Phylicia Simone Barnes hasn't been heard from since Tuesday. (Courtesy of Baltimore Police…)
With no new leads and few tips in the 10-day-old search for a missing teenager, Baltimore police are frantically trying to attract the attention of the national media, fearing the girl has been abducted and taken far from Maryland.
But until a day ago, only a few television networks had aired segments — a brief mention on CNN Headline News earlier this week and a short segment using previously recorded film on ABC's "Good Morning America" on Thursday.
To Baltimore police, the unexplained disappearance of Phylicia Simone Barnes from her older sister's Northwest Baltimore apartment on Dec. 28 stands out among the more than 350 missing-persons cases investigated each year, and they have assigned more than 100 detectives and officers to it.
A frustrated city police spokesman, Anthony Guglielmi, said he has been e-mailing and faxing fliers, as well as offering interviews, to virtually every national media outlet.
Late Thursday afternoon, after The Baltimore Sun contacted several television networks seeking comment, Guglielmi said he received calls from producers, and he and the commander of the homicide unit were booked on CNN's "Nancy Grace," CBS' "The Early Show" and NBC's "Today." However, the "Nancy Grace" show fell through; Guglielmi said the show's producers never called him back.
The competition for limited time slots on TV news shows seen from coast to coast can be fierce. Yet the perception that such shows overwhelmingly feature missing white children from suburbia is not far from the minds of Baltimore officials dealing with a black teen missing from a city known for its high crime rates and impoverished citizenry.
"I don't know why this case is any different than the Natalee Holloway case," said Guglielmi, referring to the wealthy white teen who went missing while vacationing in the Caribbean in 2005 and continues to be a staple of cable news programs.
"The only exception is that Phylicia was in Baltimore and she's from North Carolina," Guglielmi said. "America rallied around Natalee, and CNN aired hourly updates. In my case, I'm just asking that [Phylicia's] picture be put up and it be noted that she's missing and in danger.
"I know there are things happening around the nation," the police spokesman said. "But I think the disappearance of a 16-year-old is more important than birds falling out of the sky or dead fish in the harbor. Somebody's life is in peril here."
In interviews, Guglielmi never fails to recite the buzzwords that he hopes attract attention from a television media.
He stresses that detectives fear an abduction, suspect foul play, that the victim is a track star and an honors student who earned straight As, that she's on track to graduate early from high school and wants to move to Baltimore and attend Towson University.
Authorities also say that Barnes has no history of crime or drug use and doesn't suffer from emotional problems. They said she has no family troubles that would cause her to run away. That, along with no physical evidence or useful leads from citizens, family and friends, sets her case apart, police said.
Authorities say that they've interviewed about a dozen people who had access to Phylicia's sister's apartment on Eberle Drive near the Reisterstown Road Shopping Plaza but have gotten no leads. Phylicia was last seen leaving the apartment about 1:30 p.m. Dec. 28, apparently in search of food.
She hasn't been seen or heard from since. Her cell phone is off, she hasn't used her debit card and hasn't updated her Facebook page. Police searched Leakin Park, handed out hundreds of fliers and set up a 24-hour hot line. Clear Channel donated billboard space to show her photo along the city's highways.
Wednesday night, the FBI flew two helicopters over Leakin Park and Northwest Baltimore using technology that can detect heat signatures emitted by decomposing bodies. The only "hit" turned out to be a backpack in a garbage can, police said. Guglielmi said tips called into the hot line have thus far proved "not tangible."
Police said the theory that Phylicia has been abducted — based on the length of time she has been missing and the lack of physical evidence and credible tips — will make this case difficult to solve without help from the public. And if the abduction angle is true, the public that the police need help from is most likely far away from Baltimore.
Representatives from several national news outlets declined to discuss the issue but did note that Phylicia's story is breaking during a heavy week of political news that they said is dominating coverage.
Christopher T. Hanson, a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park and an expert on public perception of the media and crime, said there is "clearly a pattern of more intensive coverage of abductions involving white young women, particularly if they are in the upper middle class or of a higher social status."
Anyone with information on the disappearance of 16-year-old Phylicia Simone Barnes is urged to call Baltimore police at 1-855-223-0033. The toll-free number is staffed 24 hours a day. Phylicia is about 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weighs about 120 pounds. She was last seen wearing a blue peacoat with a hood, a turquoise thermal shirt, blue jeans and white slipper-boots and was carrying a caramel-colored purse.