Criminals · Forensics · Kidnappers · Modern Marvels · States · United States · Virginia

December 3, 1989 – Forensic Evidence Used to Catch a Kidnapper

To start off with the family of Melissa Brannen has not had closure. Their little girl is still missing!

Fairfax County Police (Virginia) – Missing Persons Unit
1-703-691-8888 Or Your Local FBI

Missing Since: December 3, 1989
Missing From: Fairfax, VA
Date of Birth: April 12, 1984
Age Now: 31
Sex: Female
Race: White
Hair Color: Blonde
Eye Color: Blue
Height: 3’0″
Weight: 38 lbs

I know that if Melissa is still alive she may have a family of her own now.

I am always fascinated with crime and criminal investigations. I could be morbid, or it could be residual of my being a cop once upon a time.

On December 3, 1989 Tammy Brannen and her 5-year-old daughter Melissa went to the Woodside Apartments “Annual Yuletide Fest.” It was a party that Tammy and Melissa almost did not make. Tammy was single mom and working two jobs.  Tammy was an accountant during the weekdays and worked at a jewelry store on the weekend. Tammy was tired and did not want to go. How do you argue with a cute 3-foot-tall blonde little girl that is all dressed for the party?

Melissa was shy around strangers and spent most of the night in her mother’s lap. She was in her mother’s lap when Caleb Hughes commented about her and asked how old she was. Mellisa would ask permission to do everything, even go to the bathroom.

At about 10pm Tammy and Mellisa were getting ready to leave. Melissa asked if she could bring some chips home. Tammy told her that she could, but, not too many. Tammy noticed her daughter was near Caleb Hughes as she was returning from the table with the chips.

That was the last time Tammy saw her daughter.

Tammy wished her close group of friends a “Merry Christmas” and grabbed her rabbit fur coat. As she turned around she did not see Melissa anywhere in the clubhouse. She searched everywhere and came to a utility room. Inside the room the full length window was wide open.

Melissa was gone!

The Fairfax County Police office immediately suspected newly hired groundskeeper Caleb Daniel Hughes. The 23-year-old man had been showing interest in Melissa. Witnesses said that they saw Mr. Hughes leave the party around the same time as Mellisa.

The police called Mr. Hughes home at 10:30, 11:00, and Midnight. Mrs. Hughes became worried and called her father-in-law around 12:15. Mr. Hughes called the club house around 1am angry that they were harassing his wife.  He denied having any contact with Melissa. When detectives arrived at Mr. Hughes home they found him washing his clothes, shoes, and belt.

The distance from the clubhouse to Hughes home was about eight miles. His wife noticed in the morning that there were about 50 unexplained miles on her car from when she had given it to him the night before.

Hughes said that he had run to get beer and had taken a longer than normal route home.

The Police Department and the FBI made an extensive search of his home and car. They ran tape over ever inch of his clothes, home, and car to collect any fiber evidence they could find.

The Washington DC area was outraged an volunteers from all over showed up for the search for this little girl including 300 Active Duty Military.

On a bitterly cold December day, Tammy Brannen stood before a crush of television cameras outside her Fairfax County apartment. Reading from a piece of paper, her hands shaking uncontrollably, she pleaded for the safe return of her 5-year-old daughter, Melissa.

“She’s all that I have,” the 27-year-old single mother sobbed, Melissa’s grandfather at her side. “Melissa, if you can hear Mommy and get to a telephone, please dial our number like I’ve taught you to, and call home. We love and miss you very much. Please come back to us. Mommy’s waiting.”

They found strands of a rare rabbit fur in the passenger seat of the car that matched the coat belonging to Tammy. Since those could have been there by chance, they needed more. Blood was found on a tissue. The blood was inconclusive. It matched Mellisa as well as 40% of the population.

They found more than 50 blue fibers in the car. Melissa had been wearing a blue Big Bird sweater from J.C. Penny’s but since neither the girl or the sweater were available they could not compare them. Investigators got a sample of an identical sweater and were able to make a match after a detailed examination.

Mellisa Brannen had been in Caleb Hughes car.

Eleven months later, on November 19, 1990, Hughes was charged by
the Commonwealth of Virginia with abducting the girl with intent to
defile her.

The case was tried in early 1991. There was some controversy during the trial. FBI serology examiner Robert Grispino testified for the prosecution that he could not eliminate Melissa as the source of the blood on the tissue. FBI DNA examiner Dwight Adams testified for the Defense that he could eliminate Melissa as the source of the blood-stain.

Despite seemingly conflicting testimonies –Serology and DNA are completely different sciences and they were not conflicting testimonies– from two different FBI agents the jury found Caleb Daniel Hughes guilty based on the “Overwhelming Forensic Evidence.”

“This isn’t really a victory because I still don’t have my daughter back,” Tammy Brannen said. “We still don’t know where Melissa is. Until I know what happened to my child it isn’t over for me.”

He was sentenced to 50 years in prison on the charges of abduction with intent to defile. The charge has the maximum penalty of life in prison. The Jury settled on 50 years because they figured that his sexual impulses will have subsided by then.

Mr. Hughes was not charged with murder because there is no evidence of foul play or a body. Fairfax County Police assume that Mr. Hughes murdered Mellisa and without evidence it is an assumption.

Tammy maintains hope that her daughter was transferred to someone else by Mr. Hughes and has tried repeatedly to ask him where she is.

Tammy Brannen married Leon Graybill and took the name Tammy Branned Graybill in the hopes that someday Mellisa will find her.

Most of Melissa’s things are over at her grandparents’ house, including the Christmas presents–still wrapped–that her mother bought for her in 1989. Her mother has kept a few of Melissa’s favorite things, her Patty doll and her stuffed bear.

So that visitors won’t feel awkward when they notice Melissa’s smiling face and ask about her, Graybill keeps “my gallery of Melissa pictures” on the wall at the top of the stairs, where they can’t be seen from the front door. But there are subtle reminders of Melissa everywhere. “To have a daughter is to know a special kind of joy,” says a framed plaque tucked into a little nook in her kitchen.

Caleb Daniel Hughes is an inmate at Bland Correctional Center and is expected to be released from prison in October, 2025. He still maintains his innocence.



2 thoughts on “December 3, 1989 – Forensic Evidence Used to Catch a Kidnapper

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