WASHINGTON — It was a dark and bitterly cold winter night in Lorton, Va. when 5-year-old Melissa Brannen vanished from a Christmas party at her apartment complex clubhouse.

Court documents show her mother let her go back inside for a plate of potato chips, and turned her back to put on a coat and say goodbye, when Melissa disappeared.

Almost immediately, the child's mother noticed a utility door was unlocked and the full length window had been cranked wide open - so someone could step out. 

"The mother then began to scream that her daughter was missing and a search for the child began," court documents from an appeal in 1994 show.

It didn't take long for the evidence to point to Caleb Hughes, then 23. Police called his home for hours after Melissa's disappearance starting around 11 p.m. the night she vanished. For three hours, police kept calling and only got his wife.

Later, his wife would testify that she heard the clothes dryer running at about 12:20 p.m when he finally came home - with his sneakers and clothes from that night - inside the dryer. Police said Hughes called police back at about 1 a.m. at the clubhouse. 

"He was very agitated, very upset that the police were bothering his wife and why we were calling," police said, according to court documents. "He couldn't understand why we were calling his house."

Hughes told the officer he left the party just after 10 p.m. and slowly drove home. His house was 9.7 miles away from the clubhouse, according to documents.

Download the brand new WUSA9 app here.

Hughes' wife would eventually testify the car had been driven 51 miles between the time she let her husband drive it to the party and when she drove to work the next morning.

Police found fibers that matched the clothes of the missing girl's in the car after searching it and while at the station ahead of a polygraph test, Hughes asked an officer "Did you find any blood on my clothes or in the car; am I guilty yet?" 

When an investigator accused him of abducting Melissa, he said "Prove it," according to court documents.

Eventually investigators matched the fibers found in the car to the missing 5-year-old's clothes as well as a rare rabbit fur coat her mother had been wearing the night of the party. 

Hughes was sentenced to 50 years for kidnapping with intent to defile and has been in custody since January 1990, our content partners at the Washington Post reported. Police never found Melissa's body.

At the time of his release - Aug. 2, 2019 - he served 29 years and seven months, the Post reported, which is about 54% of his total 54-year sentence.

Sign up for the Get Up DC newsletter: Your forecast. Your commute. Your news.