Barnes' half brother says she had no apparent reason to be near dam

Phylicia Barnes' body found last week after months-long search; investigation continues

April 24, 2011|By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

As far as family members know, Phylicia Barnes had never traveled to the area around the Conowingo Dam, where her body was discovered last week after a long and frustrating search that began when the teen disappeared four months ago while visiting family in Baltimore.

Bryan Barnes, the North Carolina teen's 23-year-old half brother, said Sunday that he's hopeful police will make an arrest soon in connection with her disappearance and death. He said the family knows of no one missing who might be linked to Phylicia. The body of an unidentified male was found in the Susquehanna River near Phylicia's.

And he doubts very much that she woke up the day she disappeared and decided, without telling anyone, to head to northeastern Maryland on a whim. Her body was found 40 miles from Baltimore.

"That doesn't make any type of sense," said Bryan Barnes, in one of the most extensive interviews a member of her family has given since her body was identified. "She had no reason to be there, no reason whatsoever."

During a somber conversation at home in Windsor Mill, he wore a watch that his half sister had given him for Christmas and — under his dress shirt — a T-shirt made during the family's search after the teen went missing Dec. 28 at age 16.

He said he still wears the shirt — with a picture of her and the words "Have You Seen Me?" — as a way to remember Phylicia. His family had just begun an effort to expand its network of people aiding in the search to a number of different cities and states when they learned that her body had been found.

The case attracted national attention. Her classmates at Union Academy in Monroe, N.C., held candlelight vigils in her honor, and officials at the school intend to hold a news conference Monday to talk about Phylicia.

An investigator said during the search that it appeared Phylicia had simply "vanished," and police grew frustrated as they examined hundreds of tips without turning up any credible leads. Police conducted extensive searches, including one earlier this month involving 200 officers and volunteers in Patapsco Valley State Park.

Bryan Barnes, a Baltimore County firefighter, said police "didn't really have too much to go on" in those long, awful months when no one knew where she was, and so the Barnes family organized their own efforts — searches, vigils, passing out the T-shirts, even traveling to other states on the East Coast to give fliers to passers-by in hopes that someone had seen the girl with the million-dollar smile.

They had to do it, not only for her sake but for their own, Bryan Barnes said. They needed tasks or they would feel even more helpless. But there was only so much that could be done, he said, and they were nearly out of ideas.

"We tried everything — everything," he said.

The next step would have been calling police departments in other states, just in case it helped. Just to make sure patrol officers outside Maryland knew what she looked like. Relatives had divvied up states and were tracking down contract information, Bryan Barnes said, when the heartbreaking news came that Phylicia had been found dead.

"My sisters are taking it extremely hard," he said, his voice tired. "I don't think it's really hit me yet."

Police informed Russell Barnes, the father of Phylicia and Bryan, about 3 p.m. Thursday. That set off a ripple of phone calls among relatives, but no one was sure how best to break it to Phylicia's half sisters, who were both at work.

"My sister Kelly was driving when she found out — she heard on the radio," Bryan Barnes said. "So that was rough."

The siblings are related to Phylicia through their father's side of the family, and they first met at a family reunion when she was about 5, Bryan Barnes said. The two immediately hit it off.

"We were like best friends for that week," he recalled.

About two years ago, "she found us through Facebook," he said. Later she came to town to see the siblings she hardly knew, and they all bonded — "it was just the four of us," he said. Phylicia, an honors student planning to attend Towson University, had been up for another visit over her Christmas break when she disappeared. She lived with her mother.

He remembers her "always smiling," always having fun. What her death has done, though, is push all those happy memories to the background. Now his immediate, inescapable thought is of her lifeless body in the Susquehanna River.

"I'm … angry because I feel like somebody just discarded her like trash," Bryan Banes said.

Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said investigators are awaiting a determination on the cause of death and an identification of the male body found in the river a few miles south of Phylicia's. Both are key pieces of information in the effort to solve the mystery.

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