Fearing the investigation into Phylicia Barnes' death was closing in on him, prosecutors say, Michael Maurice Johnson told his girlfriend in text messages that he was thinking about fleeing the country.
"I feel like everything is about to hit the fan. I don't know if I'm ready to deal with it," the 28-year-old wrote in one message amid a Harford County grand jury investigation in October 2011. "I still have options, not many, but I feel like I should pack up and leave. I don't want to, but that's how I feel. I mean leave this country, babe."
Those texts and other wiretapped phone conversations that month were presented for jurors Thursday as Johnson's first-degree murder trial continued in Baltimore Circuit Court. In the calls, Johnson is never heard implicating himself. "I ain't going down without a fight," he said in a phone conversation with his brother.
The communications were presented in court along with cellphone tower data that police say plot Johnson's movements on Dec. 28, 2010, the day 16-year-old Phylicia disappeared.
Johnson made more than 50 calls or text messages that day. Detective John Jendrek of the agency's phone tracking unit, said Johnson's cellphone was off from 11:30 p.m. to 1 p.m., when by his account he was at the apartment where Phylicia was staying.
Phylicia's phone was making or receiving calls until 12:30 p.m., and was not used again, Jendrek testified. She was also sending messages on Facebook until 12:21 p.m., an FBI computer analyst said.
Johnson told police in a recorded interview three days later that he saw Phylicia asleep on the couch when he left the apartment at 1:30 p.m., then went to visit relatives and stopped at a Walmart. The phone tower data show him driving in the area of the store, and his phone at one point hits off a cell tower in Patapsco Valley State Park in Howard County.
At no time during the day or night did his phone hit a tower east of Northwest Baltimore. Phylicia's body was found four months later in the Susquehanna River — 40 miles northeast of Baltimore — and prosecutors have acknowledged that they have no evidence linking Johnson to that area.
It's also unclear if any of Johnson's calls were to a number associated with the man who testified Wednesday that he visited the apartment and saw Phylicia's body after being called by Johnson for help.
Prosecutors were told they couldn't present evidence that a computer seized from the home of Johnson's brother had been used the day after Phylicia's disappearance to conduct an Internet search about whether phone GPS data can be traced when a phone is off. Circuit Judge Alfred Nance said prosecutors couldn't connect Johnson to the search, though prosecutors signaled that they would try again.
The text messages about fleeing the country were previously disclosed by prosecutors at Johnson's bail review hearing last April. His attorney said at the time that he was referring to feeling under pressure about the birth of a child he was not ready to take responsibility for.
In one wiretapped phone call from October 2011, Johnson tells his older brother that police took DNA samples from him. Johnson at that point had been identified as a person of interest for several months, and he talks about possible charges he might face. "First-degree is intent, with a plan," he said.
The defense noted that after the call, state troopers asked a Harford County judge to continue the wiretap, saying they needed to keep listening in because Johnson had not yet made statements "related to his participation in the crime."
Another call that month is between Johnson and his mother. She informs him that state troopers are bringing his brothers before a Harford County grand jury.
"It seems like they're trying to clean up Baltimore City's mess, to see if they can eliminate people," his mother says. Later, she says, "There's no evidence against you, because you're not guilty."
"They're trying to go forward with probable cause," Johnson tells her.
"What're you gonna do?" she asks.
"There's nothing I can do," he says, saying that investigators were trying to "get me on something."
Earlier in the day, the defense got its opportunity to question in front of jurors the lead Baltimore police detective on the case, Daniel Nicholson, about a search he conducted for his own missing daughter that led to his suspension. The subject had led to much wrangling among attorneys, with prosecutors saying the defense had no basis to connect the incident to the murder investigation.
Asked about the allegations of misconduct, Nicholson, who remains suspended, said he hadn't been informed of the allegations or charged.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun