Dayton children found dead in Baltimore car trunk remembered as ‘doll babies’

James Phillips remembers 7-year-old Joshlyn Johnson and 5-year-old Larry O’Neil as “doll babies.”

Phillips and his wife, Evelyn Phillips-Simon, raised their mother, Dachelle Johnson, from a young age. Dachelle lived with them from the age of 7, and after the births of the two children James and Evelyn were deeply involved in their upbringing. When Dachelle moved to Baltimore in 2019, she took the children with her.

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

Phillips didn’t like the idea of Dachelle taking the kids with her to Baltimore. But when he talked to her on the phone she said everything was OK.

“She would tell me the kids was all right and they were doing fine,” he said. “But come to find out the kids weren’t with her.”

Joshlyn’s and Larry’s bodies were found in Baltimore last week in the trunk of a car driven by Dachelle Johnson’s sister, Nicole Michelle Johnson. Dachelle Johnson told police she gave the children to her sister in 2019, The Baltimore Sun reports.

Nicole Johnson is facing criminal charges. The Baltimore Sun reports she told investigators that in May 2020 she hit Joshlyn and the child hit her head on the floor, and she then put the girl’s body in a suitcase in her car. She told detectives that two months ago Larry went to sleep and didn’t wake up, the newspaper reports; she put his body in a tote in her car.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Dachelle Johnson declined to be interviewed at length for this story. She said it was Larry’s birthday and they were getting a cake to remember him.

“Just going to celebrate him,” she said. “(It’s) pretty heartbreaking.”

Family questions story

Family members here and in Baltimore, however, are questioning why more wasn’t done to protect the children.

Dachelle Johnson’s mother Michelle Johnson, in a phone interview Wednesday, said Dachelle lived with her briefly when she arrived in Baltimore in 2019, then moved into a motel with her sister. Dachelle Johnson then left the kids with her sister to move into another nearby motel with a man, her mother said. Dachelle became pregnant, her mother said, and she moved back to Ohio briefly in mid-2020, then returned to Baltimore in November 2020 to have the baby.

“(She) left them kids on an unstable sister and everybody told (her) ... that the kids are in danger,” Michelle Johnson said.

Phillips thinks family members in Baltimore, including Dachelle Johnson, should be charged with neglect.

“They knew how she (Nicole Johnson) was. They knew she wasn’t right. Then for them to let her have those kids. I don’t agree with that,” he said

Police say the children’s bodies appeared malnourished.

‘They were loved here’

“I’m hurting. I’m really hurting,” Phillips told the Dayton Daily News this week. “I begged her not to go. When she got there, I begged her to come home.”

Phillips and his wife raised Dachelle Johnson, their niece, from the age of 7. Dachelle Johnson graduated from Dayton Public Schools. She won a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. poetry contest in fourth grade while at Wogaman Prek-9 School, according to Dayton Daily News archives.

Joshlyn and Larry were born while Johnson lived with Phillips. Phillips said he brought the babies home from the hospital.

The family called Larry “Man Man.” The kids called Phillips and his wife papa and nana.

Neighbor David McCombs remembers the kids happily playing in the yard full of toys Phillips would bring home.

“They was always happy,” McCombs said. “The kids were taken care of. They were loved here.”

Larry, he said, was a “roly-poly” little kid. “From the start, he was going to be a giant,” he said.

Phillips said the kids were inseparable. Joshlyn would dote over her little brother, even help change his diapers. Larry was a little troublemaker, he said, the first one to look for when you find a pile of flour on the floor or cookies missing.

“They both were beautiful kids, and very lovable,” he said.

After Phillips’ wife Evelyn died in 2018, Johnson decided to move out on her own. She initially moved into an apartment by the former Good Samaritan Hospital.

“I would go get the kids and keep them sometimes when she wanted to get loose or be with her friends or whatever,” he said. “Then she came to me one day and just told me she was moving to Baltimore.”

Phillips said he opposed the idea of her returning to Baltimore because her family there never supported her.

“They never really showed Dachelle any love,” he said. “I didn’t feel like she would get the love she got here if she went there.”

Local police records

Dayton police have two records involving the children. In 2014, Phillips called police because Dachelle Johnson, then a teenager, ran away from home in the middle of the night and left her daughter alone.

“James stated this morning he heard Dachelle’s daughter crying and he had to kick in the bedroom door to get to the child,” the report says.

Johnson was home by the time police arrived, but her aunt asked police to issue an unruly citation because she was “getting out of control” and refusing to go to school.

In the other incident, in 2017 Larry’s father Larry O’Neil Jr. called police and claimed Dachelle Johnson wouldn’t allow him to visit the boy.

Dayton Public Schools officials say Joshlyn was a DPS student in 2018-2019 and was withdrawn in 2019.

Montgomery County Children Services officials wouldn’t say whether they had any involvement with the children while they lived in the area.

“This is a horrific incident, and we are saddened to learn about this tragedy. As there is an active criminal investigation taking place in Maryland, and due to Ohio Revised Code, we are unable to comment,” said Craig Rickett, associate director for Montgomery County Children Services.

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