Phylicia Barnes: Man Arrested in Murder of Missing Honor Student
Phylicia Barnes disappeared Dec. 28.
Michael Maurice Johnson has been charged with first-degree murder in the death of Phylicia Barnes. (Baltimore Police Department / April 26, 2012)
Charges against Michael Johnson, the ex-boyfriend of the victim's sister and the last known person to see Barnes alive on Dec. 28, 2010, were announced Thursday at a news conference.
Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein said that he "hopes this will provide [the family] with some measure of closure."
Johnson has been repeatedly questioned in the case and had a DNA sample taken, but defense attorney Russell Neverdon has criticized police for focusing on his client, who denies any involvement.
The attorney said Johnson's current girlfriend called him Wednesday night to say that police assigned to a warrant task force had made the arrest.
Bernstein declined to comment on specifics of the one-count indictment, and would not say precisely how or where Barnes was killed.
Barnes, an honors student who was set to graduate early from high school, vanished from her sister's Northwest Baltimore apartment while visiting from North Carolina and was found dead months later in the Susquehanna River.
Police launched one of the department's most extensive searches, attracting national attention.
The wait for the arrest was very difficult, said Barnes' uncle, Harry Watson, who attended the news conference.
"Every day I got up with the same thing in mind: When will they make an arrest," said Watson, who lives in Catonsville. He wore a ribbon of purple, the teen's favorite color.
Bryan Barnes, a half-brother who lives in Baltimore County, also attended, and wore a pendant with a picture of the girl.
Movement in the 16-month-old case came as the lead investigator in Baltimore, Detective Daniel T. Nicholson IV, was suspended on allegations that he improperly used his position to investigate his own daughter's disappearance last weekend. The teenager was later found unharmed, but city police have launched a broad probe into Nicholson's conduct and whether other departmental resources were used in his search.
Bernstein said Thursday the allegations against Nicholson are a "completely separate matter" and will "absolutely not" impact the case against Johnson.
Neverdon said he believes authorities expedited the case against Johnson "because they don't want to ruin the credibility of the case" based on Nicholson's suspension. This morning, the attorney said he might argue that Nicholson's alleged actions reflect a shoddy investigation.
"How far does this taint go," Neverdon said. "Not just the detective's, but others?"
If Nicholson went outside regulations to search for his own daughter, Neverdon said he will examine whether the detective broke the rules on the Barnes case.
Neverdon said he's not sure whether authorities suddenly obtained new evidence to charge Johnson, but he said he believes they moved on Wednesday to stay ahead of the investigation into Nicholson. "They probably said, before things fall apart, we've got a circumstantial case, but let's go with what we have."
Maryland State Police got involved after Barnes' body was found in the Susquehanna River in Harford County. Neverdon said that because the news conference was being led by Bernstein, "it suggests that Phylicia was murdered here and her body transported someplace else."
The honors student disappeared without a trace, and detectives worked round-the-clock to find her. After police made several fruitless searches around the Baltimore area, her naked body was found near the Conowingo Dam, about 40 miles northeast of the city.
The case sparked a bill in the Maryland legislature called "Phylicia's Law," which supporters say will improve coordination between law enforcement and community groups in missing children cases.
Reached by phone late Wednesday, father Russell Barnes, who first posted news of the arrest to Facebook, said the family was "rejoicing." He believes the new Phylicia's Law helped thrust the case back into the spotlight.
"No one [in Baltimore] knew Phylicia but the immediate family; [Johnson] dated Deena [Phylicia's sister] for over 10 years and Phylicia was part of his life," Barnes said. "We will let the facts come out. Justice will be dealt with."
At one point in the case, federal authorities filed search warrants seeking to access to Johnson's Facebook account, among others, referencing a child pornography investigation. Authorities quickly sealed the warrants after they inadvertently became public, and it has not been explained how they related to the case.
On the one-year anniversary of her disappearance, Neverdon said investigators had "nothing" and were wasting time with Johnson, but he disclosed that the child pornography angle related to photos of Phylicia "streaking" with a group of people including Johnson.