Details in Phylicia Barnes murder emerge at hearing

Teen was asphyxiated in apartment, prosecutors say

  • At Baltimore Police Headquarters, Baltimore City State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein (at podium) announces the indictment of Michael Johnson from Baltimore in the slaying of Phylicia Barnes, the 16-year-old North Carolina girl who went missing while visiting her sister in Baltimore. Johnson was the ex-boyfriend of Phylicia Barnes' sister, Deena.
At Baltimore Police Headquarters, Baltimore City State's… (Algerina Perna/Baltimore…)
April 27, 2012|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

Prosecutors alleged Friday that the 28-year-old man charged with murdering Phylicia Barnes asphyxiated the teenager in her sister's Northwest Baltimore apartment, and then moved her body using a 35-gallon plastic tub.

Michael Maurice Johnson, the ex-boyfriend of Phylicia's older half-sister, was seen by a neighbor sweating and struggling to move a container from the apartment, Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Goldberg said at a hearing while arguing against bail for Johnson.

Though that tub apparently has not been recovered, tests convinced investigators that a person of Phylicia's size — 5-foot-9, 120 pounds — could fit into such a storage container, she said.

Prosecutors also said Johnson had exchanged 500 phone calls and text messages with the 16-year-old girl between July and September 2010, and Phylicia at one point had told a relative that Johnson made her feel "uncomfortable," Goldberg said.

A possible motive for the crime, however, was not disclosed. It also remains unclear why authorities charged Johnson now, after a16-month investigation.

The evidence was presented Friday in Baltimore Circuit Court by prosecutors as Johnson and his attorneys sought unsuccessfully to have him released on bail.

Defense attorneys said that Johnson and Phylicia's sister had broken up and he was using the container to move personal items, and that more than a year of police monitoring and investigating had turned up nothing. They also said it was impossible to fit a body in such a small container.

Attorney Russell Neverdon, who has represented Johnson through repeated police questioning, said, "It's very clear that they're grasping."

Johnson "being arrested and charged with this is a travesty, and it's unfair to him," said defense attorney Brandon Mead, who was retained for the hearing and spoke to reporters afterward. "They lack a significant amount of evidence. I don't believe any jury could look at what they've stated today and find him anywhere remotely responsible for any wrongdoing."

Phylicia, an honors student from Monroe, N.C., was visiting her sister Deena Barnes in December 2010 when she went missing. Her nude body was found floating in the Susquehanna River in April 2011.

Johnson, the last person known to see her alive, had long been considered a suspect by police. On Wednesday, prosecutors obtained a grand jury indictment against Johnson, charging him with a single count of first-degree murder, and he was arrested Wednesday night outside his Baltimore apartment.

He came to court Friday in a yellow jail jumpsuit, with his hands shackled in front of him. His right eye appeared to be nearly swollen shut. Authorities say he tried to run from officers during the arrest, while his attorneys say officers without clear identification startled and assaulted him.

At a news conference Thursday, Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein was tight-lipped about the case, but Circuit Court Judge John Addison Howard asked prosecutors to outline the accusations to justify holding Johnson without bail.

Johnson had dated Deena Barnes for nearly 10 years — they were high school sweethearts and lived together, Goldberg said. After Deena and Phylicia connected through Facebook, Phylicia began making regular trips to Baltimore to visit.

Relatives have said Johnson had a close relationship with the Barnes family, and he considered Phylicia to be a little sister.

From July 30 to September 30, Goldberg said, Johnson and Phylicia exchanged 500 phone calls and text messages. Prosecutors did not characterize the content of the messages, though Goldberg said they demonstrated that "there was familiarity there."

But during her December trip, Phylicia confided in another sister that Johnson made her uncomfortable and she "didn't like how he looked at her," Goldberg said.

On Dec. 28, Goldberg said, Deena left the apartment in the 6500 block of Eberle Drive for work, leaving Phylicia asleep on the couch along with a younger brother of Johnson's. Johnson arrived at 10 a.m., took his brother to another apartment, and returned to Deena's place.

Goldberg said records show Phylicia using her cell phone and computer up until 12:23 p.m. that day.

At around 1 p.m., a witness saw Johnson coming out of his apartment, attempting to carry a "very large storage container." He was "having a great deal of trouble" and "sweating profusely," taking the container one step at a time, Goldberg said.

Johnson's brother returned to the apartment at 4:30 p.m., and it was empty, Goldberg said. At 6 p.m., Deena came home and realized Phylicia was missing. Phylicia had not met up as planned with her other half-sister, Kelly, and they called police.

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