Phylicia Simone Barnes’ Murder
Phylicia Simone Barnes’ murder is thought to have taken place in Baltimore, Maryland, United States, on December 28, 2010, in connection to a crime. Her body was found in the Susquehanna River on April 20, 2011, after extensive search efforts and widespread media coverage, including The Today Show. The investigation into her death was officially determined to be a homicide.
Approximately a year later, on April 25, 2012, Michael Johnson, the ex-boyfriend of her half-sister, was arrested and charged with her murder. Authorities, however, kept the details about how the murder happened, the method used to identify Johnson as a suspect, and the motive undisclosed at that time. He was found guilty of second-degree murder on February 6, 2013, but his conviction was later overturned when the trial judge granted the defense’s request for a new trial. Subsequently, on January 20, 2015, all charges against Johnson were dropped.
The case stood out due to its unusual nature; Phylicia Barnes had no criminal record or family issues. The Baltimore City Police considered it one of the most perplexing missing person cases they had ever encountered and dubbed it Baltimore’s version of the Natalee Holloway case.
Phylicia Simone Barnes, 16, was an honor student from Monroe, North Carolina, who went missing on January 12, 1994. She was on track to graduate early and had aspirations to attend Towson University. She went missing while visiting family in Baltimore.
Barnes was initially presumed to have gone missing while walking from a nearby apartment complex to the Reisterstown Road Plaza in Baltimore on December 28, the day she was last seen. After her disappearance, there was no activity on her cell phone or credit cards, and she made no updates to her Facebook page.
On January 3, police stated they were ‘enormously concerned’ about the missing girl.
On January 22, America’s Most Wanted aired a short feature during commercials.
Three months following her disappearance, a renewed effort for prayers took place, accompanied by a $36,000 reward offered for information. Billboards were strategically placed along major highways, appealing for any clues regarding her mysterious vanishing.
On April 9, 2011, a massive search of Patapsco Valley State Park was carried out by the Maryland State Police, involving over 100 members of law enforcement and volunteers. Despite extensive efforts, Barnes’s body remained unrecovered, but an unrelated body was found during the search. This discovery led the police to express their frustration at being ‘back at square one’ in the investigation, with no breakthrough in finding her.
Meanwhile, friends and classmates of Barnes in Monroe organized a carnival on April 9 as a fundraiser in her honor, aiming to raise funds and keep her memory alive.
Body found and a homicide investigation is underway
At 7:30 am on April 20, 2011, workers made a grim discovery when they spotted a body floating in the Susquehanna River near the Conowingo Dam. Subsequently, another body was found in close proximity. Police were able to confirm the next day, using a tattoo and dental records, that the first body belonged to Barnes. However, the other victim, an adult male, was identified and determined to have no connection to Barnes’s case.
During this time, the possibility of foul play was not ruled out by the police. They stated that the investigation involving forensics and determining the circumstances surrounding Barnes’s death and her location 45 miles from where she disappeared might take several weeks.
On May 4, following an autopsy, the death was officially ruled a homicide. The cause of death was determined, but was withheld at that time for investigative purposes in fear of jeopardizing the investigation. Soon after, a security expert discussed the Barnes case.
On September 6, WSOCTV obtained court documents that showed Barnes’s sister was attempting to obtain a restraining order against her former boyfriend Michael Johnson just two months following the disappearance. He was reportedly the last person to see Barnes alive. Johnson’s attorney stated that Johnson was not responsible for the murder, and that he had a new girlfriend and had moved on. Johnson had been questioned eight times by police.
On April 25, 2012, Michael Johnson, the former boyfriend of Barnes’ half-sister, was apprehended by the police after attempting to evade them, linked to the case of her disappearance and murder. During this period, the police refrained from disclosing specific information regarding the connection between Johnson and Barnes, but they did confirm that he was the last person known to have seen Barnes alive.
It was not until a hearing on April 27 that the details of the murder were made public. Assistant State’s Attorney Lisa Goldberg testified during the hearing, revealing that Johnson had asphyxiated Barnes at her sister’s apartment. Subsequently, he carried her lifeless body out of the apartment using a 35-gallon plastic tub, which eyewitnesses reported observing him struggling to move while visibly sweating.
No motive for the murder was presented at the hearing. But it was reported that Johnson had just broken up with Barnes’s sister. He was reported to have been using the tub that he was alleged to have carried out the body in to remove his belongings from her apartment. The tub has not been recovered.
It had been reported that during the visit, Johnson had made Barnes feel uncomfortable. He had exchanged 500 phone calls and text messages with Barnes and considered her his ‘little sister.’.
On May 8, 2012, the city of Baltimore officially added Barnes to their 2010 homicide count. This increased the year’s homicide total from 196 to 197. Considered to be nothing more than an administrative move, it still did not push the total count to 200. 2010 had been the first year since the 1970s in which the city of Baltimore recorded fewer than 200 homicides.
On April 28, more than 700 people gathered at the school Barnes used to attend to remember her.
Her funeral, which was private, took place in Georgia on May 7, 2011.
On February 6, 2013, Johnson was acquitted of first-degree murder but convicted of second-degree murder.
During the trial, Barnes’s sister and Johnson’s former girlfriend Deena testified that Johnson had allowed Phylicia to consume alcohol and then made sexual advances on her. A neighbor testified that he had seen Johnson carrying a container out of the apartment, the one Barnes was believed to have been transported in. A petty criminal testified that he had helped Johnson dispose of the body.
The defense argued that no physical evidence proved that Johnson was the killer. The defense stated that the case was entirely circumstantial, and that Johnson did not have time to kill Barnes, clean the apartment of forensic evidence, and dispose of the body within the timeframe given, and altogether, he had no motive to commit the crime.
Sentencing was scheduled for March 20. Johnson could have received up to 30 years in prison.
Johnson’s attorneys sought a new trial, alleging that the prosecution bolstered the credibility of the petty criminal who testified on their behalf.
At Michael Johnson’s sentencing hearing on March 20, the judge threw out the murder conviction and ordered that he receive a new trial.
Johnson’s new trial was originally set for February 21, 2014, but was postponed until April 28, 2014 at the request of his new attorneys.
On January 20, 2015, Judge John Addison Howard dropped all charges against Michael Johnson, stating there was insufficient evidence to continue the trial.
On March 30, 2018, after a third trial, Johnson was acquitted of all charges related to the murder of Phylicia Barnes. The Barnes case has resulted in increased advocacy for the missing.
One year later
On the first anniversary of Barnes’s disappearance, family and friends gathered for a vigil at the presumed location where she vanished, honoring her memory. Her father expressed his belief that she was not murdered while being outside, suggesting that whatever happened might have occurred within the apartment. Meanwhile, the police shared that they are making progress in resolving the case but refrained from revealing specific details to safeguard the ongoing investigation from potential risks.
Barnes’ half-brother Bryan joined the Baltimore Police Department in 2012, inspired by the work detectives did.
In 2012, the Maryland General Assembly approved a bill called “Phylicia’s Law,” named in honor of Barnes. The bill, sponsored by Maryland State Delegate Jill P. Carter, leg. dist. 41., mandates the state to publish a comprehensive list of missing children, complete with statistics, and also a register of volunteers available to assist law enforcement in locating missing children. Although other states have similar laws in place, this marked the first instance of such legislation named after a child from a minority racial background.
The bill was signed into law by Governor Martin O’Malley on May 1, 2012.
A foundation was started in Barnes’ memory. Fundraising was done at an area Chick-Fil-A.