A year after the body of North Carolina teen Phylicia Barnes was discovered in a Maryland river, a Baltimore grand jury has indicted a man on a first-degree murder charge in connection with her death.

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein announced April 26 that authorities had arrested local resident Michael Johnson the previous day. The 28-year-old is currently incarcerated at the Baltimore City Detention Center, Bernstein said, and a bail hearing has not been set.

Johnson is the ex-boyfriend of Barnes’ half-sister. Authorities said he had been the last person to see her alive.

The teen’s father, Russell Barnes, told the Associated Press that the family had trusted Johnson following his daughter’s disappearance, but noticed he acted suspiciously throughout the ordeal by avoiding phone calls and contact with people.

“It’s been a long day coming. It’s a bittersweet day,” Russell Barnes told the AP. “I can rest better and maybe Phylicia can rest a whole lot better.”

Barnes, a resident of Monroe, N.C., was an honor student and track star in her hometown. After reconnecting with her half-siblings in Baltimore, she frequented the city to visit. But on Dec. 26, 2010, she vanished from her sister’s apartment complex in Northwest Baltimore.

Her mysterious disappearance baffled authorities, who said her case was unusual because she had no history of disputes with her family or trouble with the law. Police officials and volunteers conducted expansive searches throughout the area for months. Her story also received wide local and national coverage.

On April 21, 2011 the teen’s naked body was found in the Susquehanna River by workers at the Conowingo Dam. Authorities later ruled the death a homicide, but did not list a specific cause of death.

Earlier this year, the case inspired a change in the Maryland legislature. House Bill 1120, also referred to as “Phylicia’s Law,” was introduced to improve coordination between law enforcement and community organizations when a child disappears. The law requires state officials to keep a list of volunteer groups on hand to help with searches. It also calls for them to publish an annual list of missing children and statistics.

At this week’s press conference, Bernstein thanked Baltimore’s homicide unit, the FBI and other agencies for their work in the case, and offered comforting words to the Barnes family.

“I certainly hope that provides them with some measure of closure,” Bernstein said. “This has been a very difficult ordeal for them.”

Gregory Dale

AFRO News Editor