It’s a cold December day in Virginia and young Melissa Brannen is enjoying a Christmas party in a clubhouse filled with neighbors and friends. But while her mother is distracted for a few moments, the girl disappears. As a police investigation is launched, a mystery unfolds that will haunt Melissa’s family for decades to come.
Melissa was born on April 13, 1984, to Michael and Tammy Brannen. When the little girl was just three years old, though, her parents divorced. Although Melissa lived with Tammy, the girl remained close to Michael, who continued to visit.
In December 1989, Tammy and Melissa were living at the Woodside Apartments, a residential complex located close to the Fort Belvoir army installation in Lorton, Virginia. In order to support her daughter, Tammy wrestled with two jobs. During the week, she worked in accountancy, while the weekends saw her employed in a local jewelry shop.
Tammy’s hectic lifestyle sometimes took a toll and on December 3 she was apparently feeling exhausted. The Woodside Apartments were holding their annual Christmas party that day, however, and five-year-old Melissa was keen to attend.
Indeed, Melissa eventually persuaded her mom to take her to the party. The little girl arrived at the apartment complex’s clubhouse for the celebration wearing a chequered skirt and a sweater featuring Sesame Street’s Big Bird. A gathering of some 80 people, it should have been a safe place for mother and daughter to spend some time.
However, even though Melissa had wanted to attend, her shy personality meant that she spent her time at the party close to her mother’s side. In fact, she would even ask Tammy for permission to visit the bathroom. When Tammy decided that it was time for them to go home, however, Melissa apparently wanted to stay a little longer.
When Tammy refused, Melissa went to collect a plate of potato chips for later, it was reported. Meanwhile, Tammy finished a cigarette and bade a festive farewell to some friends. Then she picked up her coat and turned to leave, she said, expecting to see Melissa at her side.
However, the little girl seemed to have vanished. Tammy began to scour the clubhouse. Eventually, she came to a room with a “private” sign. Inside, she found that the blinds were up and, despite the cold weather, the window was open. Had Melissa been whisked away into the unknown?
It soon became clear that Melissa was nowhere to be found. While police launched an investigation, news of the mystery spread across the region. The little girl’s features were broadcast on the evening news and more than 300 volunteers gathered to join in the search for her. Meanwhile, her father, Michael, returned to Virginia by plane – leaving his new wife and baby behind in Texas.
By the time that Michael arrived, a media circus was in full swing. Police already had a suspect in Melissa’s disappearance, however: a groundskeeper named Caleb Hughes. He had started working at the Woodside Apartments just three weeks before the Christmas party.
According to a number of witnesses, Hughes had been seen behaving inappropriately at the party. He had apparently made sexual advances to several female guests and had shown a concerning level of interest in some of the children present – including Melissa. With their suspicions aroused, the police visited Hughes’ home, some eight miles away from the Woodside Apartments.
At the apartment that he shared with his wife, Carol, the police found the clothes that the groundskeeper had been wearing at the party. He had apparently crammed his outfit into the washing machine as soon as he had returned home. Strangely, it even seemed that he had sliced off part of the soles of his shoes.
Looking in the washing machine, the police apparently also discovered a sheath designed to hold a substantial knife. Had Hughes been attempting to destroy evidence relating to his role in Melissa’s disappearance? The discoveries troubled investigators, who confiscated the items along with Hughes’ vehicle.
And Hughes’ wife had more to reveal about the groundskeeper’s actions that night. Apparently, he had returned home much later than normal and his car had counted noticeably more miles on the journey.
Moreover, Hughes’ claim that he had stopped to buy beer on his route home seemed unconvincing. Indeed, he had reportedly returned at 12:30 p.m. – well past Virginia’s midnight cut-off for liquor sales. But there was more evidence to come – and investigators soon discovered fibers in Hughes’ car.
The fibers – found in the front seat of Hughes’ vehicle – were a match for Melissa’s Big Bird sweater. And that wasn’t all. On closer inspection, the investigators also discovered rabbit hairs inside the car, which were very similar to those found on the coat that Tammy had been wearing.
With the evidence stacking up, the police were convinced that Hughes had abducted and murdered Melissa. However, there was a problem. Without a body or any concrete evidence, they could not charge him with the crime. Instead, he was arrested on suspicion of kidnapping “with intent to defile” – to carry out a sexual assault.
On March 8, 1991, Hughes was convicted and sentenced to half a century behind bars. And even though the decision was reversed two years later, the Virginia Court of Appeals eventually decided to uphold the judgment. Hughes remains in prison to this day, though he is expected to be released in 2025.
In the years since, Melissa’s body has never been discovered. Faced with such uncertainty, Tammy still clings to the slim hope that her daughter may still be alive. In fact, even though she remarried, she kept “Brannen” in her name – just in case Melissa ever tried to get in touch.
And even though she now has stepchildren to care for, Tammy has never stopped thinking about the daughter she lost. “I think that there’s a very slim possibility that Caleb met someone and handed her off,” she told the Washington Post in 1999. “I still have dreams of being reunited with her.”