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Two dead children found in the trunk of a car: an unfathomable tragedy surrounded by unanswered questions | COMMENTARY

Larry D. O'Neil lll, left, and his half-sister, Joshlyn Marie James Johnson, were found dead in the trunk of a car July 28 during a routine traffic stop in Essex. The children's aunt, Nicole Michelle Johnson, has been charged in connection with their death. Courtesy of LaQuata M. Pitts O'Neil
Larry D. O'Neil lll, left, and his half-sister, Joshlyn Marie James Johnson, were found dead in the trunk of a car July 28 during a routine traffic stop in Essex. The children's aunt, Nicole Michelle Johnson, has been charged in connection with their death. Courtesy of LaQuata M. Pitts O'Neil (courtesy of LaQuata M. Pitts O'Neil)

Even amid a pandemic, with each of us caught up in our own particular misery, some stories are so horrific, so unfathomable, they shock us out of our insular bubbles and into the lives of people we’ll never know — who nevertheless have the power to break our hearts.

The story of 7-year-old Joshlyn Marie James Johnson and her 5-year-old brother, Larry Darnell O’Neill III, is such a tragedy. Their decomposing and malnourished bodies were discovered in the trunk of their aunt’s car last week, during a routine traffic stop in Essex. Joshlyn had been beaten until she fell, hit her head and died in May of 2020, the woman reportedly told police, her tiny body stored in a suitcase ever since. And “Little Larry,” as family knew him, simply lay down to sleep two months ago and never woke up, she said. He was placed in a tote bag beside his sister. He would have turned 6 this week.

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In the coming days and months, we will undoubtedly learn more about the myriad ways in which these children were failed and by whom, as the investigation continues and the criminal case eventually plays out in court. The aunt, Nicole Michelle Johnson, has been charged with child abuse resulting in death, among other crimes.

But it’s uncertain whether will we ever know the answers to the only questions that matter: How could this have been prevented? How did these children fall through the cracks? How can we stop another child from ever suffering a similar fate?

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Plainly put: How do we find the monsters among us?

The children’s mother couldn’t care for them, we’ve been told, turning them over to her sister in 2019 and unable to see them much, if at all, in the years since or to keep track of them. Ms. Johnson — who was homeless, moving from hotel to hotel — had been charged with reckless endangerment several years ago for allegedly leaving an infant and 4-year-old alone in a hotel. She could barely care for herself, it seems, yet family and friends routinely entrusted their children to her, they said, unaware of any danger. Larry’s father is incarcerated; Joshlyn’s father isn’t mentioned.

No one reported Larry or Joshlyn missing; no agency appears to have been overseeing their care. No one even seems to have realized they were gone.

Yet, surely they were loved. Friends and relatives talk of the children’s bond with one another, of previous park playdates and of waning video call visits. Someone clearly had high hopes for them once, christening each with a big, heavy name that says “I am somebody. I matter.”

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And yet …

What are we to make of this? What do we do with the weight of it? What went through Ms. Johnson’s mind as she drove from place to place in a vehicle overcome by the aroma of death?

The details she gave police recall another Maryland child, whose own malnourished body was found in a suitcase nearly 15 years ago. Javon Aidan Thompson was starved to death at 16-months-old for failing to say “amen” after a meal, and his small form placed inside a large, green roller bag that eventually was abandoned in a shed. His mother, Ria, was near catatonic when police found her two years late — under control of the same cult leaders who had directed her son’s death — and convinced she could resurrect him through Christian faith. She was ultimately put under psychiatric care.

Is mental illness a factor in the treatment of Larry and Joshlyn? How can it possibly not be? How can a fully functioning person cause the death of one child, then casually let the child’s brother slip away one year later, as police claim Ms. Johnson did? Keeping their remains? Telling no one?

In Javon’s case, his maternal grandmother never gave up on him. She called local and national media, wrote to Baltimore’s mayor, badgered police and reached out to Child Protective Services to try to find and free her grandson from the clutches of the cult leaders who had a hold on her daughter.

Was anyone searching for Joshlyn and Larry?

And if not, why?

Larry’s paternal family told The Sun that they pleaded with his mother to leave Baltimore and come back to them in Ohio. They didn’t know the boy wasn’t with her.

They must be haunted by questions of “what might have been” and “if only,” as Javon’s family was.

We all have questions, so many questions about the brief existence of these children and their very wrongful deaths, but we know the answers won’t bring them back.

So we bear witness to their tragedy and honor their short lives. Then we go back to our own, with a wider perspective.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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