PHOENIX – An Arizona woman who was convicted in her young son’s disappearance nearly three years ago was sentenced Friday to 5 1/4 years in prison.
Elizabeth Johnson, 26, was convicted in October of custodial interference and unlawful imprisonment in the Christmastime 2009 disappearance of her then-8-month-old son, Gabriel. The jury failed to reach a verdict on a kidnapping charge – the most serious count against her.
Johnson will receive credit for the nearly three years that she has been in jail following her arrest.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Joseph Kreamer also sentenced her to four years of probation when she is released.
Earlier, Johnson stood before the judge and tearfully spoke on her own behalf, apologizing for what she did, but maintaining her story that she gave Gabriel away to someone in Texas.
“I wanted to give Gabriel a life that was better than I had growing up,” she said softly. “I didn’t want him to be in the middle of a custody battle.”
She added: “I know I was wrong. ... At the end of the day, Gabriel is still missing and it’s my fault.”
Authorities said Johnson told the boy’s father that she killed Gabriel and dumped him in a trash bin, but she recanted and told police she gave the infant to a couple at a San Antonio, Texas, park. She never provided the couple’s names.
Gabriel would have turned 3 this past April. Authorities don’t know if he’s still alive.
Gabriel’s paternal grandfather, Frank McQueary, and other family members pleaded with Johnson to explain what happened to Gabriel in tearful testimony asking the judge to sentence her to the maximum time in prison.
“This isn’t over for our family,” McQueary said. “This is not going to be over until we know where Gabriel is. What happened to Gabriel?”
Prosecutors alleged Johnson ran off to Texas with the child as a way to retaliate against his father for ending their tumultuous relationship. The father isn’t suspected in the child’s disappearance.
Johnson could have faced more than nine years in prison after the lack of a kidnapping conviction took a maximum prison sentence of 27 years off the table.
Johnson’s attorney Marc Victor, who was seeking probation for his client, cited Johnson’s lack of prior felony convictions, her youth and other factors in seeking a lesser sentence.
Victor has said his client is aware of the horrible mistakes that she has made, regrets the grief she caused the boy’s father and described Johnson as an unsophisticated single mother who was in a volatile relationship with the boy’s father and was being manipulated by a woman who wanted to adopt Gabriel.
Kreamer had rejected Johnson’s bid for release from jail while she awaited sentencing and noted that Johnson would probably face a prison term on top of the nearly three years she has already spent in jail.
Prosecutor Angela Andrews told the judge Friday that authorities were willing to put aside their efforts for imprisonment and seek only probation if Johnson comes clean and says where Gabriele is. “Not vague statements, but his actual physical whereabouts,” Andrews said.
The boy was last seen with his mother on Dec. 26, 2009, at a hotel in San Antonio.
Investigators said Johnson brought the child from Tempe to Texas, stayed for a week and then took a bus to Florida without him. She was arrested in Florida on Dec. 30, 2009.
Johnson had been fighting with the boy’s father about whether to give up Gabriel for adoption. She signed over temporary guardianship of the boy to a Scottsdale couple for about 10 days before she picked him up and left Arizona.
The would-be adoptive mother from Scottsdale, Tammi Peters Smith, was accused of lying on a court document about the child’s possible paternity in an effort to keep Gabriel from his father. Smith was convicted of forgery and conspiracy to commit custodial interference.
In 2010, San Antonio police scoured a landfill that contained trash from the hotel where Gabriel was last seen. The search turned up no body or other evidence.