The traffic stop was nearly finished but the Maryland officer asked the woman driving if she needed to grab any belongings before her car was towed, police said.
Then came a “harrowing” discovery.
Nicole Johnson, 33, had been caught speeding through Baltimore on Wednesday with a fake temporary paper tag, no insurance and no registration, according to a probable cause statement obtained by WBAL Radio. The officer gave her a citation and informed Johnson she’d need to appear in court in five days.
“It don’t matter. I won’t be here in five days,” Johnson responded, according to the probable cause statement. “Ya’ll going to see me on the news. Ya’ll going to see me on the news making my big debut.”
When she opened the trunk, the officer smelled the “unmistakable odor of decomposition” and Johnson replied the blankets were filthy from living in the car, the probable cause statement said. But the officer was certain something dead was inside her bags and asked Johnson to open them.
Using a blanket, Johnson tried to hide the contents of a suitcase while her back was turned to the officer, according to the probable cause statement, but eventually she opened the bag to reveal the decomposing body of a young child. Another child was found in a bag after homicide detectives arrived.
The children were identified as siblings 5-year-old Larry O’Neil and 7-year-old Joshlyn Johnson, the nephew and niece of Johnson.
“This truly was a devastating incident – one that not only shocked our community to its core, but significantly affected our patrol officers, forensic technicians, and detectives,” Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt said in a statement Friday.
The children’s mother told detectives she entrusted Johnson, her sister, to care for the kids after the family moved to Maryland from Ohio in July 2019 because she was unable to care for them.
Their mother said she attempted to contact Johnson “numerous times” and arranged to have the children returned in March, but her sister didn’t show.
Johnson told detectives she was at a motel in Baltimore in May 2020 when she hit Joshlyn several times for “taking her things and misbehaving” as her brother slept, according to the probable cause statement, and put the girl in a suitcase for “many months” while driving around.
She said Larry died about two months ago after he told Johnson he was tired and laid in the backseat, the probable cause statement said.
“She recalled seeing blood on (his) leg but couldn’t elaborate on the injury,” the probable cause statement said.
Baltimore police said “it will take time to determine the exact circumstances that led to the children’s deaths.”
Johnson was arrested on felony child abuse charges.
“I am grateful that the harrowing details of this case were thoroughly and quickly uncovered, resulting in an expeditious closure to this tragedy,” Hyatt said. “I want to commend all of our Baltimore County Police Department members who worked tirelessly throughout this investigation to bring justice to these innocent, young victims.”