front seat of the vehicle. The victim had been reported as wearing a Big Bird dress that had been purchased from J.C. Penney. Investigators obtained an identical dress, and its fibers were compared with those found on the seat of Hughes's car. A match was found between the dress and the fibers in the car. Also found were some hairs from a rare rabbit fur coat, worn by Tammy at the party. This evidence pointed towards the probability of the victim having been sitting in the passenger's seat at some point during the evening.
Investigators were all but certain Hughes had killed Melissa. Though Virginia law did not require a body of the victim to file murder charges, the law does require prosecutors to identify the location of the murder. Lacking this evidence, Hughes was charged with kidnapping with intent to defile (i.e., kidnapping as a prelude to sexual assault). The fiber evidence was pivotal in establishing this charge, as prosecutors argued that there was no innocent reason to remove the girl's coat in the car and thus leave the dress fibers. Hughes was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
In 1995, a search of a lake was made after a power company worker found some red cloth in the lake. No evidence of a body was found.
About eight years after Brannen's disappearance, her mother remarried. Though she took on the surname of her new husband, Graybill, as her own, she retained the name Brannen in listings so that her daughter, if still alive, would be able to contact her. Graybill has raised four stepchildren with her new husband.