Monday, May 30, 2022

The Disappearance and Murder of Phylicia Barnes


Phylicia Barnes disappeared at the age of 16 on December 28th, 2010. The young girl vanished while visiting her half-sister in Baltimore, Maryland. Phylicia is originally from Monroe, North Carolina. Prior to her disappearance, Phylicia was a straight-A student on track to graduate early. She had dreams of getting a degree and becoming a teacher. Unfortunately, Phylicia's life was cut short before her dreams could come to fruition. 

During the months leading up to her disappearance, Phylicia had grown closer to her half-sister, Deena Barnes. Phylicia and Deena were fathered by the same man but were raised separately by their respective mothers. The two sisters eventually connected on Facebook and began to get to know each other. Although Deena was 12 years older, the two began to form a strong bond. 

Phylicia also began to get to know Deena's boyfriend, Michael Johnson. Deena and Michael had been together for almost ten years by the time Phylicia entered the picture. Michael would refer to Phylicia as his "lil sis", but Phylicia reportedly had feelings for him. According to report from True Crime Daily, Phylicia had a "passing schoolgirl crush on Michael". Over a period of a few months, Phylicia and Michael exchanged around 1200 text messages. The contents of the messages were reportedly not inappropriate, but the number of messages between the two seemed odd given the circumstances. 

During December 2010, Phylicia traveled from North Carolina to Baltimore to visit Deena. While there, Deena provided Phylicia with alcohol and taught her how to play drinking gamesincluding games that involved nudity. Around the same time period, Deena's relationship with Michael had fallen apart and the two had broken up. On the day Phylicia vanished, Michael stopped by Deena's apartment to pick up some of his items. Deena was at work when Michael arrived at the apartment. Phylicia, who originally planned to go work with Deena that day, had decided to stay home and sleep in. She told Deena that she would walk to a store at Reistertown Road Plaza at some point during the day. Phylicia was reportedly last seen walking towards the shopping center. She never returned and was never seen or heard from again. 

Michael was last known person to see Phylicia alive. Police inevitably questioned both him and Deena, but neither were immediately named as suspects. Then, on April 20th, 2011, human remains were found floating in the Susquehanna River. Dental records confirmed that the remains belonged to Phylicia Barnes. It is believed that she died from asphyxiation. 

Over a year later, on April 25th, 2012, Michael Johnson was arrested in connection with Phylicia's murder. Two days later, investigators stated that they believed Michael killed Phylicia inside Deena's apartment and then transported her body in a 35-gallon tub. Neighbors reportedly had seen Michael carrying a tub matching that description on the day of Phylicia's disappearance. In fact, one witness even claimed to have helped Michael carry said tub. 

After Michael's arrest, it appeared that Phylicia's case was one step closer to being solved and closed. Unfortunately, this would end up being untrue. 


Michael maintained his innocence while awaiting trial. The prosecution's case was mostly circumstantial at this point, and Michael's defense attorneys argued that there was not enough physical evidence to prove guilt. Michael's attorneys backed Michael's claim that he was only at the apartment on the day Phylicia disappeared because he wanted to gather his personal belongings. The attorneys also claimed that Michael was in a new relationship following his breakup with Deena and had moved on. 

An overturned verdict.

When Michael finally went to trial, both Deena and her sister testified that Michael provided Phylicia with alcohol and then made sexual advances on her. A neighbor testified that he had seen Michael carrying the tub out of the apartment on the day of Phylicia's disappearance. There was no physical evidence to support Deena's or her sister's testimony. There was also room for reasonable doubt as it was possible that the tub simply carried Michael's personal belongings. There was no physical evidence linking Phylicia to the tub.

However, there was one witness who caught the juror's attention: James McCray. McCray testified that he saw the body of Phylicia Barnes inside Deena's apartment on the day she went missing. He said that Michael confessed that he had suffocated Phylicia with a pillow, and he needed help disposing of her body. Following this testimony, the jury found Michael guilty of second-degree murder. 

In an unusual turn of events, the verdict did not end up sticking. Prior to Michael's sentencing, prosecutors from a neighboring county informed the Baltimore prosecutors that James McCray was an unreliable witness. McCray reportedly had a habit of making false statements about various criminal cases. Upon this discovery, the judge overturned Michael's conviction and ordered a retrial. 

Video evidence.

Prosecutors planned to introduce other evidence to establish Michael's motive in the new trial. While gathering evidence, it was discovered that there was a video tape that involved sexual content between Phylicia and several adults. The video reportedly portrayed Phylicia, Michael, Deena, and Michael's brother. In the footage, the four of them are visibly intoxicated and engaged in sexual activity. 

Prosecutors were hopeful that this video was the evidence they needed to help convict Michael. Unfortunately, the jury never got to weigh in. On January 20th, 2015, the judge declared a mistrial and then ultimately dropped all the charges against Michael. Due to the unusual circumstances, the prosecution was granted a third trial. 

A third acquittal.

Michael's third trial began in January 2018. This time, yet another judge declared a mistrial. After listening to the prosecution's case, the judge felt that they failed to provide enough evidence or establish a strong enough motive. Michael Johnson was yet again acquitted of all charges. 

After his third acquittal, filed a lawsuit against one of the homicide detectives working Phylicia's case. He reportedly sued for $750,000.

Phylicia's impact.

Phylicia's case inspired increased advocacy for missing children in Maryland. In 2012, a bill called Phylicia's Law was passed by Maryland's General Assembly. The bill requires the state of Maryland "to publish a list of missing children along with statistics, and a list of volunteers who can aid law enforcement in the search for missing children."

An unsolved murder.

As of present day, the murder of Phylicia Barnes is considered unsolved. There is still a widespread belief that Michael Johnson is responsible for Phylicia's death, but this has never been proven. Her case remains open, but it is unclear if any other persons of interest have been identified. 

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