2 children from Dayton found dead in car trunk in Maryland; aunt charged

Credit: Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun

Credit: Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun

More than 100 people gathered Monday evening in Essex, Maryland, for a vigil to remember the two young children from Dayton found dead last week in the trunk of a car driven by their aunt.

The bodies of siblings Joshlyn Marie James Johnson, 7, and Larry Darnell O’Neil III, 5, were found July 28 decomposing in the trunk of a car driven by their aunt during a routine traffic stop in Essex, The Baltimore Sun reported. The cause and manner of their deaths are pending, though police said there were signs of malnourishment at their autopsy. Joshlyn weighed 18 pounds and Larry weighed 21 pounds.

Their aunt, 33-year-old Nicole Michele Johnson, is charged with neglect, failure to report the death of both children, disposal of their bodies and child abuse that resulted in the children’s deaths. Johnson is being held without bail at the Baltimore County Detention Center.

Johnson had been caring for the children since 2019 after their mother, Dachelle Johnson, moved to Maryland from Dayton and apparently could not care for them, the mother told detectives, according to court documents obtained by The Sun.

Dachelle Johnson told detectives she tried to get in touch with her sister many times but could not find them. In March, she said she made arrangements to meet her sister to get her children, but that they never showed and that she has not been able to contact them since. A detective notified her of their deaths, the newspaper reported.

During an interview with a homicide detective, Nicole Johnson said that in May 2020 she became angry with Joshlyn and hit her several times, causing the girl to hit her head on the floor at a Regal Inn in Rosedale. Johnson then put Joshlyn’s body in a suitcase in her car trunk, according to the court documents.

Johnson also told detectives that two months ago Larry told her he was tired and lay down to sleep but never woke up. Johnson said the boy had a wound on his left leg but did not say what caused the injury. She placed his body in a tote in the car trunk next to his sister’s decomposing body, The Sun reported the charging documents stated.

The traffic stop happened one week before Larry’s sixth birthday.

Johnson was pulled over shortly after 11 p.m. July 28 in Essex after police said she had been speeding. The officer said Johnson had fake temporary tags and registration and had been driving without a license. When the officer issued the traffic citations and said the car would have to be towed, Johnson responded: “It don’t matter, I won’t be here in five days” and “ya’ll going to see me on the news making my big debut,” according to the charging documents obtained by the newspaper.

As Johnson removed items from the trunk before it could be towed, the officer noticed the smell of decomposition. The officer asked to see inside bags from the trunk, including a suitcase that Johnson attempted to hide using a blanket before removing it and exposing the body inside. Johnson tried to run but was caught. Homicide detectives were called and found the second child’s body inside a plastic tote, documents stated.

Johnson initially told police that she did not know the children had been in the trunk and said she thought the smell was caused by a rat in the engine, documents stated.

Credit: Baltimore County Police Department

Credit: Baltimore County Police Department

A police report obtained by The Sun said a second adult, a 33-year-old East Baltimore woman, also was inside the car when it was stopped. The woman was described as a witness and was not criminally charged.

Baltimore County schools said the children were never students there. The children were not reported missing, there was no apparent formal custody agreement between the sisters, and with the coronavirus pandemic the children may have fallen through the cracks.

Katherine Morris, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Human Services, which includes Child Protective Services, would not confirm to The Sun whether any investigation had been open against Johnson, citing confidentiality laws.

The boy’s grandmother, LaQuata M. Pitts O’Neil, told The Baltimore Sun that Larry and Joshlyn were inseparable.

“They were such good kids,” the grandmother said. “They were soft-spoken, well-mannered, precious souls.”

The family found out about the children’s deaths from a Facebook post by Dachelle Johnson. They said communication with her had always been erratic but became even less frequent after her move from Dayton to Baltimore two years ago. They used to receive pictures of both children after the move and would occasionally video-call, but as time went on the contact waned, the newspaper reported.

Pleas to return home to Dayton where family could provide housing and money were unanswered, and promises to schedule a call were broken or met with excuses that the children were sleeping, were playing outside or were at an uncle’s house, O’Neil told the newspaper.

There was no mention of the children living with Nicole Johnson.

Between sobs, the grandmother said, “I never thought in a million years they would end up dead.”

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