On glowing TV screens throughout the nation’s capital and its suburbs, viewers watched as 5-year-old Melissa Brannen shyly sang “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” on a home video featured on the evening news. They were united in horror and disbelief.
She was abducted from a Christmas party?
Melissa’s mother, Tammy Brannen, had been putting on her coat and saying her goodbyes at the holiday party on Dec. 3, 1989 at her Fairfax County apartment complex. She told her daughter she could go get some potato chips in another room at the clubhouse to take home. Then Melissa vanished.
“She’s all that I have,” a sobbing Brannen said, facing the crush of television cameras gathered outside her apartment the next day. As she read from a piece of paper, her hands shaking uncontrollably, Melissa’s grandfather stood by her side. “Melissa, if you can get to a telephone, please dial our number like I’ve taught you to and call home,” she said. “We love and miss you very much. Please come back to us. Mommy’s waiting.”
Thirty years later, she’s still waiting.
The Fairfax police investigation led to a newly hired groundskeeper at Brannen’s apartment complex, Caleb Hughes, who was at the Christmas party that night. They built their case against him using evidence found in his car: fibers from the Big Bird sweater and plaid skirt Melissa was wearing at the party and rare rabbit hairs from her mother’s coat, which transferred to Melissa’s clothing.
Melissa has never been found. Hughes, who has always maintained his innocence, was convicted of abducting Melissa with intent to defile her. Hughes was sentenced to 50 years in prison. He was released from prison on parole last August after serving nearly 30 years and is now a registered sex offender and living in a halfway house in Lynchburg, Virginia.
This week, coinciding with the 30th anniversary of Melissa’s abduction, Fairfax police said they are renewing their efforts to find answers for the family. They’ve released new photos of Melissa and her abductor, which they hope will jog memories. Investigators are looking to speak with anyone who may have known or had contact with Caleb Hughes on or around the time of her disappearance.
Images of Caleb Hughes released by Fairfax County Police Department in a news release this week. Hughes in 1990 (left) and 2019 (right).
“Our detectives are committed to pursuing all new leads and examining evidence with emerging technology,” Fairfax police said in a news release.
In 1989, Melissa’s disappearance rocked the Washington region as hundreds of strangers joined the massive search for her. Bumper stickers saying “Bring Melissa Brannen Home for Christmas” were plastered on cars and store windows.
Above is an original bumper sticker from the search for Melissa Brannen.
For Tammy Brannen, time has not erased the pain which has become part of the fabric of her life, she said in an interview this week with The Washington Post.
“I miss my daughter every day,” Brannen said. “It’s been 30 years, but that doesn’t stop me from missing her…There’s the not knowing what happened. 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.”
Melissa’s mother became a volunteer here at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, working at our 24/7 call center, taking calls about missing children. Melissa’s grandfather was chairman of an advisory committee for years, overseeing a NCMEC team of retired law-enforcement officers who assisted with unsolved missing children cases across the country.
Marsha Gilmer-Tullis, who oversees NCMEC’s Family Advocacy Division, remembers vividly going to Tammy Brannen’s apartment 30 years ago to offer her shattered family emotional support and what resources NCMEC could offer.
At the time, NCMEC was in its infancy. In the 30 years since Melissa went missing, NCMEC has helped law enforcement recover more than 300,000 missing children.
On the 20 years mark of Melissa’s disappearance, Robert Lowery, head of NCMEC’s Missing Children Division, spoke at a private family remembrance service for her.
Lowery said that renewed efforts by Fairfax police will bring some comfort to family members dealing with the fact that the person who took Melissa has now been released from prison.
“We’re concerned that an offender of this magnitude is living in our communities amongst other children,” said Lowery. “Justice has not fully been served in this child’s case.” After three long decades, Melissa’s family and this community desperately needs answers to their most pressing question: What happened to Melissa?”
If anyone has any information about the abduction of Melissa Brannen, please call Fairfax County Police Major Crimes Bureau at (703) 246-7800, option #8 or NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678).