"And we wept that one so lovely should have a life so brief."
-William Cullen Bryant
It was the 3rd of December 1989. Melissa Brannen really wanted to go to the Christmas party that the Club House were having that evening for residents of the Woodside Apartments in Lorton, Virginia, United States. Melissa lived in the apartment complex with her mother Tammy. The five year old moved to Virginia with Tammy after her parents divorced. Her father lived in Texas.
That evening, Tammy got Melissa ready for the party and they chose a pretty little Sesame Street outfit for Melissa to wear. The outfit was a little blue top with a Sesame Street print on it and a red tartan skirt. She was also wearing little red tights and a pink coat that looked great with her curly hair.
Despite Melissa's excitement about going to the party, she was very quiet when there. But that was just Melissa. She was an extremely well behaved, shy, polite and sweet five year old. Tammy adored her. Everything she did was for Melissa. Tammy worked as an accountant and at weekends, worked at a jewellery store. She wanted to make sure Melissa had everything she needed. Tammy's parents looked after Melissa when Tammy was in work. They all loved her very much.
That night, Melissa spent a lot of time sitting on Tammy's lap but the party itself was fun. There were around 100 residents there and everyone got along well. By 10pm though, both Tammy and Melissa were tired so Tammy told Melissa they would head home. Melissa put on her coat and asked if she could get a few more potato chips before she went. Tammy agreed. That was the last time Tammy saw Melissa.
When Tammy couldn't find Melissa, she screamed for help. There were still plenty of people at the party and to leave the Club House, someone would have had to walk through everyone at the party to exit via the front door. Melissa would not have left on her own. When searching the Club House, Tammy saw that a window was wide open in the utility room. Her daughter had been taken. She knew it. Police were called and searches took place almost immediately. That night was particularly cold so everybody was out searching the area to try to find Melissa as quickly as possible. Police also spoke to residents who were at the party and even those who did not attend the party. As they spoke with the residents, a number of them mentioned the name of one man. Caleb Hughes.
The residents at the party said that Caleb made them feel uncomfortable. His actions were out of place at the family party. Even though he was a newlywed , the 23 year old was making crude sexual comments to a number of women at the party and they had knocked him back. Some residents were concerned at the amount of time he spent with children. He even offered to take some of the children to the bathroom. Caleb was not a resident but lived close by and had been working as the groundsman for the complex for three weeks.
Police went to Caleb's house and his wife told them that he wasn't home. He got home after 12.30 am and even though his wife told him he needed to contact police, he had a shower, washed his clothes, shoes , belt and knife holder and then drove back to the party and met with police for questioning.
When asked why it took him two and a half hours to make the short trip home, he couldn't provide an explanation. He later said he took the long way home to buy beer. One of the Detectives working on the case told Caleb that he knew he kidnapped Melissa. Caleb's response was chilling:
And that's exactly what police did with the help of the FBI. As Caleb was unwilling to confess, police had to spend time building a case against him. Caleb's wife Carol told police that she had tracked the mileage on the car and it travelled 50 miles the night Melissa was taken.
They seized the car and tested it. They found fibers on the passenger seat that were consistent with fibers from Tammy's coat and other fibers that were consistent with the fibers from Melissa's Sesame Street sweater. This one proved crucial. The sweater was from J.C Penney and they had manufactured it using material in a rare patented shade of blue called Plum Navy 887. Caleb was charged with abduction with intent to defile.
Similar Sesame Street to the one Melissa was wearing
Caleb was convicted after a Jury spent nine hours over the course of two days deliberating. The decision was unanimous. In Virginia, the Jury can also choose the sentence. They opted for 50 years.
Unfortunately, Caleb still refuses to reveal exactly what happened that night and where Melissa's body is. In the space of two and a half hours, he destroyed the life of the Brannens forever. His refusal to reveal where Melissa's body is is a further assault on the family. Melissa's family continue to search for answers and her mother and grandfather devoted their time to searching and helping other families of missing children. In an even further act of cruelty towards Melissa and her family, Caleb has now been released from prison. He served just 29 years of his sentence.
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“She's not with me, and she's not with my parents, and at that moment I know that my sister's dead.”
- Alayne Katz, Gail's sister
"Madness, as you know, is a lot like gravity. All it takes is a little push."
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