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Crime

A timeline ending in tragedy: Two years after moving from Ohio, children found dead in trunk of Baltimore County car

At 5, Joshlyn Johnson was going to school, being a big sister to her 3-year-old brother Larry and living happily, relatives said, in Dayton, Ohio, with their mother and the couple they called Papa and Nana.

James Phillips and his wife, Evelyn Phillips-Simon, had themselves raised the children’s mother, their niece Dachelle Johnson, from the time she was 7, away from her family in Baltimore.

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But on Sept. 20, 2018, Phillips-Simon died while recovering from surgery, according to an obituary, devastating her niece.

“I recently lost a very important person” to me, “a women that raised me and loved me for many many years,” an Instagram user who appeared to be Johnson posted the following month.

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After the loss followed a series of decisions — including to move back to Baltimore the following year — and many still unexplained events that would thrust Johnson and her small children from a life of relative stability and into one of chaos and ultimately tragedy.

It culminated on July 28, with a horrifying discovery in Baltimore County: the bodies of Joshlyn Marie James Johnson and Larry Darnell O’Neil III, decomposing in the trunk of a car.

Shortly after 11 p.m., county police officers saw the car speeding and pulled the driver over at Eastern Boulevard near Wagners Lane in Essex. The driver was Nicole Michelle Johnson, Dachelle’s sister. Officers found she had a fake tag and registration, and no driver’s license.

When the officer told her she would have to report to district court within five days for her traffic citations, she responded, “It don’t matter, I won’t be here in five days. Y’all going to see me on the news making my big debut,” according to the charging documents.

Officers had noticed a “strong foul odor” when they approached the car, the police report said, and it grew stronger as Johnson began to unload items in preparation for the car to be towed for the traffic violations. They soon discovered the long-dead children.

Joshlyn, who should have been 7, apparently died in May 2020, after Nicole Johnson said she struck the girl several times, causing her to hit her head on the floor, according to police. Larry, 5, died two months ago, police said Nicole Johnson told them, after he fell asleep and never woke up. She said she put both their bodies in her car, Joshlyn’s in a suitcase and Larry’s in a plastic tote, according to police.

Nicole Johnson, 33, has been charged with child abuse resulting in death, neglect and other crimes. Police said the children were severely malnourished. The medical examiner has not yet released the causes of death.

It’s unclear if Johnson will face additional charges, or if anyone else with be charged in connection with the case.

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Another woman was riding in the car with Johnson. But according to a police report obtained by The Baltimore Sun, the passenger was “eliminated in having any involvement in this incident.” The passenger declined to speak to The Sun.

Baltimore County Police have not released additional details about their investigation. Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger declined to comment this week, saying his office is just beginning to sift through the details of the case.

Lawyer: Johnson ‘devastated’ by deaths of her niece and nephew

Johnson’s court-appointed attorney, Natalie Finegar, said her client suffered a difficult childhood, and is also sorting through what happened.

“This case has so many multiple layers of tragedies, starting with my client’s childhood, and the abuse and neglect she has suffered, culminating in the tragic deaths of her niece and nephew,” Finegar said previously. “We’re just beginning to uncover how her mental and emotional state played a role in the events themselves, but my client is absolutely devastated by the deaths of her niece and nephew, and we have a lot of work and a lot of layers to peel back to try to find out how all of this happened.”

The case has struck a nerve, shocking and angering many, who ask how anyone could have behaved so callously and why no one — not their mother or any other relative — had intervened after having no contact with the children for months or, in Joshlyn’s case, more than a year.

“I have grandchildren the same age as these children,” said Christine McCallum, 64, a Dundalk woman among more than 100 people who attended a prayer vigil held near the site of the traffic stop Monday. “A day wouldn’t go by, if I didn’t hear anything, I would track them down.

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“It’s unimaginable.”

While some family members have occasionally spoken out, many, including the children’s mother, Dachelle Johnson, 24, have mostly maintained a public silence, except for some social media posts including GoFundMe appeals for help with burial costs.

“I do want to bury my grandchildren,” Michelle Johnson, the mother of Dachelle and Nicole, told The Sun.

But she cancelled a scheduled interview, saying she’s “paid a penalty” within the family for her previous, and highly critical remarks, about her daughters. She has told media outlets that both her daughters should “be put to sleep” for the children’s deaths.

Still, Michelle Johnson remains unrepentant, characterizing her daughter Nicole, who remains held at the Baltimore County Detention Center in Towson, as “unstable.”

“I said what I said,” she stated.

