Baltimore Sun

Phylicia Barnes case moves forward; family mourns

From new story on Phylicia Barnes by reporters Raven L. Hill and Jessica Anderson: 

The discovery of Phylicia Barnes' body ended one mystery and began another for police, who must now determine how the missing North Carolina teen ended up in a river 40 miles north of Baltimore, and identify the man found the same day in the same body of water.

Authorities said it could take the medical examiner's office days, weeks or even months to determine how Barnes and the man died. A police spokesman said there are no apparent signs of trauma on either body pulled Wednesday from the Susquehanna River near the Conowingo Dam (shown above in a picture by David Hobby).


"Our hearts are sad, but we stand strong," said Phylicia's father, Russell Barnes, who has led vigils and searches for his daughter since she disappeared Dec. 28 from a Northwest Baltimore apartment while visiting her half sister.

"We've got to find out who would do this to our angel," Barnes said. "We are going to find out what happened with Phylicia. I told everyone at the beginning, her life will never be forgotten. Trust me, we're not finished at all. The police assured me they are on this."


The case attracted national attention, and her classmates at Union Academy in Monroe, N.C., held candlelight vigils in her honor. The school scheduled a news conference Monday to talk about Phylicia.

"Our hearts go out to Phylicia's family and friends," a statement from the school read.

As relatives begin to mourn, police are exploring new leads. A half-dozen Baltimore homicide detectives who worked the case nonstop for months will join state police in a joint, expanded investigation.

Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said detectives need to identify the male body to determine whether he is a person who has been reported missing and whether he has any connection to Barnes. His body was found by boaters less than four miles from where Barnes' was spotted.

"We have a lot of work ahead of us," Guglielmi said.

The lead homicide detective said during the investigation that it appeared Phylicia had simply "vanished," and police grew frustrated as they examined hundreds of tips without turning up any credible leads. Police conducted extensive searches, including one earlier this month involving 200 officers and volunteers in Patapsco Valley State Park.

Until crews working on the dam discovered the body early Wednesday, Guglielmi said, "we had no reason to go up there. We were surprised at the location."

Rumors swirled about Phylicia every time a body turned up. Bryan Barnes, Phylicia's 23-year-old brother, said police were cautious even when they called girl's father Thursday to inquire about a rose tattoo found on the body in the river, and whether it might match a tattoo on his daughter's ankle.


The brother said police told them not to be overly concerned and "that they didn't think it was her. … It changed in a matter of hours." Police confirmed Phylicia's identity using dental records.

Bryan Barnes said the family was grieving but was trying to stay focused on funeral plans and reviving fundraising for a reward fund for tips in the case. The Baltimore County firefighter said relatives flocked to his grandmother's house upon hearing the body was Phylicia's, and they talked into the night.

"Being as though it had been four months, I kinda figured it would end this way," he said. "Of course, we didn't want it to, but being realistic, it was hard to keep the faith."

Police now face a formidable challenge, said Lawrence Kobilinsky, professor of criminal justice and biochemistry at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "The question now: Are the two bodies related? Were they together? Maybe they had an accident, [or] were they both killed and thrown into the water?"

The autopsy might shed light on whether Phylicia and the man died around the same time, he said. Autopsy results could also be crucial in linking the few details that are publicly known, such as where she was last seen, at her apartment, and where her body was found in the river.

"If she was really well-preserved, there may be some evidence of cause of death, which may be helpful in determining manner of death," Kobilinsky said. "Assuming there's soft tissue, there may be a few things they are able to tell, including cause of death.


"They're looking for any evidence that she was fighting for her life," he said. "Were her fingernails broken in trying to fight off an assailant? There may be signs there was a ligature around her neck or held her arms, or wrists or ankles together to restrain her. If they find a skull fracture, then they know that blunt trauma ended up killing her. If she was shot or stabbed, there may be some evidence in the skeletal system."

An added challenge for police is the amount of time that has elapsed since Barnes went missing.

"The longer it's out there, the less you have to work with," said Brian F. Spatola, a forensic anthropologist in Washington, D.C. Water conditions "take away more and more of the things that would be helpful in looking at cause of death."

Richard C. Fahlteich, a retired Baltimore homicide commander, said that finding the body will help push forward what until Wednesday been a stalled case. But he cautioned that police sometimes never learn how a person died.

He has never personally been aware of an incident in which two bodies were found in the same area on the same day. "It really is strange," Fahlteich said. "It may well be a sad coincidence."

But the experts said that is unlikely.


"They're not just random bodies that happened to come together at this location," Kobilinsky said. "You just don't find bodies popping up one after the next unless they hit the water at the same time."