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Neighbor testifies that he saw Michael Johnson struggle to move large container

Michael Maurice Johnson, shown in this 2012 file photo, is being retried for the murder of Phylicia Barnes.
Michael Maurice Johnson, shown in this 2012 file photo, is being retried for the murder of Phylicia Barnes. (Photo courtesy of Baltimore City Police Department)

A former neighbor testified for the second time about observing Michael Maurice Johnson struggling to move a plastic storage container the day that 16-year-old Phylicia Barnes was last seen alive.

Elvis Teah, who testified at Johnson's first trial in 2013, said Tuesday that Johnson was shirtless and sweaty as he lifted the container up the steps from his basement apartment on Dec. 28, 2010. Prosecutors' theory of the case is that Phylicia's body was inside of the container.

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"I asked him, 'Do you need a hand, this stuff seems heavy,'" Teah recalled. "He said, 'No, I got it.'"

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.

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Teah was unclear about what time he saw Johnson. He said it could have been anywhere from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. At the previous trial, Teah testified that he saw Johnson in the morning, which was emphasized by the defense.

Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Goldberg also showed Teah a plastic storage container that they say is the same size as the one Johnson used to dispose of Phylicia's body. Teah said Tuesday that the storage container he observed was not as deep as the one shown to him by Goldberg.

Prosecutors are trying Johnson for the second time, after his conviction on a charge of second-degree murder was overturned because prosecutors withheld information about a key witness from the defense. That witness, who said Johnson called him to his apartment showed the witness Phylicia's body inside, is not being called to testify this time.

Jurors on Tuesday also heard from Det. Albert Rotell, of the Baltimore Police Department's phone tracking unit, who mapped out the mobile phone activity of Johnson and Barnes, based on the cell towers they connected with.

Phylicia's phone stopped connecting with cell towers at 1:03 p.m. and never connected again.

Johnson's phone, meanwhile, was making calls until 11:35 a.m., when it stopped connecting to the network and calls to it went directly to voicemail. He resumed using his phone at 1:04 p.m., sending and receiving text messages. He was on the phone continuously from that point on, making calls that lasted as long as eight or 12 minutes, Rotell testified.

The cell tower data shows he was on the move after at least 1:28 p.m., with his phone connecting to towers in Southwest Baltimore and later near Patapsco Valley State Park in Howard County.

Johnson told police that after leaving the apartment, he went to visit relatives and stopped at a Walmart near the park. But prosecutors have raised the idea that Johnson was looking for a location to dump Phylicia's body.

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.

Prosecutors played for jurors a tape of a phone call Johnson made from jail. It is one of several calls or statements he made about Phylicia that prosecutors believe are incriminating but also fall short of linking him to the crime.

In the call, Johnson tells an unidentified woman that Phylicia's sister, Deena, spent the "second-most amount of time with Phylicia."

"You already know who No. 1 is," Johnson can be heard saying. "Take a guess, who spent the most time [with Phylicia]?"

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The woman names Johnson's teenage brother.

"No, it was me," Johnson says. "It was me. By far."

The trial continues with testimony from prosecution witnesses on Wednesday.

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