Phylicia Barnes vigil

Russell Barnes, center, father of Phylicia Barnes, and other family members light candles during a vigil at Brown's Memorial Baptist Church to mark the one-year anniversary of the disappearance and death of Phylicia. (Kenneth K. Lam/The Baltimore Sun / December 28, 2011)

As relatives marked the one-year anniversary of the disappearance of Phylicia Barnes, the attorney for a Baltimore man questioned in the case claims that police have no leads and have wasted time on a dead end.

"It's not progressing," said Russell Neverdon, who represents Michael Johnson, the last known person to see the North Carolina teen alive. The attorney also said that a Baltimore police officer who is related to the girl interfered in the early stages of the investigation. "It disheartens me, how they went about this. It's like the Keystone Kops."

Phylicia, a 16-year-old honors student who was visiting relatives in the city, went missing Dec. 28, 2010, from her older sister's Northwest Baltimore apartment. Her body was found four months later in the Susquehanna River.

State police, who took over the case, said last week that they were making progress but have declined to elaborate. Phylicia's father, Russell, said Wednesday that the family was optimistic based on reports from detectives, and he called Neverdon's comments a distraction from the effort to arrest his daughter's killer.

"We just want Phylicia's murderer to be caught and brought to justice," Russell Barnes said.

Asked about Neverdon's claims that his client was innocent and investigators were wasting time, Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly said, "Everybody's entitled to their opinion." The prosecutor became involved in the case once the girl's body was found in the county.

Neverdon's remarks shed new light on the investigation from the perspective of Johnson, the former boyfriend of Phylicia Barnes' older sister Deena. Johnson has told police that he saw Phylicia asleep on a couch in her sister's apartment.

"He has maintained his innocence, that he had nothing to do with her disappearance," Neverdon said. "His attitude is and continues to be, 'I have nothing to hide.'"

The attorney added: "They have collected DNA from him, conducted hours and hours of interviews and follow-ups, shown up at his work. Very pointedly, they have nothing. If they had it, they would have brought charges."

Among the interviews Johnson participated in, Neverdon said, was one conducted the night of Phylicia's disappearance with a city police officer who is a relative of the Barnes family. Neverdon said the officer, Sgt. Robert Jackson, is a brother of Russell Barnes and visited Deena Barnes' apartment and questioned people.

Russell Barnes confirmed that Jackson visited the apartment but said he was there as a family member. "That's my brother — why wouldn't I call him? I would have called him if he was a mechanic or a plumber," he said.

Anthony Guglielmi, the Baltimore Police Department's chief spokesman, said there was "no indication that any inappropriate activity took place" on the part of officers. He added that Johnson should file an internal-affairs complaint if he believes anything improper occurred.

Efforts to reach Jackson were unsuccessful.

Neverdon also offered a possible explanation for why investigators sought access in the summer to Phylicia's Facebook and email accounts, citing a child pornography probe. The attorney said Johnson was questioned about photos of Phylicia "streaking" with a group of people, including Johnson.

In July, an FBI agent filed a document in U.S. District Court seeking access to the Facebook accounts of Phylicia and Deena Barnes, as well as those of Johnson and at least one other person. In the document, the agent wrote that it was part of a child pornography investigation, but officials have declined to explain that angle of the case.

Neverdon said that Johnson was asked about the "streaking" photos and that Johnson said they were taken at a party at Deena Barnes' apartment. Neverdon said he has seen the photos, which were not shot the night of her disappearance, and show people running around nude inside and outside Deena's apartment.

The search warrants for the electronic accounts, he said, were a law enforcement tactic to "sweat things out, to put pressure on [Johnson] by suggesting he had done something wrong."

Police would not discuss that aspect of the investigation. It was unclear how the photos were obtained.

Neverdon would not make Johnson available for an interview.

Russell Barnes said he had not heard of the existence of any such images.

As for Johnson, Barnes said, "He's the last person who saw Phylicia alive; he told me on [Dec. 29, 2010] that he saw Phylicia and locked the door [behind him]."

On Wednesday night, the Barnes family in Baltimore held "A Call to Action" in Park Heights at Brown's Memorial Baptist Church, seeking to call attention to Phylicia's case and the plight of other missing and exploited people.

About 75 people attended the service, where the Barnes family lit two candles — one purple, for Phylicia, and one white, for others missing.

"Barnes family, shed a tear. It's OK," said the Rev. LaRondi Nicole Flowers. "One day, justice will prevail. The story of Phylicia has affected everyone, and we want you to know, even in this event, victories can come."

Family friend Don Rondeau challenged police to be relentless in their pursuit of those who harmed Phylicia. He spoke generally to those gathered to remember her, as well.

"We didn't find Phylicia, but we found each other," he said. "When we look in the mirror, we're looking at the person best positioned to protect our children."

The event was attended by investigators from Baltimore and state police, as well as Cassilly, the Harford County state's attorney.

"We're trying to come up with ideas that will advance the investigation, and following up on whatever we can think of to pursue," he said. "It's not anything that we have put on the shelf. We're actively trying to work this."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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