Bonnie Briscoe could barely hold back the tears when talking about her niece, Phylicia Barnes.
The Monroe, North Carolina teen disappeared late last December, while visiting relatives in Baltimore during the Christmas holidays.
“It’s been very difficult, it’s been heart-wrenching,” said Briscoe, wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with a smiling photo of her niece. “We’re trusting in God and praying and believing that He’s gonna bring her home.”
Briscoe and other members of Barnes’ family in Baltimore were among hundreds of volunteers and law enforcement officials who took part in a massive daylong search on Saturday, which also spanned two Maryland counties. It ended with no concrete clues about Barnes’ whereabouts, who has been missing now some four months; her 17th birthday was in January.
WATCH NBC NIGHTLY NEWS COVERAGE OF THE BARNES CASE:
Over the weekend, Baltimore police, FBI agents and officers from multiple Maryland jurisdictions, spent hours combing Patapsco Valley State Park, a 16,000-acre wooded expanse with ravines, waterfalls, winding trails and abandoned structures. More than 200 officers and two dozen canine units navigated the area, some using all-terrain vehicles.
While those authorities focused on the park, a group of community volunteers were busy in the Baltimore neighborhood where the honors student and track star had been visiting with her 27-year-old half-sister.
Using the parking lot of a local mall as their headquarters, they distributed thousands of color flyers with a photo of Barnes and a hotline number for people to call with tips.
“We’re trying to keep Phylicia Barnes’ name and memory in everybody’s mind,” said Detective Donny Moses, a spokesman for the Baltimore City Police department who thanked the volunteers gathered on the parking lot of a local mall. “The bottom line is we’re trying to find her. We pray she’s still alive.”
Barnes’ visit to Baltimore was not her first time in the city. Her parents weren’t together, but she’d reportedly connected via Facebook with three half-siblings who’d apparently grown close to the teen.
According to police, Barnes was last seen around 1:30 p.m. on December 28, 2010.
The Baltimore Sun reports that Barnes’ sister left the apartment for work that morning, texting and chatting with the teen a few times. Another relative planned to pick Barnes up that afternoon. But when the sister returned home later that evening and realized the teen wasn’t there or with family, she called the police.
Various media reports have called the apartment a “college flophouse” where lots of people, including young men, hung out and moved back and forth.
On the day Barnes disappeared, her sister’s ex-boyfriend was in the process of moving out; he reportedly was the last person to see the teen, sleeping on the couch. However, police have not named him or anyone else a suspect.
Anthony Guglielmi, Baltimore’s lead police spokesman, said the last few months have been frustrating for investigators as leads have dwindled and all but dried up.
This weekend’s intense search, he said, the result of what he called “actionable intelligence.”
“After talking to several people [who] last saw Phylicia, we identified this park as someplace we wanted to check out. Back in December, we did a preliminary search of the area, but winter [conditions] kind of got in the way.”
Guglielmi added that detectives will continue to follow up on tips as they come in. There’s also a $35,000 reward, which has come from private sources. “The most important piece is that there are people out there that know a little more than they’ve shared.”
Volunteer Marriam Robinson doesn’t know Barnes or her family. But seeing photos of the pretty teen have haunted the Baltimore resident.
“This is a young, gifted African-American [girl] who went missing,” said Robinson. “I felt compelled to come out and do whatever I could to help. I pray that whatever the outcome, God will bless this family.”
The Barnes’ family has set up a Facebook page, prayforphylicia. Anyone with tips can contact Baltimore police at 1-855-223-0033.