Disappearance of Melissa Brannen


On December 3, 1989 five-year-old Melissa Brannen was attending a party with her mother at their Lorton, Virginia apartment complex. As they were leaving the party, Melissa went back inside to get a bag of potato chips. She was never seen again.

Fairfax Police were called immediately and began to interview people at the party. Several pointed to suspicious behavior by the apartment complex groundskeeper, Caleb Hughes. Hughes was heard making crude sexual jokes and talking to several female children. Police immediately went to Hughes’ house and found him washing his clothing, including his shoes. Police seized the clothes and the red Civic that Hughes had drove home in. Hughes was questioned and cooperated but denied any involvement in the disappearance. He later failed a polygraph when questioned on the subject.

Police had plenty of suspicious behavior but no evidence. They turned to the car. Fibers were removed from the car that seemed to match Melissa’s clothing description. Detectives dug further. They were able to determine that Melissa was wearing a specific Sesame Street Big Bird dress that only was sold at JC Penny. They compared the fibers to that dress and got an exact match. Hughes was arrested for the abduction.

Prosecutors were able to use the fiber evidence to show that Melissa was almost certainly sitting in the front seat of the Civic. Along with the suspicious behavior and other circumstantial evidence, Fairfax County prosecutors were able to secure a conviction for kidnapping with the intent to defile. Hughes was sentenced to 50 years in prison. A good piece of police work and prosecution on a tough to make case. Hughes only served 29 years and was released in 2019 for “good behavior”. Melissa’s body was never found and the murder location was never determined so no homicide conviction could be obtained.

Christopher Flanagan


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