A little more than a year after her lifeless body was pulled from the icy waters of the Susquehanna River, prosecutors say North Carolina teen Phylicia Barnes was asphyxiated by her half sister’s ex-boyfriend in December 2010.
Michael Maurice Johnson was indicted on April 26 and charged with first-degree murder in the death of Barnes. The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s office presented evidence against Johnson during a hearing in Baltimore Circuit Court recently.
“I cannot overstate how much effort and dedication have been invested to achieve justice in this tragic case,” said State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein.
“The Baltimore City Police, Maryland State Police, Harford County State’s Attorney’s Office, the FBI, and my staff worked relentlessly to bring us to this point,” Bernstein added.
Assistant State’s Attorney Lisa Goldberg said a neighbor saw Johnson sweating profusely and struggling to remove a 35-gallon plastic container from Deena Barnes’ apartment the day her half-sister went missing. According to Goldberg the container was large enough to transport Phylicia, 16, who was 5’9” and 120 pounds, although she admits the container has yet to be recovered by investigators.
The charismatic high school honor student from Monroe, N.C. came to Baltimore December 17, 2010 to visit and stay with her half sister Deena Barnes for the Christmas holidays at her apartment in the Northwest section of the city. According to Deena, Phylicia had reconnected with her and other relatives via Facebook about three years ago.
Goldberg said on the morning of December 28, Deena left her apartment to go to work while Phylicia slept on a couch along with a younger brother of Johnson’s. Johnson arrived at 10 a.m. and took his brother to another apartment in the complex and then returned to Deena’s home. Prosecutors allege Johnson was the last person to see Phylicia alive in Deena’s apartment.
Prosecutors have not divulged a possible motive in Barnes’ alleged murder but, they have released information that indicates a dubious relationship between Johnson and the teenaged Barnes.
According to prosecutors, Johnson exchanged 500 phone calls and text messages with the 16-year-old Barnes between July and September 2010 and Goldberg said Phylicia at one point confided to a relative that Johnson made her feel “uncomfortable.”
Court documents indicate Deena Barnes had dated Johnson for nearly 10 years and the two had lived together. According to relatives, he was like family and considered Phylicia a “little sister.”
But, almost from the day Barnes seemingly vanished into thin air at the end of 2010, police considered Johnson – who has maintained his innocence from the beginning – a suspect.
“Police had Mr. Johnson in their sights from the first day,” said attorney Russell Neverdon during a press conference recently. Neverdon has represented Johnson through repeated police questioning of the 28-year old.
“The police made good on their promise. They told him during one meeting that it was only a matter of time before they got him,” Neverdon added.
Neverdon contends Deena Barnes and Johnson were in the process of breaking up and he used the container a neighbor saw him moving December 28 to transport his personal items from her apartment.
Police likened Deena Barnes’ apartment to a college fraternity house with several people – many of them men – entering and exiting while Phylicia was there during the holidays. Several of those men, including Johnson, were monitored by police for months after her disappearance.
The search for Barnes had been called, “Baltimore’s Natalee Holloway case” and only through the persistence of her family and the Baltimore City Police Department did Phylicia’s story eventually garner national attention.
Still, that attention was dwarfed by the publicity other cases – including the Holloway case – have received from national media over the years.
The disappearance and subsequent death of Barnes inspired Maryland Delegate Jill Carter to craft what is known as, “Phylicia’s Law,” during the 2012 Maryland General Assembly.
It will, “coordinate local law enforcement agencies, national missing children’s organizations, missing children experts, and the family of a missing child to locate (them),” according to the law’s language.
“The Phylicia Barnes case really raised my awareness of the gravity of the issue,” Carter said. “While we know about the Phylicia Barnes tragedy, we don’t know the 400 other missing children mainly black, brown and poor from Baltimore City or the 1,500 across the state of Maryland in just 2011 who went missing and were never found,” Carter added.
“It took the beautiful face of this beautiful girl Phylicia Barnes and then we found out that she was an honor student that had endless potential and that made us care,” Carter said.
“But, we don’t see the faces of so many of the other black, brown and poor children.”