Baltimore police expand search for missing teen

Investigators set up 24-hour hot line and plead for community help

  • Phylicia Simone Barnes hasn't been heard from since Tuesday.
Phylicia Simone Barnes hasn't been heard from since Tuesday. (Courtesy of Baltimore Police…)
January 05, 2011|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

Describing their eight-day investigation of a teen-ager's disappearance as "basically at square one," Baltimore police have added an unprecedented array of resources to the search — including half the homicide squad — and have drawn help from national and state authorities.

The FBI has agreed to fly in two helicopters equipped with advanced technology to aid city police in the search for Phylicia Simone Barnes, a North Carolina honor student. Police set up a 24-hour hot line Wednesday to receive tips. And authorities said that they might put up billboards along Interstate 95 with her photo to draw more attention to the case.

As her father looked on with anguish Wednesday, a throng of city officers and cadets went door to door at an apartment complex off Wabash Avenue and at an adjacent shopping center, distributing fliers with the hot line's number.

"I just want to pray to God that my beautiful daughter is all right and that she will be found," said the father, Russell Barnes, who flew in from Atlanta after the 16-year-old disappeared on the afternoon of Dec. 28. Police have said they suspect foul play and are investigating the possibility that the girl, who was visiting her sister's Northwest Baltimore apartment, was abducted.

"This is every parent's worst nightmare, that a child would go missing," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in an interview. "I know we are putting a ton of resources into this, and we are very grateful for the work of our federal partners. My hope, and my prayer, is that she will be very quickly and safely found."

At a news conference near the Eberle Drive apartment from which Phylicia vanished, Maj. Terrence McLarney, the head of the homicide unit, called the disappearance unique even in a city where missing persons are routine. Police investigated 352 missing-persons reports last year, only five of which have not been solved. Most typically involve family disputes or troubled pasts.

"We look at the individual's background," McLarney said. "We look for any sort of substance abuse, any sort of emotional problems. None of that is present here. We have nothing to suggest that Phylicia Barnes fled of her own free will to some other part of the country."

The unusual nature of the girl's disappearance triggered the overwhelming police response.

More than 100 officers have searched the woods and streams of Leakin Park, and 35 of the department's roughly 70 homicide detectives are working on the Barnes case. That's in addition to detectives from missing-persons and district squads, as well as agents from the FBI's Crimes Against Children unit and the Maryland State Police.

Police are most perplexed by the lack of physical evidence and sightings.

"We're doing everything we can do," said police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. "We're basically at square one with the investigation. It's not like we have forensic evidence to guide us. The key here will be community intelligence."

Phylicia was visiting Baltimore from her hometown of Monroe, N.C., and was staying with her older sister in a basement apartment, within sight of a Home Depot at the Reisterstown Road Shopping Plaza. She had planned to move to Baltimore to attend Towson University after graduating early from high school.

According to police, Phylicia walked out of the apartment about 1:30 p.m. Dec. 28. She sent a text message to her 27-year-old sister Deena, apparently about food, and has not been seen or heard from since. Her debit card has not been used, her cell phone has been turned off and she has not updated her Facebook page.

Police said they have exhausted all leads that have come from the community, including one directing them to a specific location along the shoulder of a road in Leakin Park. More than 100 officers, including dive teams and others with cadaver dogs, searched for seven hours Tuesday but found nothing.

The tip came from a woman's comment on The Baltimore Sun's website, but the woman later said she only meant to call attention to the park's history as a dumping ground for bodies and did not have specific information about the missing teen.

Police have been questioning people who were in the Eberle Drive apartment occupied by the victim's sister. Police have described it as akin to a college flop house, with young men and women passing through and sleeping over.

Detectives believe they've located and interviewed everyone who was inside over the Christmas holiday when Phylicia was present, including her sister's boyfriend, the last person to see her alive.

McLarney said investigators have developed "persons of interest," but he also cautioned that "there is no smoking gun, there is no one person that is of more interest than another at this point." He defined a person of interest as "anyone close to Phylicia who had access to the apartment."

The major said that is about a dozen people.

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