Sister's ex-boyfriend charged with murder in Phylicia Barnes case
Cause of death remains unclear; defendant maintains innocence
Michael Maurice Johnson has been charged with first-degree murder in the death of Phylicia Barnes. (Baltimore Police Department / April 26, 2012)
He was also the last person to see the girl alive in late December 2010. Now Baltimore prosecutors have charged him in the murder of the promising North Carolina teenager, whose nude body was found floating in the Susquehanna River one year ago this month.
In announcing the charge Thursday, authorities said very little about the case against Johnson, 28. He faces one count of first-degree murder, and officials declined to say how or where Phylicia was killed. Johnson was arrested late Wednesday outside his apartment after police said he tried to run from officers.
"This was an enormous collaborative effort by all agencies involved," Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein said at a news conference, where he was flanked by city police and state troopers. "We hope it provides some measure of closure for the family."
Johnson, who does not appear to have a criminal record, had been repeatedly questioned since Phylicia's disappearance, but defense attorney Russell Neverdon said Johnson continues to deny any involvement. Neverdon briefly met with his client Thursday at the Baltimore City Detention Center.
"He told me, 'I'm innocent. I didn't do anything wrong. I will fight this to the very end,'" Neverdon said.
After 16 months of investigating, prosecutors obtained the grand jury indictment two days after the former lead detective in Baltimore, Daniel Nicholson IV, was suspended amid allegations that he conducted a rogue investigation to search for his own daughter. The teen went missing from Baltimore County last Friday and was later found unharmed.
Neverdon, during a news conference in his lower Charles Village office, said he believes that police expedited their case because of the troubles Nicholson faces, and that the single-count indictment shows their case remains circumstantial.
"Police had Mr. Johnson in their sights from the first day," Neverdon said, noting that his client met four times with homicide detectives and submitted a DNA sample for testing. Johnson's relatives were questioned and his car was searched, the lawyer said.
"The police made good on their promise," Neverdon said. "They told him during one meeting that it was only a matter of time before they got him."
Bernstein said Thursday that the allegations against Nicholson — whose squad attended the news conference without him — are a "completely separate matter" and will "absolutely not" impact the case against Johnson.
"If I thought for a moment that the alleged activity impacted the case, we wouldn't have brought it," Bernstein said.
Phylicia, an honor student who was set to graduate early from high school, vanished on Dec. 28, 2010, from the Reisterstown Road apartment of her half-sister Deena, while visiting from Monroe, N.C.
Deena has said she met Phylicia about 10 years ago at a family reunion in Baltimore, and they reconnected about three years ago on Facebook. Phylicia visited Baltimore several times, and hoped to attend Towson University.
Police have described the apartment as a "college house" that wasn't always secured and said that up to a dozen people were in and out of it over the holidays. Phylicia's mother, Janice Sallis-Mustafa, has accused the half-sister of condoning alcohol use and allowing men to come and go at the apartment.
On the day the teen disappeared, Johnson was moving out of Deena's apartment because the two of them had just broken up. Deena was at work, and Phylicia was asleep on the couch.
Johnson recalls her talking about leaving to get some food, Neverdon said.
The case attracted national attention, though not at first, and critics said the delay highlighted disparate interest from the media and authorities in cases where minority children go missing. In the initial days, police tried and failed to get the case on national news shows.
Meanwhile, city police poured unprecedented resources into the case, at one time involving half the homicide squad, and then forming a six-detective task force to lead the investigation. The FBI helped with helicopters that flew over city parks with heat sensors that could detect cadavers, and Maryland State Police joined in what authorities described as the most complex and largest missing persons cases in department history.