Crime Scenes: A month later, no signs of missing teen

Phylicia Barnes disappeared a month ago; police still searching

January 31, 2011|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

They did all the things that siblings do when siblings get together after having been months and miles apart. They went shopping for slippers and chatted about hairdos. They visited their grandmother for Christmas. They sat up late watching movies and eating cookies.

"You know, being sisters."

Deena Barnes stresses that point in interviews, including her most recent on an Internet radio program, trying to dispel stories about strange men and alcohol in her Northwest Baltimore apartment in the days before her younger half sister, Phylicia, disappeared on the afternoon of Dec. 28.

More than a month after the 16-year-old from North Carolina went missing wearing her new white slipper-boots, Baltimore police say they have no idea what happened to the track star and honors student who had planned to graduate early from high school and attend Towson University.

As promising leads fizzle and seaches turn up nothing, the baffling case takes a toll not only on Phylicia's family but on police as well.

"This is a young girl who was well-liked in high school," said Detective Daniel T. Nicholson IV of the homicide unit, the lead investigator. "She was doing what any young person would do, visiting her family … and she vanished from the face of the earth. That's hard to believe."

Nicholson, a 17-year police veteran with two daughters of his own, said the case is "frustrating in that we've run out every lead, no matter how ridiculous or impossible it might seem."

The detective said he's in daily contact with Phylicia's father, who travels between Baltimore and his home in Atlanta, and with her mother in Monroe, N.C. His biggest fear, he says, is that "it's not going to be a happy ending."

Police pulled together a squad of six detectives — ones with the highest arrest and conviction rates — taking them off other cases to devote their time to finding Phylicia, turning this into one of the department's most exhaustive missing-person investigations in years.

"We're not scaling back," said Maj. Terrence McLarney, head of the homicide unit. Added the squad's leader, Sgt. William P. Simmons: "This is all we are about — Phylicia Barnes."

City police had at one point put half the 70-member homicide squad on the case, sent busloads of academy cadets to distribute a thousand fliers, searched the banks of a stream running through Leakin Park with dogs and divers, and enlisted an FBI helicopter that can detect heat signatures from decaying corpses.

Authorities repeatedly questioned a dozen people who they said had access to Deena Barnes' basement apartment on Eberle Drive near the Reisterstown Road Shopping Center, including Deena's ex-boyfriend, the last known person to see Phylicia alive.

Police searched more than three dozen locations, put up billboards, desperately sought national media attention, staffed a round-the-clock hot line and drained sewer water from an old well in a shed on North Bend Road. They said not a single credible clue or sighting has emerged.

In Baltimore, a person is reported missing nearly once a day — police investigated 352 reports last year, and found all but four people. Those who were not found, police believe, were killed in domestic or drug-related disputes. Most victims had something in their past — a bad relationship, a link to nefarious activities or people — to which a motive could be attributed.

Police say the Barnes case offers no such leads.

Detectives have said there is no history of family trouble that would cause the teen to run away, no history of drug or alcohol use or abuse, no emotional issues.

Even more troubling, they say, is that not a single person has reported seeing her since her sister's ex-boyfriend reported her asleep on the living room couch the afternoon of Dec. 28. The ex-boyfriend now has an attorney; police said several of the people they've talked to have retained legal representation.

Phylicia's cell phone is either off or broken, and there have been no postings on her social-networking sites, which Nicholson describe as unusual for a modern-day teenager.

Every lead that inspired hope has turned sour. Last month, someone spotted this on Phylicia's MySpace page, posted on Dec. 31 — "bored as hell. Save me LOL." Police now say the message was posted Dec. 31, 2009, not three days after she had disappeared.

The investigation is being fought on two fronts — in the secretive world of police and FBI agents, who avoid publicity and guard clues with utmost secrecy, and in the public world of the Baltimore Police Department's public affairs office.

Chief spokesman Anthony Guglielmi has complained repeatedly about the dearth of national media attention. "Phylicia Barnes is our Natalee Holloway," he has said repeatedly, referring to the white teen who went missing in the Caribbean in 2005.

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