Larry Darnell O’Neil III and his sister were inseparable.
The boy also loved taking car rides with his grandfather and playing at the park, Larry’s paternal grandmother, LaQuata M. Pitts O’Neil of Ohio, remembered Sunday, while his sister, Joshlyn Marie James Johnson, enjoyed baking cookies and cake with her.
“They were such good kids,” the grandmother said. “They were soft-spoken, well-mannered, precious souls.”
One week before his sixth birthday, the boy, called “Little Larry” by family members, and his 7-year-old half-sister’s bodies were found decomposing in the trunk of a car during a routine traffic stop in Essex. According to charging documents, Joshlyn’s body was reportedly inside a suitcase for more than a year.
Baltimore County Police charged the children’s aunt, Nicole Michelle Johnson, in connection with their deaths. The 33-year-old faces multiple charges, including neglect, failure to report the death of both children, disposal of their bodies, and child abuse that resulted in the death of the two children. The cause and manner of their deaths are being determined still by the state medical examiner’s office, police said. Johnson is being held without bail at the Baltimore County Detention Center in Towson.
Johnson had been caring for the two children since 2019 after their mother, Dachelle Johnson, moved to Maryland from Ohio and could no longer care for the children, the mother told detectives, according to the court documents.
Dachelle 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, the mother told police, she arranged to meet her sister to get her kids, but they never showed up. She had been unable to contact them since, and a detective notified her of their deaths, police said.
In an interview with a homicide detective, Nicole 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 lay down to sleep and never woke up, according to the charging documents. Johnson told detectives 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.
The boy’s grandmother described the two as very close. If Larry was visiting with family without his sister, Dachelle would often call and Joshlyn would be in the background yelling and calling for him, O’Neil said. Little Larry would then insist upon going home to make sure his sister was OK.
“I don’t even think he was 3 years old when this started,” she said. “He would just keep saying, ‘My sister needs me.’ It was a burden on his heart.”
The boy’s family members from Ohio are left wondering what happened and whether they could have done more to save the two children.
O’Neil said the family found out about the children’s death from a Facebook post by Dachelle Johnson.
“She already had a GoFundMe up before we even knew,” the 45-year-old grandmother said. “Nobody even told my son. His son was dead before he knew and it was all over the world.”
Communication between the family and Dachelle has always been erratic, said Johnniqua Carter, who is dating the boy’s father, Larry D. O’Neil Jr., and it became even less frequent after Dachelle moved from Dayton to Baltimore two years ago.
Carter said O’Neil Jr. used to see the boy only about once a month, but they would make the most of it by playing with toys for hours, going to the park and dining at restaurants. She said Little Larry also loved to wrestle with his dad and uncle, and he adored the cartoon show “PJ Masks.”
Carter said that days before finding out the boy was dead, she was talking with his father O’Neil Jr. — who is incarcerated and scheduled to be released in about three months — about battling for custody.
“But the whole time we were talking about him, he was already gone,” she said.
Larry’s family used to receive pictures of both kids after the move and would occasionally video-call. But as time ticked by, the contact waned.
Pleas to return home to Ohio where family could provide housing and money went unanswered. Promises to schedule a call often went unfulfilled or were met with responses like the children were sleeping, were playing in the backyard or were at an uncle’s house, LaQuata O’Neil said.
And there was never any mention of the children living with Nicole Johnson, the family said.
“I never thought in a million years they would end up dead,” the grandmother said between sobs.
LaQuata O’Neil said that after reading that the children were malnourished — police said the 7-year-old weighed just 18 pounds and the 5-year-old weighed 21 pounds — she has been scrolling through pictures on her phone to see whether she missed something.
But the one thing she can’t get out of her head is what Little Larry told her after another aunt died a few years ago: “I never want to sleep in the sky.”