Crime Scenes: A month later, no signs of missing teen

They did all the things that siblings do when siblings get together after having been months and miles apart. They went shopping for slippers and chatted about hairdos. They visited their grandmother for Christmas. They sat up late watching movies and eating cookies.

"You know, being sisters."

Deena Barnes stresses that point in interviews, including her most recent on an Internet radio program, trying to dispel stories about strange men and alcohol in her Northwest Baltimore apartment in the days before her younger half sister, Phylicia, disappeared on the afternoon of Dec. 28.

More than a month after the 16-year-old from North Carolina went missing wearing her new white slipper-boots, Baltimore police say they have no idea what happened to the track star and honors student who had planned to graduate early from high school and attend Towson University.

As promising leads fizzle and seaches turn up nothing, the baffling case takes a toll not only on Phylicia's family but on police as well.

"This is a young girl who was well-liked in high school," said Detective Daniel T. Nicholson IV of the homicide unit, the lead investigator. "She was doing what any young person would do, visiting her family … and she vanished from the face of the earth. That's hard to believe."

Nicholson, a 17-year police veteran with two daughters of his own, said the case is "frustrating in that we've run out every lead, no matter how ridiculous or impossible it might seem."

The detective said he's in daily contact with Phylicia's father, who travels between Baltimore and his home in Atlanta, and with her mother in Monroe, N.C. His biggest fear, he says, is that "it's not going to be a happy ending."

Police pulled together a squad of six detectives — ones with the highest arrest and conviction rates — taking them off other cases to devote their time to finding Phylicia, turning this into one of the department's most exhaustive missing-person investigations in years.

"We're not scaling back," said Maj. Terrence McLarney, head of the homicide unit. Added the squad's leader, Sgt. William P. Simmons: "This is all we are about — Phylicia Barnes."

City police had at one point put half the 70-member homicide squad on the case, sent busloads of academy cadets to distribute a thousand fliers, searched the banks of a stream running through Leakin Park with dogs and divers, and enlisted an FBI helicopter that can detect heat signatures from decaying corpses.

Authorities repeatedly questioned a dozen people who they said had access to Deena Barnes' basement apartment on Eberle Drive near the Reisterstown Road Shopping Center, including Deena's ex-boyfriend, the last known person to see Phylicia alive.

Police searched more than three dozen locations, put up billboards, desperately sought national media attention, staffed a round-the-clock hot line and drained sewer water from an old well in a shed on North Bend Road. They said not a single credible clue or sighting has emerged.

In Baltimore, a person is reported missing nearly once a day — police investigated 352 reports last year, and found all but four people. Those who were not found, police believe, were killed in domestic or drug-related disputes. Most victims had something in their past — a bad relationship, a link to nefarious activities or people — to which a motive could be attributed.

Police say the Barnes case offers no such leads.

Detectives have said there is no history of family trouble that would cause the teen to run away, no history of drug or alcohol use or abuse, no emotional issues.

Even more troubling, they say, is that not a single person has reported seeing her since her sister's ex-boyfriend reported her asleep on the living room couch the afternoon of Dec. 28. The ex-boyfriend now has an attorney; police said several of the people they've talked to have retained legal representation.

Phylicia's cell phone is either off or broken, and there have been no postings on her social-networking sites, which Nicholson describe as unusual for a modern-day teenager.

Every lead that inspired hope has turned sour. Last month, someone spotted this on Phylicia's MySpace page, posted on Dec. 31 — "bored as hell. Save me LOL." Police now say the message was posted Dec. 31, 2009, not three days after she had disappeared.

The investigation is being fought on two fronts — in the secretive world of police and FBI agents, who avoid publicity and guard clues with utmost secrecy, and in the public world of the Baltimore Police Department's public affairs office.

Chief spokesman Anthony Guglielmi has complained repeatedly about the dearth of national media attention. "Phylicia Barnes is our Natalee Holloway," he has said repeatedly, referring to the white teen who went missing in the Caribbean in 2005.

Phylicia Barnes' relatives are torn. They want media attention but are reluctant to grant interviews, fearing that dissent between Phylicia's estranged parents and questions about what went on in the Baltimore apartment might be a distraction.

Phylicia's mother, Janice Sallis, has accused 27-year-old Deena of condoning alcohol use and allowing men to come and go from her apartment when Phylicia visited.

The missing girl's father, Russell Barnes, has denounced Sallis. Last month, he tearfully told reporters, "I just want to pray to God that my beautiful daughter is all right and that she will be found."

Phylicia's siblings — Deena, Kelly and Brian — spoke for nearly 90 minutes on an Internet radio site called The show, "Peas in Their Pods," is designed to call attention to minorities who are missing but not showcased by the traditional media.

On the show, Deena, a pharmacy technician studying to be a midwife, said she met her half sister about 10 years ago at a family reunion in Baltimore. They reconnected two years ago on Facebook, and Phylicia visited Baltimore several times.

Deena said on the Internet show that the people who had keys to the apartment were her, her ex-boyfriend, who was in the process of moving out, and the ex-boyfriend's young cousin. Police have described the apartment as a "college house" that wasn't always secured and said that up to a dozen people were in and out of it over the holidays.

The day Phylicia disappeared, Dec. 28, Deena said she left for work but texted and talked with her sister several times during the morning. Another sister, Kelly, had planned to pick Phylicia up later that afternoon.

Deena said in the radio interview that she spoke to her ex-boyfriend, who said Phylicia was sleeping on the couch when he left. Kelly said she repeatedly tried to contact Phylicia between 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m., but received no answer.

Deena returned to the apartment about 6 p.m., she told the radio interviewer, and found her sister missing. She called Kelly first, thinking the two were together, then called her father, other relatives, her ex-boyfriend and friends.

At 7:30, she called police.

Detectives have questioned at least twice the people who had access to the apartment, and police have said they found few, if any, inconsistencies or reasons to consider them suspects.

On Jan. 4, acting on a comment posted on a blog, police searched a portion of Leakin Park. On Jan. 21, police drained a well in a shed behind an apartment building off North Bend Road in Southwest Baltimore but found nothing. Police said the location was associated with one of the people who had last seen the teenager.

On Friday, Phylicia's charter school in North Carolina, Union Academy, announced a $25,000 reward, money raised from an auction. Police have gone on several national media outlets, and nearly every day, Guglielmi, the police spokesman, goes on Twitter and, between notes of arrests of gunmen and shootings, posts this reminder:

"The search continues for Phylicia Barnes."

Anyone with information on the disappearance of 16-year-old Phylicia Simone Barnes is urged to call Baltimore police at 1-855-223-0033. The toll-free number is staffed 24 hours a day. Phylicia is about 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighs about 120 pounds. She was last seen wearing a blue peacoat with a hood, a turquoise thermal shirt, blue jeans and white slipper boots and was carrying a caramel-colored purse. Police urge anyone who thinks they have seen her to call 911.