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Phylicia Barnes' brother wants to become city cop

When police and prosecutors gathered in a cramped media room on the ground floor of the Police Department's Fayette Street headquarters to finally announce an arrest in the killing of Phylicia Barnes, the victim's half-brother merely rode down an elevator to watch.

Bryan Barnes, inspired by the detectives who worked relentlessly for 16 months on his sister's case, has joined the Baltimore Police Department as a paid trainee. The 24-year-old already has passed background checks, and is scheduled to start as a cadet in the academy this week.

Barnes said he feels uniquely qualified to help others, after suffering through a 16-month ordeal over a missing relative, including a search that ended tragically when the teen's body was found in the Susquehanna River.

"Since it happened to me, I'm in a better position to stand by a family as time goes on," Barnes said a day after the murder charge was announced Thursday. "It happens every day. Somebody goes missing. Somebody gets killed. I've been through it and I know how the family will feel."

There's still a chance he might change his mind at the last minute, Barnes said, as he's still mulling over the kind of career he wants. He knows it will be something in law enforcement though, and said the time he's spent with city police — both as a grieving relative and a newly minted colleague — has inspired his decision.

"We're glad we could be an inspiration and we wish him and all the other trainees well in their journey to become a police officer," said Anthony Guglielmi, the city police spokesman.

City police commanders, including those who hired Barnes, declined to comment on him or on their decision, not wanting to single anyone out of a class of recruits that typically numbers between 40 and 60 men and women.

Several usually wash out in the first few weeks of training, which lasts about six months and includes rigorous physical exercises, self-defense courses and classes in the law and police procedures. They learn to fire a gun, write a legally sufficient police report, drive fast, salute and memorize complicated radio codes. Barnes would join his uncle, Sgt. Robert Jackson, who also is on the city force.

Trainees earn about $2,000 less than the $42,289 they would get upon graduating from the academy and hitting the streets.

Barnes grew up in Baltimore County, where he still lives. He went to high school at Sojourner Christian Academy in Randallstown, and later attended classes at Anne Arundel County Community College and at a business school in Baltimore County.

But what he really wanted to be was a firefighter. At age 19, he started hanging out at a volunteer fire station on Reisterstown Road, rode on the trucks and stayed overnight three or four times a week. In April last year, he enrolled in the county fire academy, the first step toward being a paid, career firefighter.

Barnes was close with his sister Deena, and like other relatives in the Baltimore area, came to know Phylicia just a few years ago when she started to get in touch over social media networks from her home in a North Carolina town.

Phylicia came to a family reunion in Anne Arundel County, and then started visiting Deena at her apartment in Northwest Baltimore. There, she fell into a crowd that included Deena's then-boyfriend Michael Johnson and Bryan Barnes, who visited often.

It was from Deena's apartment that 16-year-old Phylicia disappeared, and Johnson, 28, was the last known person to see her alive on the afternoon of Dec. 28, 2010.

Phylicia's body was found April 20 last year, nearly three weeks into Bryan Barnes' training. Suffering a wrist injury and despondent over the killing, he dropped out. He said he floundered for a while but decided to settle down, and his dealings with police on his sister's case led him to the Baltimore Police Department.

Barnes isn't the first person who has lost a loved-one to violent crime to join the force, but the nature of this case, which attracted national attention, puts him in the spotlight. Police launched an unprecedented search after Phylicia vanished, and interest and scrutiny only intensified after her body was found and her death ruled a homicide.

Barnes has stayed out of much of the limelight — quoted a few times here and there as the case unfolded. After Phylicia's body was found, he met with some reporters and gave more extensive interviews, mostly talking about the frustration of the yet-unsolved case.

On Thursday, Barnes came to the news conference in the same building where he now works, wearing a pendant with Phylicia's photo, a gift from a stranger. He stood next to his 54-year-old uncle, Harry Watson, who addressed months of pent-up frustration and anguish, but also their appreciation that an arrest had been made.

It was there Barnes confirmed what he had been reading and seeing all day in the media. Standing nearby, the city's top prosecutor announced that a first-degree murder charge had been filed against Johnson, with whom Barnes had traveled on family trips.

When the cameras left, Barnes went back upstairs to work.

As a trainee who is not yet a sworn officer, he does odd jobs and administrative work in various police offices. He didn't tell people who he was, but some knew and word eventually got out. He took pains to avoid talking about his sister's case, whose details are being closely guarded.

"I tried to keep this as quiet as possible," Barnes said. "I didn't want it to interfere with anything."

He knew the lead detective on the case, Daniel T. Nicholson IV — who got suspended recently when he allegedly launched a rogue search for his own missing teenage daughter — but said he never discussed Phylicia with him. He said the two ran into each other on his first day, and one of his recent jobs was to paint part of the office where Nicholson works.

But even small jobs put Barnes in close proximity to the cops.

"When I first started working there, it really opened my eyes on what people in the Police Department do," Barnes said. "They don't sit around all day.

"A lot of things go into this job. How to keep evidence. How to store evidence. Being a police officer, on the streets, it's pretty rough out there."

Barnes said that his position in the department did not afford him any advance news of breaks in Phylicia's case. At the news conference, he put names to the faces of top commanders he had only passed in the halls, or had seen on television.

And he learned along with other Baltimore-area residents that a man he knew was being charged with first-degree murder in his sister's death. Now, Barnes said, he wants to be a detective in homicide.

Peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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