Phylicia Simone Barnes, missing person (Handout photo )
Hundreds of police and volunteers who spent Saturday trudging through ravines and woods in Patapsco Valley State Park failed to find any sign of a teenaged girl missing from the city since December, frustrating authorities who say they have run out of leads in the case.
"We are now very much back at square one," said Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi, echoing frustrations felt by people who spent 10 hours looking for Phylicia Barnes, the subject of one of the most extensive searches undertaken by police in years.
"We have no doubt in our minds that something very tragic has happened to her," the spokesman told reporters at a command center in a church parking lot in Ellicott City. "It's been devastating for the family. We've been at it for three months and we're not very far in knowing what happen to Phylicia."
Volunteers with the Civil Air Patrol did find a body in the park's Hilltop section — that of a partially decomposed corpse of a man dressed in layered clothing. Maryland State Police said they did not suspect foul play. Other searchers, including criminal justice students from two city colleges, found two sets of deer bones, a deer carcass and discarded clothing.
"We found nothing related to Phylicia Barnes," Guglielmi said.
The now 17-year-old disappeared from her half-sister's Northwest Baltimore apartment on Dec. 28 while visiting from Monroe, N.C. Reached by telephone, her mother Janice Sallis called the results of the search "good news. It's good news that they didn't come up with anything. My baby might still be out there."
Police have declined to say what tip led them to the park, but Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said at the onset of the search that such a massive and complex undertaking would not have been launched without what he called "actionable intelligence."
Guglielmi said only that "we identified this as an area of interest. It was associated with one of the people of interest we talked to, one of the 30 people who last saw Phylicia." Police said they had searched part of the park before, but "frozen ground and the snow limited our ability to search further."
Police, volunteers and rescue personnel from virtually every county across Maryland joined the search, using Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Church in Ellicott City as a staging area. Police trucks, vans and all-terreign vehicles of every size filled the parking lot, mixing with people parking for a church social and carrying baked goods into a reception hall.
Two dozen police dogs and Maryland Natural Resources Department officers familiar with the 16,000 acre park that sprawls over two adjoinging counties joined city homicide detectives and FBI agents from an exploited children's task force.
Search teams could be seen up and down Ilchester Road between Route 103 near Ellicott City and areas just south of Catonsville, twisting through budding suburban developments on old farmland. They concentrated along streams and trails in a two-square mile area of the park.
Of particular interest, police said, were a series of abandoned buildings on Illchester Road, part of a long forgotten mill complex. The structures were delapidated and some appeared charred. Members of the Maryland Urban Search and Rescue Team, which helped in Hurricane Katrina in 2005, spent hours going through the buildings.
The extent of the search underscored the commitment police have devoted to this case. "We're not going to, literally, leave a single stone unturned," Bealefeld told reporters as the search got underway.
His spokesman, Guglielmi, remained undeterred after the search ended without any new clues. "We've been here before," he said, referring to the past search of the park. "We've been to an abandon well. We've been to Leakin Park. We'll go to the next place if an actionable tip comes in."
Guglielmi said detectives got up to 200 tips from a dedicated hot line in the first two months of their investigation. But that has plummeted to just five in the past month. All the tips, he said, "have been investigated. All have been determined to be unfounded."
Two dozen students from a criminal justice class at Coppin State University, taught by former Baltimore Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm, were helping search the park. Another 200 volunteers distributed 10,000 fliers in the area of the Reisterstown Road Shopping Center, near the apartment building from which Phylicia disappeared.
While a task force of six homicide detectives continues to work the case exclusively, Saturday's search was the biggest public show of force since January, when police searched a well in a shed behind a Southwest Baltimore apartment building.