Neighbors at the Baltimore apartment complex where North Carolina teen Phylicia Barnes seemingly vanished last December reacted with sadness and disbelief after the discovery of her body Wednesday.
As residents came home from work, or walked their dogs in the tree-lined community, several stopped to share their thoughts about the pretty young honors student who would have turned 17 in January.
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“I was praying they would find her, maybe in another state,” said a longtime resident named Ellen, who declined to give her last name. “She was a beautiful girl. …I heard she was an ‘A’ student. It was a hard thing to believe.”
“I am very depressed about the whole situation,” said another woman, who said she preferred complete anonymity. “And still scared. Because we don’t know who did it. We’re all taking precautions.”
The Monroe, North Carolina teen was visiting a half-sister and other Baltimore relatives over the Christmas holidays when she went missing on December 28, 2010.
Over the last several months, a team of detectives, the FBI and other authorities have aggressively worked the case. Private sources offered a $35,000 reward. And earlier this month, police launched a massive search effort that involved hundreds of law enforcement personnel and community volunteers, who distributed flyers and combed a sprawling state park.
Few concrete leads had emerged until Wednesday when a woman’s nude body was discovered in the Susquehanna River by a work crew at the nearby Conowingo Dam, about 40 miles from Baltimore.
Later, the body of a 6 foot 4, 240 pound black male — also unclothed — was discovered a few miles away. Police are still trying to identify him and determine if there is any connection to Barnes.
A rose tattoo that Barnes had on her leg was the first indication to authorities that the body in the river might be the missing teen.
On Thursday afternoon, the office of the chief medical examiner in Maryland used dental records to make a positive identification.
At a somber press conference last night, police said a preliminary autopsy has been performed and there were no signs of overt wounds on Barnes’ body. But no cause of death has been determined. Other circumstances of the case are equally mysterious, they said.
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“Phylicia Barnes went missing December 28th last year,” said Colonel Terrence Sheridan, superintendent of the Maryland State Police. “And the medical examiner said it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the body could have been in the water that long .”
Baltimore City Police Commissioner Fred Bealefeld said a “mountain of investigative work” will be needed to figure out what actually happened to the teen.
“We’re now at stage one of the investigation — a new phase,” said Bealefeld. “All of us prayed for a different outcome to this case, but finding her body is really gonna be instrumental in giving us the opportunity to bring closure to the family.”
The commissioner added that he’d personally called Barnes’ mother, with whom she lived in North Carolina.
“It’s the worst possible news you can give to any mother,” he said. “It’s the last bit of news they ever want to hear.”
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 on her father’s side. They’d grown close to the teen.
Barnes’ mother had given her daughter permission to stay with one half-sister, who is in her late 20s, over the holidays.
Various media reports have described the apartment as 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. Although police said they interviewed him and others, to date, no suspects have been named.
About two weeks ago, as volunteers canvassed the community near the apartment building where Barnes’ had been staying, her aunt could barely hold back the tears when talking about her niece.
“It’s been very difficult, it’s been heart-wrenching,” said Bonnie Briscoe, wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with a smiling photo of the teen. “We’re trusting in God and praying and believing that He’s gonna bring her home.”
The grim and disappointing news that Barnes had not been found alive left one neighbor shaking his head in dismay.
“I hope they find out who did this and justice will be served,” the neighbor said. “I think about my own two little girls. This is just so sad.”