Accused Barnes killer speaks in tape made days after disappearance

Jurors got to hear Michael Maurice Johnson's account Tuesday of the last time he saw Phylicia Barnes alive, as prosecutors played audio tape of a police interview with the man now charged with killing the 16-year-old.

In the Dec. 31, 2010, interview, recorded three days after Phylicia disappeared, Johnson, 28, laid out a sequence of events that matches up with the testimony of others who described interacting with him that day.

He said he visited the apartment he once shared with Phylicia's older half-sister, Deena Barnes, to take his younger brother home. Then he described returning to do laundry and collect belongings as part of his planned move out of the apartment.

Johnson said Phylicia appeared to be getting ready to go somewhere, but said that by the time he left she was falling asleep on the couch with a laptop.

"She started dozing off first and then by the time I left and had everything together, she was asleep around 1:30," Johnson told Det. David McDermott, according to a transcript of the interview.

"Where do you think she is?" McDermott asked later.

"To be honest, I have no clue," Johnson said.

McDermott, a homicide detective, testified that Johnson was not a suspect at that point, but said police wanted to gather information from him. In the interview, Johnson acknowledged some of the things prosecutors are now using in an attempt to cast suspicion around him — that he had regular daily contact through text messages with Phylicia, and that he had consumed alcohol with her.

Johnson also explained that he called out of work the day of her disappearance to avoid an unpleasant assignment at an automotive business. He detailed the stops in an ambling path running errands around the Baltimore area that day, a route prosecutors have described as suspicious.

Phylicia vanished without a trace on Dec. 28, 2010, while visiting Deena, touching off an investigation that yielded few clues until her body was found four months later. Police detectives and commanders testified Tuesday that they had concerns early in what began as a missing person case.

"I was advised that [the case] should be on our radar," testified Lt. Terrence McLarney, who was then commander of the homicide unit. "Sometimes you know from experience that there may be more to this."

It was decided that if Phylicia didn't make her Jan. 2 flight back to North Carolina, homicide detectives would assume control of the investigation, he said.

An early anonymous tip indicated that Phylicia might have been staying at the city's emergency cold weather shelter. Later, Johnson's cell phone was determined to have been used near Patapsco Valley State Park, where police would conduct two large-scale searches for Phylicia and find nothing. They also inspected a covered well behind the home of a relative of Johnson, and a cadaver dog returned a "hit" for a body. But nothing came of pumping the well.

Two police officers testified Tuesday that they were involved in the early stages of the investigation, but not in an official capacity. Sgt. Robert Jackson, Phylicia's uncle, along with Sgt. Byron Conaway, a friend who knew her father, both said they visited the apartment, where they spoke to Johnson and later searched the neighborhood.

Conaway said during that search, a group of young people said they knew Phylicia and suggested he visit a house to look for her. Prosecutors have said Phylicia did not know anyone but the Barnes and Johnson families, a notion defense attorneys have sought to undermine.

Sgt. Charles Kelso, a veteran of the Department of Natural Resources police force, testified that on April 20, 2011, workers at the Conowingo Dam alerted police to a body that had been spotted floating above the dam — amid two acres of branches and logs. A 4-by-6-inch picture was held up for jurors, just large enough for spectators to make out her decomposing body. Phylicia's stepfather began to cry.

Prosecutors have told jurors they have no evidence placing Johnson anywhere near the Susquehanna River.

The interview played for the court was recorded after Johnson had spent three days explaining to Phylicia's family his account of seeing her on the day she disappeared. He speaks directly and confidently, described by a detective as "very calm, very cooperative."

He said Phylicia liked being in Baltimore because it was "stress-free," a "free-for-all." In a six-month period, he told detectives, he had text messaged the teen "three to four times a day" about innocuous things. Prosecutors say the volume of texts indicate his desire for her.

When he arrived Dec. 28, Phylicia appeared to be getting ready to go somewhere, and told him that "she wanted to go to the plaza [Reisterstown Road Plaza] to get something to eat," he said on the tape.

Around 12:30 p.m., a message was posted to Phylicia's Facebook page that she was hungry.

After doing laundry and leaving, Johnson came back around 5 p.m. Inside was his 16-year-old brother, Dylane Davis, who testified that he returned to the apartment in the afternoon and did not see Phylicia, and Johnson said he continued to gather his things. Johnson said he assumed that Phylicia had gotten up and gone out, and Deena testified Monday that Johnson text messaged her "sis is up and active."

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