Left and Center: Melissa circa, 1989
Right: Age Progressed to age 21
Vital Statistics at Time of Disappearance
Missing Since: December 3, 1989
Missing From: Lorton, Fairfax County, Virginia
Classification: Non-Family Abduction
Date Of Birth: April 13, 1984
Age: 5 years old
Height and Weight: 3’0″ and 38 pounds
Distinguishing Characteristics: Caucasian Female, Brown hair, Blue eyes, Melissa has a burn scar on her right forearm
Clothing/Jewelry Description: A pink hooded jacket, a navy blue acrylic J.C Penney sweater with red/blue plaid sleeves, navy blue cuffs, the sweater also has a yellow appliqué of the Sesame Street character Big Bird imprinted on the front, a red/blue plaid cotton skirt, a pair of red tights, and black patent leather shoes with gold bows
NCMEC Number: 732677
Details of Disappearance
Melissa was last seen in Lorton, Virginia on December 3rd 1989. That evening, she and her mother, Tammy, attended a holiday party at the Woodside Apartment Clubhouse which was located near their apartment complex. Melissa was shy so she spent most of her time at the party sitting on Tammy’s lap. At 10:00 pm, Tammy and Melissa prepared to leave but the child asked if she could go get a handful of potato chips first.
Melissa went back to get the chips while Tammy waited for her to come back. Melissa never returned to her mother and was never heard from again. Tammy went back into the party to search for her daughter but was unable to locate her. She found that a window in the utility room was open and she screamed for help. This was one of the only clues ever found in Melissa’s case
Tammy called the police and reported her daughters disappearance. Melissa’s case was immediately labeled as a stranger abduction and an immediate search was commenced for her. Police, citizen volunteers, and 300 military personnel all searched for Melissa. Over 35,000 posters of Melissa were distributed by searchers and 10,000 bumper stickers in the Washington D.C area.
Several local movie theaters previewed a video taken at home of Melissa singing “Rudolph the red nose rain deer” in a Christmas themed holiday. In addition to search efforts, investigators also posted a $100,000 reward in hopes of finding Melissa but the search efforts failed to locate the child.
Investigators found that there were between 80 to 200 guests at the party on the night of Melissa’s abduction but they were able to quickly narrow down a suspect in the case. Caleb Daniel Hughes immediately became a suspect in the kidnapping. He was in his mid-20s in 1989 and was recently married. He was a maintenance worker at Melissa’s apartment complex.
Hughes had been working at the complex for approximately two to three weeks before Melissa’s abduction and he lived 8 miles away. Several party guests recall how Hughes payed particular attention to Melissa and was even seen speaking to her at one point. He apparently left the party at the exact same time that Melissa was discovered missing.
Hughes had a criminal record but not for sexual assault or kidnapping. He was known to harbor runaway girls during the 1980s. This habit of his ultimately led to him being convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor in the late 1987. He allegedly supplied a 15 year old with beer.
Investigators weren’t able to find Hughes until 1:00 am the next morning. They looked inside of his washing machine to discover that the outfit he wore that night which included his leather belt, knife holder, and shoes had already been washed. This meant that any trace evidence that might’ve been on his clothes were gone.
There was a massive media response to the Brannen case after her disappearance. Multiple news stations in Washington D.C attempted to “own” the case and most people who talked about the case on air were extremely emotional about Melissa’s abduction and were bitter towards the lead suspect in the case. They felt he should’ve been in jail at the start for taking Melissa.
Investigators searched Hughes vehicle that he drove in 1989. The vehicle in question was a red or maroon Honda Civic sedan. Investigators recovered fibers from the vehicle. Some of the fibers were blue and appeared to match the sweater that Melissa was wearing on the night of her abduction. They also found rabbit hairs that would’ve come from Tammy’s jacket as well.
The evidence from the car proved Melissa had been sitting on the passenger side seat at some point during the night she went missing. Investigators also found bloodstained tissues in the vehicle. Initial testing showed that Melissa could’ve been a possible source for the blood but so could 40% of the general population. Subsequent testing showed the blood didn’t belong to Melissa.
Investigators believe Hughes abducted Melissa, sexually assaulted her, and killed her. They believe she died within three hours of being taken since most statistics on stranger abductions show the victims die in that time span. Investigators also questioned his wife, Carol, who completely cooperated with authorities about what happened that night.