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From what she, other family members and friends have said, and through police and court documents, the outlines of what happened are emerging, however incompletely.

The day before Nicole Johnson was arrested she visited Tiara Gillis in Rosedale to get her hair redone.

Gillis, 25, said she’s been doing Nicole’s hair monthly, for nearly a year. The two usually swapped life advice and discussed weekend plans. Sometimes, Gillis said, they would even talk about their kids.

Nicole told her that she had two: a daughter and a son and numerous nieces and nephews.

As she braided Nicole’s hair last week, Gillis said she sensed something was off.

“It just wasn’t a normal conversation and her body posture was different,” she said. Nicole “was just facing the wall and acting like something was wrong. I couldn’t even picture that she could do something like that. She never gave off of that vibe.”

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Friends of Johnson say they didn’t know she took care of children

Several friends of Nicole Johnson, who is said to have lived in hotels on and around Pulakski Highway, said they had no idea she was caring for children or ever saw them.

The sister of the passenger riding with Nicole Johnson during the traffic stop said the family knew Johnson from the Baltimore Highlands neighborhood, and that at one point, Johnson lived at the nearby Executive Inn, off Pulaski Highway. But the sister said they never knew of Nicole to be caring for any children, and declined to comment further.

‘I wish we would’ve fought harder’

Family members say they repeatedly asked about the children, and were always deflected.

Larry’s father, Larry D. O’Neil Jr., said despite a custody agreement allowing him to see his son every week, he always struggled with visitation.

The 25-year-old said Dachelle kept his son, whom his family called “Little Larry,” away from him and “was never a mother.” Instead, she would leave the children behind with family, usually Evelyn Phillips-Simon, to socialize with her friends, he said.

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O’Neil, who is incarcerated in Ohio on drug charges, had just been talking with his girlfriend about trying to get custody of Little Larry after he’s released in about three months. Unbeknownst to them, the boy was already dead as they began to hatch a plan.

“I tried to convince her to keep my son in Ohio,” he said. “I wish we would’ve fought harder. Both those kids would have still been alive if they had been with us.”

Dachelle Johnson and her children moved from the Phillips home after Evelyn Phillips-Simon’s death and into an apartment, according to the O’Neil family. In July 2019, she moved to Baltimore, they said.

James Phillips told the Dayton Daily News that whenever he spoke to Dachelle she said everything was fine.

The children moved several times in Baltimore

But the children apparently moved several times once they arrived in Baltimore, and are not believed to have attended school.

Michelle Johnson, who is Evelyn Phillips-Simon’s sister, said her daughter and two grandchildren lived with her until late August or early September 2019, when she moved into a motel with Nicole Johnson. By November, according to Michelle Johnson, Dachelle had moved with a man to a nearby motel, apparently leaving the children with Nicole.

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In Dayton, Joshlyn had been enrolled in the public school system for the 2018-2019 academic year, officials there said. It was the same system her mother had attended as a child, and where Dachelle Johnson had won a Martin Luther King poetry prize as a fourth grader in 2008, according to a Dayton Daily News story.

But Baltimore City and county public school officials say they have no record of anyone enrolling the children here. Both Baltimore City and Baltimore County police said they had not received any reports regarding the two missing children or Nicole Johnson before she was stopped on July 28.

Michelle Johnson said she last saw Joshlyn and Larry, whom the Baltimore family called “Man-Man,” on Christmas 2019. She said she repeatedly asked about them to no avail.

By mid-2020, Dachelle Johnson had moved back to Ohio briefly, returning to Baltimore in the fall and moving in with her mother. She was pregnant, and gave birth to a baby girl on Nov. 16, Michelle Johnson said. But they argued about the older children.

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“The whole two weeks before she had that baby, I was asking her if she knew where her kids were,” Michelle Johnson said.

‘I’m still trying to wrap my head around what happened’

Larry’s father in Ohio echoed the children’s grandmother in Baltimore.

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“I’m still trying to wrap my head around what happened,” he said. “How could the kids have not been seen?” ?”

Maryland Child Protective Services officials have declined to comment on whether they previously had been notified or were investigating the care of Joshlyn and Larry. They have not said if they have any concerns about their baby sibling.

Michelle Johnson said among the things that bother her is what Dachelle named her: Melanie Evelyn Nicole.

“She named her newborn after Nicole. If your sister is doing all this to your kids, won’t give your kids back, why would you name your newborn baby after her.”

Dayton Daily News reporter Josh Sweigart contributed to this article.


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