He attended church regularly. He even contemplated a career in law enforcement. For ten years, while dating her older sister, he was considered a member of Phylicia Barnes’ family.

Then, on June 20, several of Phylicia’s relatives who had thought of Michael M. Johnson as family sat across the courtroom from his mother and father as he pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in her death.

“It’s a crazy feeling when someone who was a part of the family takes another part of the family,” Phylicia’s father, Russell Barnes, told the AFRO on June 26.

The death of Phylicia Barnes has been referred to as the “Baltimore Natalee Holloway case,” referring to the young Texas high school student who went missing on a senior trip in Aruba in 2005. Her body has never been found.

Phylicia was a 17-year-old honor student from Monroe, N.C. when she went missing in Dec. 28, 2010. She had been staying with her half-sister, Deena, in Baltimore, the last of several times she had traveled north to spend time with family after connecting with her half-siblings on the Internet years after Russell Barnes and her mother divorced.

After initially ignoring the case, national media later embraced the investigation, conducting interviews with Russell Barnes and other relatives and accompanying volunteers and police as they conducted several searches.

Initially, police believed the aspiring Towson University student had run away. They later determined that nothing in her background pointed to taking off without notifying her mother, who lived in Monroe or her father in Atlanta, Ga.

“I told them, Phylicia’s not a runaway,” Russell Barnes recalled telling authorities. “She doesn’t have mother or father problems or family issues.”

There were candlelight vigils and a reward. There were pleas from her loved ones, to what they hoped was an abductor, to bring her home. Then, on April 20, 2011, just shy of five months after she disappeared, Phylicia’s body was found by workers in the Conowingo Dam in the Susquehanna River. Tattoo marks and dental records were used to identify the body. She was nude.

A year later, on April 25, 2012, Johnson was arrested. He is scheduled to face trial on Aug. 13.

According to authorities and relatives, Johnson was believed to be the last person to see Phylicia alive. Deena told a reporter in 2011 that Johnson and his younger brother had been among visitors at her apartment the night before Phylicia went missing. His brother had spent the night. The next morning, Johnson had returned to the house, collected his brother, driven him to their grandmother’s, then returned to Deena’s apartment, she said.

He told Deena he returned to the house to do laundry. He had lived with her until a breakup not long before Phylicia arrived. Police said Johnson had traded hundreds of emails with Phylicia in the months before she traveled to Baltimore. She told an acquaintance that he made her feel ill at ease.

After she disappeared, Johnson distanced himself from the family, fueling speculation, Russell Barnes said, that he may have been involved in her his daughter’s disappearance. Russell Barnes traveled to Baltimore from his home in Atlanta after Phylicia’s death and spent more than three months searching for his daughter. Johnson did not help with the search and rescue efforts, he said.

Johnson quickly became the police’s number one suspect. In court last week, he did not look at Phylicia’s family members. Deena Barnes had sent an email to a judge asking that asking that Johnson be held without bail. Johnson remains jailed.

“I had never seen him since that day until I saw him last week in court in shackles. He didn’t look up at us at all. They brought him in and out fast. It was tense,” said Russell Barnes.

Russell Barnes called the murder of his daughter “a nightmare.” He said he and his family have used their misfortune to help others. On May 1, 2012,
Gov. ernor Martin O’Malley signed Phylicia’s Law, which requires the state to publish a list of missing children and volunteers who can aid in the search.

Sponsored by Maryland State Delegate Jill E. Carter, (D-Baltimore), Phylicia’s Law became the first of its kind to be named after an African American.

In late 2011, Phylicia’s family started the PSB Foundation, Inc.,whose with the announced mission is to of aiding awareness of for missing children and to provide scholarships to students at Phylicia’s high school and Towson University, where she had been accepted to attendas an incoming freshman.

As they await the August trial, Phylicia’s family is hoping that Johnson will end their suspense. Police believe he killer killed her in Deena Barnes’ apartment then took her out in a large plastic container. Witnesses told police they saw him struggling with a large plastic tub.

Krishana Davis

AFRO Staff Writers