December 3

This Day in History

Crime

Dec 3, 1989:

The clothes make the man . . . guilty

Five-year-old Melissa Brannen disappears without a trace from a Christmas party in Fairfax, Virginia. The intensive forensic investigation that followed led to the arrest of party guest Caleb Hughes and, in the process, demonstrated how technically advanced crime solving had become.

After interviewing everyone who had been at the party, investigators determined that Hughes had left the party at roughly the same time that Brannen was discovered missing. When detectives visited Hughes' home at 1 a.m., they found him washing his clothes, shoes, and belt. Although Hughes denied having any contact with the little girl, the detectives began an exhaustive search of his home and car.

To collect hairs and fibers, forensic experts carefully ran tape across all of the surfaces in Hughes' house and car. Every tiny bit of evidence caught on the tape was cataloged and taken to a scraping room, where they were then examined under a microscope. In addition, Hughes' clothing was systematically combed for foreign fibers and hairs.

Two of the fibers found in the passenger seat of Hughes' car matched the rabbit-fur coat that Brannen's mother had been wearing at the party. Since it was possible that the two fibers had innocently landed there, though, police needed additional evidence. Although Brannen had been wearing a blue sweater when she disappeared and police located more than 50 blue fibers in the car, direct forensic comparisons were impossible to make, since the young girl and her clothing were still missing. However, investigators learned that Melissa's sweater was part of a Sesame Street outfit made only by JC Penney, and they were able to obtain an identical sample outfit from the manufacturer. A detailed examination proved that the blue fibers in Hughes' car matched those from the Sesame Street outfit.

Hughes was convicted of abduction with intent to defile on March 8, 1991, but Melissa Brannen was never found.

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