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.
Deena also called Johnson, at 7:41 p.m., to tell him Phylicia was missing, but from 7:51 p.m. to 1:02 a.m., Johnson did not answer his phone. Goldberg said investigators scoured security camera footage from the area around the apartment, near the Reisterstown Road shopping center, but found no sign of the girl.
Goldberg said Johnson also missed work that day, after having been dressed to leave.
Prosecutors said Johnson made conflicting statements when asked about the container, saying first that he used it to move clothes and electrical equipment, and later saying he moved "weights." Goldberg said investigators never found any items in Johnson's possession that would have been so difficult to move.
Neverdon said Johnson was already moving out of the apartment, and it was not unusual that he was seen removing items. He also said police had no records showing Johnson in the area of Harford County that night.
"He's here because of a circumstantial case," Neverdon said. "He's the last person to see her alive, so he must be the person responsible for her untimely demise."
Defense attorneys, who said Johnson has no criminal record and is raising an infant child, argued for his release on bail, offering to surrender his passport and have him submit to electronic monitoring.
Prosecutors, however, said he was a flight risk, citing October conversations — apparently wiretapped — in which he told a girlfriend and his brother that he was considering fleeing the country. He specifically floated the idea of moving to Brazil, where the United States does not have extradition powers, prosecutors said.
"The way things are going, I have to be realistic about the situation," Johnson is alleged to have told his girlfriend, according to Goldberg.
Neverdon said Johnson had already left the country, on a cruise, and returned. He said the conversations about fleeing were taken out of context, and came at a time when he was under pressure about the birth of a child he was not ready to take responsibility for. He has since taken a role in the child's life, Neverdon said.
Howard, the judge, ordered Johnson held without bail, saying he was concerned about the conversations related to leaving the country.
Neverdon said after the hearing that he will continue to represent Johnson. Earlier in the day, it appeared he was being dropped in favor of Mead.
Mead's firm includes a partner, Catherine Flynn, who has represented the former lead detective in the Barnes case, Daniel Nicholson IV. The detective was charged in Baltimore County with child abuse-related assault in September, and suspended by the city Police Department this week after allegedly conducting an unauthorized search for his own teenage daughter.
Neverdon said he had met with Johnson and his family, and said he plans to continue to represent Johnson. He expects to add attorneys Ivan Bates and Tony Garcia to the defense team.