BALTIMORE — The father of a Union County teenager whose body was found in a Maryland river months after her 2010 disappearance said Thursday that he can rest better now that there has been an arrest in the case.
Michael Johnson was arrested in the death of 16-year-old Phylicia Barnes, of Monroe, N.C., Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi told The Associated Press early Thursday.
A Baltimore Grand Jury indicted Johnson on first-degree murder charges Wednesday afternoon, reports WBTV in Charlotte.
An attorney for Johnson did not immediately return calls for comment.
"It's been a long day coming. It's a bittersweet day," Russell Barnes said. "I can rest better and maybe Phylicia can rest a whole lot better."
When Phylicia Barnes disappeared, Johnson had been breaking up with the teen's older half-sister, Deena, after dating for about 10 years, Russell Barnes said. The family had trusted Johnson — the last person to see Phylicia Barnes alive — but he acted suspiciously after the girl disappeared, avoiding people and phone calls, Russell Barnes said.
Russell Barnes told WBTV that he is still in shock.
"It's still a shock to me that Phylicia's gone. Phylicia's been murdered, and it's a shock to me that an arrest has been made and it has to be Michael Johnson," he said.
Phylicia Barnes' cousin Harry Watson told WBTV that the arrest is only the beginning of a long road ahead for the family.
"I suspected it from the very beginning that it was him," Watson said. "This is a start – an indictment of the person that we suspected stole Phylicia's life."
Barnes was visiting her older half-siblings in Baltimore over the Christmas holidays when she disappeared from her sister's apartment in northwest Baltimore on Dec. 28, 2010. Baltimore police soon alerted local media, saying her disappearance was unusual because she had no history of disputes with her family or trouble with the law.
Barnes was an honor student at Union Academy, a public charter school in Monroe, and she was on track to graduate early and had already been accepted to several colleges. She had reconnected with her half-siblings on Facebook, and she traveled to Baltimore several times to visit them. Her father said the sisters even talked about living together while the teen attended Towson University.
Barnes' stepfather declined to comment on the arrest Thursday morning.
Police, who had help from the FBI, had few leads and called it one of the most frustrating missing persons cases they had investigated. At one point, Guglielmi described it as "Baltimore's Natalee Holloway case," referring to the Alabama teen who disappeared during a trip to Aruba.
Police and volunteers searched area parks in the weeks and months after she vanished and handed out leaflets in the area where she was last seen, but neither turned up any clues. Investigators tried to keep the search in the public consciousness, even posting a smiling photo of Barnes from her Facebook page on electronic billboards along highways in the Baltimore region. They received scores of tips, but none panned out.
Workers at the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River found her body the following April in northeast Maryland. Medical examiners later ruled the death a homicide, but authorities did not release the cause of death.
After her body was found an hour's drive from the Baltimore apartment where she was last seen, state police homicide investigators took over the probe, working with city police investigators.
The process has been long, but Russell Barnes said he was in contact with investigators every week.
"They knew that the family was not going to give up," he said.
The case spurred broader interest in missing persons cases and led to a bill in the Maryland legislature called "Phylicia's Law," to improve coordination between law enforcement and community groups when a child disappears.
The bill requires state officials to publish a list of missing children and annual statistics. They may also keep a list of groups of volunteers to help with searches and local law enforcement must try to work with them.