A routine traffic stop in Essex this week led to the discovery of the decomposing bodies of two young children in the trunk of a car — one reportedly decomposing inside a suitcase for more than a year, according to documents charging the children’s aunt in connection with their deaths.
Baltimore County Police charged Nicole Michelle Johnson, 33, with neglect; failure to report the death of Joshlyn Marie James Johnson, 7, and Larry Darnell O’Neil, 5; disposal of their bodies and child abuse that resulted in the death of the two children. The cause and manner of their deaths are pending, police said.
Johnson is being held at the Baltimore County Detention Center in Towson after she waived her appearance at a brief bail review hearing Friday morning in district court.
Johnson had been caring for the two children since 2019 after their mother moved from Ohio to Maryland and could no longer care for the children, she told detectives, according to the court documents.
Dachelle Johnson wrote about the children in several social media posts after her sister’s arrest.
“I wish it was me instead. I wish I didn’t wake up tomorrow,” she posted on an Instagram page where she also shared a GoFundMe fundraiser to raise money to help bury her children.
Her Facebook also included pictures of the children together, including one who appeared to be Larry with close-cropped hair and Joshlyn with braids with pink balls and matching pink sneakers.
Johnson did not respond to requests for comment Friday from The Baltimore Sun.
Johnson told detectives she tried numerous times to get in touch with her sister and her children but couldn’t locate them, according to court documents. In March, Dachelle Johnson said she arranged to meet her sister to get her kids, but they never showed up. Johnson had been unable to contact them since, and a detective notified her of their deaths, police said.
Jhainaiye Tucker said she had been friends with Nicole Johnson, and always knew her to be a “kids person.”
“She loved kids. You could trust her with your kids,” Tucker said.
She said she last saw Johnson at Thanksgiving when she came over for dinner. She said Johnson did not mention her niece and nephew, or that they had been in her care, but would occasionally post pictures on social media of the family.
“I’m at a loss for words,” she said. ”I’ve never known her to hurt kids. It’s terrible.”
Tucker’s aunt, Danielle Smith, said she talked to Nicole Johnson last month, and she was talking about getting a job but did not say anything about the children. Smith said Johnson had been homeless, moving from hotel to hotel. Police listed Johnson’s address as the 3500 block of Elmora Ave., near Belair-Edison in Northeast Baltimore. The current tenant said Johnson moved out years ago, though she still has mail sent there.
During the traffic stop, Johnson told the officer that the decomposing smell in her car was from dirty blankets because she had been sleeping in her car.
In a court questionnaire, Johnson listed Smith’s daycare as a recent job, but Smith said Johnson was never an employee there. Smith said Johnson was a friend of her niece and she would regularly watch children of family members or close girlfriends.
“This is a whole surprise for us” Smith said. “This is not the person we know of. We used to have our children around her.”
Johnson was charged nearly four years ago with reckless endangerment and contributing to conditions that leave a child delinquent or in need of supervision. Online court records do not show the case, so it could not be determined whether she was convicted or cleared of charges.
In those charging documents, officers wrote that Johnson called police in November 2017 to report a domestic assault at the Executive Inn motel on Pulaski Highway. There, officers found a 4-year-old girl and 1-year-old girl alone. The room was in disarray and the 1-year-old wore a wet, dirty diaper, officers wrote. They wrote that they found a large knife by the television, smelled marijuana and found empty cigarillo baggies and Ziploc baggies that they suspected to be drug packaging.
Johnson arrived while the officers were there, they wrote. The children were not injured.
“I was advised that both children would be taken under the care of CPS [Child Protective Services] and placed in a foster home,” the officer wrote.
The children did not have Johnson’s last name. It was unclear from charging documents if she was their guardian or relative.
Baltimore County Police said they had not received any reports regarding the two missing children or Nicole Johnson before she was stopped Wednesday night. Baltimore Police did not respond Friday to questions from The Baltimore Sun, asking whether city police had been asked to investigate the children’s whereabouts in Johnson’s care.
Katherine Morris, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Human Services, which includes Child Protective Services, said the agency has “a duty to conduct an investigation or a family assessment if someone reports that a child is in unsafe circumstances,” but she would not confirm if any investigation had been open against Johnson, citing confidentiality laws.
It’s unclear whether the children were enrolled in school. City schools did not respond Friday; Baltimore County schools said the children were never students there.
Johnson was pulled over shortly after 11 p.m. Wednesday at Eastern Boulevard and Wagners Lane in Essex after police said she had been speeding. The officer said Johnson had fake temporary tags and registration and she had been driving without a license, according to the charging documents.
When the officer issued the traffic-related citations and told Johnson her car would have to be towed, Johnson told the officer: “It don’t matter, I won’t be here in five days,” and “Y’all going to see me on the news making my big debut,” according to the charging documents.
As Johnson removed items from the car’s trunk before it was to be towed, the officer noticed the smell of decomposition. The officer asked to see inside bags from the car, including a suitcase that Johnson attempted to conceal using a blanket before removing it and exposing one of the bodies inside the suitcase, the charging documents said.
Police said Johnson then tried to flee but was apprehended. Homicide detectives were called to the scene and the second body was found inside a plastic tote. Both bodies were taken to the state medical examiner’s office for autopsies.
Police said that at the time of the autopsy, the seven-year-old weighed just 18 pounds and the five-year-old weighed 21 pounds.
“According to doctors, it would have taken several months of malnourishment to attain these weights,” police wrote in the charging documents.
Johnson initially told police she did not know the children had been in the trunk of her car, police said. She told police she thought the smell from her car was from a rat in the engine.
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In an interview with a homicide detective, Johnson admitted that in May 2020 while staying at the Regal Inn on Pulaski Highway in Rosedale, she became angry with Joshlyn and hit her several times, causing the child to hit her head on the floor. Documents say Johnson told police she then put Joshlyn’s body in a suitcase in her car.
Johnson also told detectives, that two months ago, Larry had told her he was tired and had laid down to sleep and never woke up, according to the charging documents. Johnson told detectives that he had a wound on his left leg but she couldn’t elaborate about what caused the injury. She said she then placed his body in a tote, which Johnson kept in the car next to his the decomposing body of his sister, the documents said.
Police wrote that Johnson never contacted emergency personnel about either child’s death and continued to drive with them in the trunk of her car.
“The entire Baltimore County Police Department grieves with the community over the unspeakable deaths of two innocent children,” Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt said in a statement late Thursday.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. called the children’s death a tragedy.
“This incident is horrific and a heartbreaking loss of life,” he said. “We will continue to provide every resource to support our Department’s ongoing investigation into this devastating case.”
Baltimore Sun reporters McKenna Oxenden and Sanya Kamidi contributed to this article.