Baltimore’s lead detective in the high-profile disappearance of North Carolina teenager Phylicia Barnes was charged Monday with committing assault and burglary during a frantic search last year for his own daughter.
Detective Daniel T. Nicholson IV, a veteran homicide investigator, is accused of forcing his way into a Northeast Baltimore apartment, knocking one woman down and pushing a second person to the ground in a search that began after his daughter ran away from home.
The charges come more than a year after the allegations surfaced, and a month before the scheduled retrial of Michael Maurice Johnson in the death of Phylicia Barnes, a 16-year-old North Carolina teen who was visiting family in Baltimore when she went missing in 2010.
A jury convicted Johnson of second-degree murder in March, but a judge reversed the verdict because, he said, prosecutors failed to provide defense attorneys with information about a key witness. Though the cases are separate, Johnson’s lawyers have attempted to use questions about Nicholson’s conduct to undermine the state’s case.
At a motions hearing in January before Johnson’s trial, defense attorneys said Nicholson was wearing a hooded sweatshirt when he and two others allegedly forced entry into the apartment in the 5500 block of Bowleys Lane. They also said a man who was with him held down the apartment's occupants and snatched away a cellphone so they could not call 911.
No one else has been charged or identified in the case against Nicholson.
Nicholson is charged with two counts of second-degree assault, one count of fourth-degree burglary and one count of making a false statement to police, which are all misdemeanors.
Nicholson's attorney, Matthew Fraling, said Nicholson “completely maintains his innocence.”
“At no point did Detective Nicholson operate outside the confines of the law. He did what any parent who was similarly situated would do when confronted with a case of his daughter missing,” Fraling said. “We look forward to his ultimate vindication from these spurious allegations.”
Under department rules, officers charged with misdemeanor offenses are suspended with pay.
Ivan Bates, an attorney who represented Johnson at his first trial, had accused prosecutors of delaying charges against Nicholson to preserve the case. He said he believes that this week’s charges bolster the point.
“There’s been no new evidence in reference to Detective Nicholson’s case,” said Bates. “[State’s Attorney Gregg L.] Bernstein sat on the charges, hoping to get a conviction [in the Barnes case]. Now he’s getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He doesn’t play fair, and he believes in a different set of rules for himself and his prosecutors.”
Bernstein, in a statement, said the charges show that his office is “committed to investigating allegations of police misconduct and prosecuting officers who violate the laws they have sworn to enforce.”
The charges fall outside the one-year statute of limitations for misdemeanor charges, Bernstein spokesman Mark Cheshire confirmed. He said prosecutors and the defense reached an agreement to extend by two weeks the time period for bringing charges.
Fraling said, “There were negotiations involved.
“There were a number of things we needed to square and that they needed to square as well. It was a discussion as to the timing,” Fraling said.
Nicholson has been suspended by the department since April 23 of last year, after the investigation into the Bowleys Lane incident began. Two days later, prosecutors charged Johnson with one count of first-degree murder.
Johnson’s defense attorneys successfully angled to bring up the accusations at trial during Nicholson's testimony.
“You took it upon yourself to look for [your daughter]?” defense attorney Bates asked.
“Of course,” Nicholson said.
When asked several follow-up questions, including whether he had lied to investigators or was being investigated for misusing department resources, Nicholson responded, “I don't know, sir,” to each question. He said he had not been notified of any allegations.
Prosecutors said Monday that Nicholson lied to detectives when questioned about the alleged break-in, responding that he went to the Bowleys Lane home but left when no one answered the door. Johnson's defense attorneys said the occupants of the home picked Nicholson out of two photo lineups.
During the motions hearing in the Johnson murder case, prosecutors said that the allegations against Nicholson were “mere accusations” and Nicholson had not been charged. The Barnes case is scheduled for a retrial May 28 but that date could change because Bates said attorneys from his firm plan to drop out.
Another Johnson attorney, Russell Neverdon, could not be reached for comment.
Nicholson, an 18-year Police Department veteran and father of two, was charged in September 2011 in Baltimore County on separate allegations that he struck his daughter with a coaxial cable, a case that was dropped on the condition that the family attend counseling.
Prosecutors said Nicholson is scheduled to be arraigned May 20 on Monday’s charges.
In a statement, Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said Nicholson was “accused of egregious violations of public trust that will never be tolerated. His actions undermine the very hard work our police officers do every day to make Baltimore safer.”