It’s been nearly a year since a Tempe baby’s disappearance made national headlines as law enforcement in four states, private detectives and family members searched for missing Gabriel Johnson.
Now forensics experts and authorities say they believe the child is dead.
Gabriel’s mother Elizabeth Johnson already twice said — once in a chilling text message and once in a recorded telephone call to her estranged boyfriend and father of the child, Logan McQueary — that she suffocated him and then stuffed his “little blue body” inside a diaper bag before throwing him in a trash bin in San Antonio.
On Dec. 18 last year, the Tempe woman drove her grandfather’s white 1995 Oldsmobile Delta 88 to San Antonio with Gabriel, then 7 months old, in the midst of a custody battle and stayed at a Homegate Inn and Suites motel in San Antonio, where authorities say they last saw Gabriel on Dec. 26.
The next day, Johnson told McQueary she killed Gabriel.
Her motive? To hurt McQueary, she said. Johnson, who has a history of angry outbursts, blamed McQueary for “ruining her life.”
But at the time of Johnson’s Dec. 30 arrest in Miami Beach, Fla., she told an FBI agent that she gave Gabriel to a couple at a motel in San Antonio a day after she met them at a park there, according to a Maricopa County Superior Court document. That statement ignited hope for the McQueary family and a strong belief among private investigators that an underground adoption took place and Gabriel could still be alive.
The best chance to find a missing child alive is within the first 48 hours of its disappearance, according to information from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children — after that, the chance diminishes every day.
Johnson has been incarcerated in Maricopa County’s Estrella jail on a $1.1 million cash bond for nearly a year on charges of kidnapping, child abuse and custodial interference and has not been cooperating with authorities.
Dr. Steven Pitt, a nationally known forensic psychiatrist in Scottsdale who has worked on high-profile cases, told the Tribune that a mother not sharing information about where her child is and not cooperating raises a “huge” red flag.
“Good money says that the child is dead,” Pitt said. “This is not rocket science. You have a defendant who has allegedly made statements implicating herself in the disappearance of her child, but more importantly, has refused to share information about where her child could be. In my business, that’s a clue.
“At the end of the day, the absence of the mother sharing information about the whereabouts of her child is disturbing and very troubling, and the fact that she claims she gave the child away begs the question, to whom?”
Tammi Peters Smith, 38, of Scottsdale, who according to court documents was interested in adopting Gabriel around the time of his disappearance without McQueary’s consent, is charged with forgery and conspiracy to commit custodial interference in connection with the case.
Tempe police believe that Smith and her husband, Jack, had a plan in place, or were devising one, to pick up Gabriel near Nashville, Tenn., where the FBI had questioned an adoption agency they thought was a possible location for the boy to be taken. Jack Smith later was dropped as a person of interest in the case, and authorities now say Tammi Smith is not a suspect in Gabriel’s disappearance.
Gabriel, who has blue eyes and had light brown hair, was born on May 3, 2009, and was crawling at the time of his disappearance. If alive, he now would be 19 months old and would be walking and talking. He also would weigh more, his hair might be darker and he might have been renamed.
However, Gabriel would have no recollection of Johnson or McQueary, according to Dr. Barbara Tinsley, a child psychologist and child development expert who is a professor at Arizona State University’s Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
“His well-being highly depends on if he’s in a good and loving environment and if he has good nutrition,” Tinsley said. “That is critical. If he’s in a deprived environment, his development has been slowed down, including his physical, cognitive and social development. But, if he’s in a good loving environment, he’s in pretty good shape.”
However, Johnson had reportedly confessed a third time to killing Gabriel, this time during a May jailhouse interview with San Antonio police Detective Jesus Salame at the Estrella jail. During the interview, Salame held Johnson’s hand and cried with her. Salame told Johnson he was the only one who cared for her and he was her best chance of being spared the death penalty, according to a Maricopa County Superior Court document.
Johnson’s former attorneys, Nick Alcock and Adam Feldman, said Johnson was under medication at the time of Salame’s interview, which was unauthorized, and they have since resigned from the case. Alcock and Feldman cited that their attorney-client trust with Johnson was destroyed by that interview.
A San Antonio police spokesman told the Tribune on Wednesday that its investigators have discussed seeking murder charges against Johnson with the district attorney’s office there, and are investigating the case as a homicide.
In a recent development in the case, Johnson’s latest attorney, Daniel Raynak hopes to subpoena Salame for testimony in an effort to dismiss the high-profile case during a court hearing in January. Johnson’s attorneys contend that when Salame flew to Arizona and interviewed her in May, he violated her Sixth Amendment rights by interviewing her without her legal counsel present, and that the case should be dismissed.
But Texas authorities aren’t forthcoming with information about that interview with those involved in the case in Arizona. San Antonio police contend they are in the midst of an active homicide investigation and still are working with Tempe police on it.
Tempe police told a room full of reporters earlier this year that they ended their role in the Gabriel Johnson investigation, but on Wednesday, Tempe police Sgt. Steve Carbajal said Tempe is continuing to work with San Antonio police on the case. Carbajal would not comment on specific aspects, citing an ongoing investigation.
Alcock told the Tribune that he already had tried to subpoena Salame to provide testimony about the interview, but San Antonio’s city attorney replied in a letter that they would not be responding to the subpoena and Salame will not be testifying in an Arizona courtroom.
A Maricopa County Superior Court judge will rule in January whether the case against Johnson will be dismissed, but a trial on the charges against her in Arizona currently are scheduled to begin in May.
Amid the drawn-out legal proceedings, it remains unknown whether Gabriel is dead or alive.
“If there was ever a time I’d like to be wrong, it’s this case, but I am not optimistic that they will find this baby alive,” Pitt said.