Carol was able to help create a timeline, tracking Hughes movements throughout the night of Melissa’s abduction. She told authorities of how Caleb came home from work several hours later than usual. She also tracked the mileage on their car and noticed that Caleb had driven more than 50 miles on the night of Melissa’s disappearance.
Hughes was questioned by investigators as to why he took so long in getting home from the party. He told them that he had taken a longer route home and that he stopped at a High’s Convenience Store to purchase a 6-pack of beer. Investigators are still trying to determine where the store was located since High’s no longer operates in the state of Virginia. He claimed he got home by 12:30 am.
Investigators have stated that the story was highly improbable to begin with. Liquor stores in Virginia do not sell alcoholic beverages past midnight. There was no way to prove his “alibi.” In January of 1990, Hughes was arrested for parole violation due to a prior conviction of automobile theft.
At the time of Melissa’s presumed death, Virginia law did not require a body to convict someone of murder. However, it was required that a proven location of the murder is disclosed which investigators did not have. Therefore, Hughes could not be charged with murder. Hughes was later charged with abduction with intent to defile in relation to Melissa’s disappearance.
Detectives were able to prove based on evidence that Hughes had abducted Melissa with the intention to molest her. He was convicted of the charges on March 8th 1991 and was sentenced to 50 years in prison. While investigators consisted this a large success in the case, more problems would later arise in the case.
In June of 1991, the sentencing process was delayed in the abduction case. A Fairfax County Judge delayed her final sentencing ruling in the case after a claim came forward regarding Melissa’s disappearance. A Washington Lawyer, Hilton Cobb, claimed he saw Melissa alive after her alleged abduction and murder.
Hilton was 53 years old at the time and was a Department of Veterans Affairs Lawyer when Melissa went missing. He claimed that on December 4th 1989 at approximately 4:20 pm, he saw Melissa on a train in downtown Washington. He said that a couple was hiding Melissa inside a large coat aboard the train.
Cobb stated he contacted authorities on December 5th with the alleged sighting but that they seemed skeptical of his claim and he was reluctant to get further involved with the case. It should be noted, however, that Cobb was unable to describe the child in a favorable manner and that his “reported sighting” was not listed among the 200 other possible sightings of Melissa.
In 1993, Hughes conviction was overturned on the basis lack of evidence. There was little to no evidence to prove that Hughes abducted Melissa with the intent of defiling her. He was tried again and was convicted on charges that he abducted her. This could’ve carried a shorter sentence of 10 years and Hughes could’ve been paroled immediately but this didn’t occur.
Hughes was not the only person charged in the Brannen case. At some point after Melissa went missing, Tammy was called by people claiming they had Melissa in their custody and demanded $75,000 for her safe return. An FBI agent posing as Tammy handed the money to a courier whom they eventually followed to an apartment.
The apartment was shared by 20 year old Emmett Muriel Grier III and 24 year old Anthony Girard McCray. They were both charged with extortion 1991. Emmett was sentenced to 4 years in prison for his role in the crime and Anthony, who devised the entire plan, was sentenced to 7 years in prison. They are not considered suspects in the case and are believed to be opportunists who had nothing to do with Melissa’s disappearance.
Hughes served nearly 30 years of his original 50 year sentence in Melissa’s case. On August 2nd 2019, he was released from prison and is currently living in an undisclosed location and is required to list as a sex offender. He maintains his innocence in the case and states he was in no way responsible for the abduction of Melissa.
At the time of her disappearance, Melissa lived with her mother in their apartment and Tammy worked as an accountant at the time. They had moved to northern Virginia following Tammy’s divorce with her husband, he lived in Texas at the time of Melissa’s disappearance. Her parents helped take care of Melissa when she worked. She worked with a defense contracting company and a jewelry store over the weekends.
Tammy was deeply affected by the loss of her young daughter. In the years that followed, Tammy went back to school and completed an MBA. She also got married to a widowed man, Leon Graybill, who had four children himself at the time. Tammy told the media that while she does use her husbands last name, he continues to list her last name as Brannen in the phone book in case Melissa is alive and she tries to find her mother years later.
Police are hopeful to locate Melissa and have continued to search for Melissa throughout the years since 1989. Her case is considered an unsolved homicide and her body has never been found.
If you have any information concerning this case, please contact:
Fairfax County Sheriffs Office 703-246-7800
Federal Bureau of Investigation 202-324-3000