Md. man charged with murder in NC teen's death

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 26, 2012

BALTIMORE (AP) — A Baltimore man denies killing a teenager who had gone missing for months before her body was found — a girl he considered a sibling of his own even as he broke up with the teen’s half-sister, his attorney said Thursday.
Michael Johnson, 28, was indicted on a sole count of first-degree murder for the death of 16-year-old Phylicia Barnes, of Monroe, N.C., Baltimore City State’s Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein announced.
Johnson maintained his innocence when he spoke to his attorney Russell Neverdon at Baltimore’s Central Booking and Intake Center on Thursday.
“He said he had absolutely nothing to do with anything inappropriate or misgivings towards Phylicia that resulted in her disappearance and the untimeliness of her death,” Neverdon said. He believes investigators have a circumstantial case against his client and said they even told Johnson during one of several interviews that it was just a matter of time before they got him.
Barnes’ father told the Associated Press that when his daughter disappeared, the Baltimore man had been breaking up with the teen’s older half-sister after dating about 10 years.
An attorney for Johnson scheduled a press conference later Thursday to discuss the case.
“It’s been a long day coming. It’s a bittersweet day,” Russell Barnes said. “I can rest better and maybe Phylicia can rest a whole lot better.”
The family had trusted Johnson — the last person to see Phylicia Barnes alive — but he acted suspiciously after the girl disappeared, avoiding people and phone calls, Russell Barnes said.
Barnes was visiting her older half-siblings in Baltimore over the Christmas holidays when she disappeared from her sister’s apartment in northwest Baltimore on Dec. 28, 2010. Baltimore police soon alerted local media, saying her disappearance was unusual because she had no history of disputes with her family or trouble with the law.
Barnes was an honor student at Union Academy, a public charter school in Monroe, and she was on track to graduate early and had already been accepted to several colleges. She had reconnected with her half-siblings on Facebook, and she traveled to Baltimore several times to visit them. Her father said the sisters even talked about living together while the teen attended Towson University.
Bernstein said Johnson, who was arrested without incident Wednesday night, was the last person to see her alive. A bail hearing has not been scheduled, the prosecutor said.
Barnes’ stepfather declined to comment on the arrest Thursday morning.
Police, who had help from the FBI, had few leads and called it one of the most frustrating missing persons cases they had investigated. At one point, Guglielmi described it as “Baltimore’s Natalee Holloway case,” referring to the Alabama teen who disappeared during a trip to Aruba.
Police and volunteers searched area parks in the weeks and months after she vanished and handed out leaflets in the area where she was last seen, but neither turned up any clues. Investigators tried to keep the search in the public consciousness, even posting a smiling photo of Barnes from her Facebook page on electronic billboards along highways in the Baltimore region. They received scores of tips, but none panned out.
Workers at the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River found her body the following April in northeast Maryland. Medical examiners later ruled the death a homicide, but authorities did not release the cause of death.
After her body was found an hour’s drive from the Baltimore apartment where she was last seen, state police homicide investigators took over the probe, working with city police investigators.
The process has been long, but Barnes said he was in contact with investigators every week.
“They knew that the family was not going to give up,” he said.
The case spurred broader interest in missing persons cases and led to a bill in the Maryland legislature called “Phylicia’s Law,” to improve coordination between law enforcement and community groups when a child disappears.
The bill requires state officials to publish a list of missing children and annual statistics. They may also keep a list of groups of volunteers to help with searches and local law enforcement must try to work with them.