More than 100 people gathered in Essex on Monday night to grieve, offer support and try to understand whether anything could have been done to protect two young children who were found dead last week in the trunk of a car driven by their aunt.
The Rev. Ed Michael of Eastern Assembly of God church in Dundalk asked attendees to look out for one another and their neighbors. He wondered whether anyone saw the children or noticed anything.
“Did anyone ask a question — did anyone ponder these things?” he said. “Let’s keep an eye on each other, in a caring way, or maybe even in a cautious way.”
Less than a week after police stopped a car driven by Nicole Michelle Johnson, 33, and found the bodies of her niece, 7-year-old Joshlyn Marie James Johnson, and nephew, 5-year-old Larry Darnell O’Neil III, residents who didn’t know the family said Monday that they were shocked by the tragedy.
Johnson is charged with neglect, failure to report their deaths, disposal of their bodies and child abuse that resulted in the death, and remains at the Baltimore County Detention Center. The children’s mother, Dachelle Johnson, gave the children to Nicole, her sister, two years ago after she was unable to take care of them, Dachelle told detectives last week.
Alissa Cummings, 23, attended the event at the Essex Park and Ride, where police stopped the car, and held her 1-year-old cousin. She said she did not know the Johnson family, but along with her boyfriend Quinton Faulkner, 31, she printed photos of the children from the internet and put them into a frame placed along with flowers and balloons at the vigil.
“I don’t know what would bring someone to do something like that,” Cummings said. “I had to come.”
Earlier Monday, local officials and a lawyer for Nicole Johnson said they are continuing to investigate what led to their deaths and any possible lapses in child welfare oversight.
“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,” Johnson’s attorney Natalie Finegar said.
Finegar also said her client suffered a troubled childhood, which included abuse and neglect, and she questioned why officials in Maryland and Ohio, where the children lived until two years ago, never intervened to help them.
“Obviously they were known residents of Ohio, and then became residents here in the Baltimore area,” Finegar said. “It does not appear there were any agencies involved or monitoring the situation, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain.”
Both Baltimore County and Baltimore City schools said they have no records that the children were ever enrolled in local schools, and city and county police have said they were never called about the children or their welfare.
Officials with the school system and children services in Dayton, Ohio, did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
A determination of the cause and manner of the children’s deaths remains pending. A spokesman for the medical examiner’s office declined to comment Monday, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said his office is just beginning to dig through the case and declined to comment further.
Dachelle Johnson told detectives last week that she tried numerous times to get in touch with her sister. She told them she arranged to meet her sister in March to get her kids but that Nicole never showed up.
Dachelle Johnson agreed to meet Monday with a Baltimore Sun reporter but did not show up and has not responded to subsequent requests for comment.
It’s unclear whether Child Protective Services were investigating the children’s whereabouts. Katherine Morris, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Human Services, which includes Child Protective Services, said last week that confidentiality laws prohibit her from providing specific details about the investigation.
“I can tell you that Child Protective Services [CPS] has a duty to conduct an investigation or a family assessment if someone reports that a child is in unsafe circumstances,” she said in an email.
The fact that the children came to Maryland from another state and may never have been enrolled in school could have played a large role in why they fell through the cracks, said Adam Rosenberg, executive director of LifeBridge Health’s Center for Hope, which provides community services to those affected by violence.
“If the kids were surreptitiously brought into the state from Ohio and the aunt never enrolled them in school or never sought services or support for them, the state of Maryland would never know they were here,” Rosenberg said.
Also, if there was no formal custodial arrangement between the sisters, authorities would not have been involved, he said.
Rosenberg said the situation points to a fear many in child welfare services had as the pandemic hit the nation. When schools shut down and people went on lockdown, reports of suspected child abuse and neglect fell sharply. Many reports typically come from school employees.
“This is, I think, a lot of what we feared at the beginning stages of the pandemic,” he said.
Many resources are available to struggling families, he said, and this case should be examined thoroughly to prevent a similar situation.
“I think we owe it to these kids and other children,” Rosenberg said. “There’s got to be lessons learned here.”
Police said that at the time of the autopsy, Joshlyn weighed just 18 pounds and that Larry weighed 21 pounds.
“According to doctors, it would have taken several months of malnourishment to attain these weights,” police wrote in the charging documents.
A police report obtained by The Sun said a second adult, a 33-year-old East Baltimore woman, was also inside the car when it was stopped and an officer noticed the stench of decomposition that led to the discovery of the children. The woman was described as a witness and has not been criminally charged. The Sun was unable to interview the woman Monday.
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Nicole Johnson initially told police she did not know the children had been in the trunk of her car, according to the charging documents filed against her. She told police she thought the smell from her car was from a rat in the engine.
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 the decomposing body of his sister, the documents said.
Family members in Ohio are grappling with children’s deaths, which they learned about through social media, said Larry’s paternal grandmother, LaQuata M. Pitts O’Neil.
O’Neil said that when kids first moved to Baltimore, they would occasionally receive pictures or video calls but over time, communication dwindled. When they called to speak to the children, O’Neil said they were told that the children were sleeping, were playing in the backyard or were at an uncle’s house.
They were never told the kids had gone to live with Nicole Johnson, she said.
Baltimore Sun reporters Alison Knezevich, Jean Marbella and McKenna Oxenden contributed to this article.