Tammy Smith and Elizabeth Johnson share dysfunctional histories and criminal pasts. Now, both face hearings on felony charges in connection with the disappearance of Johnson’s 8-month-old son Gabriel.
When Tammi Smith and Elizabeth Johnson met for the first time in August at Boston’s Logan International Airport, Johnson no longer wanted to be a mother.
And Smith badly wanted to be a mother again.
That first meeting — as Smith approached the young mother while she was crying with her infant son, Gabriel — was the start of a relationship that has placed the pair at the center of a national search and criminal cases involving the missing child, who was last seen Dec. 26 at a San Antonio motel that authorities have said is a “purported” meeting place for underground adoptions.
Smith, 37, of Scottsdale, and Johnson, 23, of Tempe, have troubled pasts, similar dysfunctional histories in their relationships and criminal records, according to police reports and court documents.
They are scheduled to appear for separate hearings in Maricopa County Superior Court on Tuesday , both on felony charges in connection with the missing child that Johnson initially said she killed but later claimed hat she had given to an unknown couple in the parking lot of a motel, according to Maricopa County Superior Court documents.
Johnson’s attorney, Vanessa Smith, who works for the Maricopa County Public Defender’s Office, has filed a motion with the court to ban any media coverage of the court proceedings, arguing that it would infringe on Johnson’s right to a fair trial and jeopardize her safety.
Repeated requests for interviews with Smith and her lawyer in recent weeks were declined. Requests for jailhouse interviews with Johnson also were denied.
For eight weeks, the Tribune has combed through police reports and court records from numerous jurisdictions across the country and conducted interviews with more than a dozen people related to the case and the pair’s pasts.
Together, the documents and interviews reveal the story of a troubled young mother eager to be free from her baby and a woman desperate for a second chance at motherhood.
Smith once worked as an exotic dancer in New Orleans, aspired to be a country music singer pursuing fortune and fame in Nashville, Tenn., and at one time was married to two men at the same time, according to police reports and court records.
In 2001, she paid to give her three children up for adoption to her ex-husband and his wife after a costly 2½-year custody battle, according to Smith and the second of her five husbands, Kieth Facio. More recently, Smith tried to adopt children from China and Africa, according to her MySpace page, which has since been blocked from public view and Facio.
“She’s trying to fill a gap,” said Facio, who lives with their three teenage children near New Orleans. “Tammi knows she screwed up with her own children and is trying to make up for it. She’s tried to adopt other children for several years, but it always falls through for some reason and she can’t. It’s likely because of her past.”
Johnson, meanwhile, grew up with her twin brother in five different foster homes before the age of 10 due to her drug-addicted mother drowning when Elizabeth was about 12 and her father dying of liver cancer in 2007, according to Johnson’s grandfather, Robert Johnson of Scottsdale.
Elizabeth Johnson graduated from a college preparatory high school in Boston with a 4.0 grade-point average and earned a full-ride scholarship to Southeastern University in New Hampshire — a $160,000 value — but walked away from it after two weeks because she didn’t like her roommate, her grandfather said.
Robert Johnson said his granddaughter has always been “secretive,” and when she was a teenager, she flew from Boston — where she was living with her grandmother — to California to sell her reproductive eggs for cash to someone she contacted on the Internet.
He does not believe his granddaughter killed her own baby, and he can’t understand why she won’t tell him where her baby is or help the authorities find Gabriel.
“She wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer,” Robert Johnson said. “She had the smarts. Now, her life is a hell of a mess. I’ve tried to tell her to cooperate with authorities and tell them what she did with Gabriel so she could get on with her life.”
A mother’s rage
In the last year alone, Johnson’s relationship with Gabriel’s father, Logan McQueary, was marked by her outbursts of rage as she destroyed three apartments by tearing up clothes and a couch with a large knife before demolishing a baby bed, smashing a television set and breaking windows, according to Tempe police reports.
When Gabriel would cry, McQueary said that Johnson would shout at him: “Shut that damn baby up!” according to a police report.
On Dec. 9, Johnson was arrested on suspicion of providing false information to law enforcement. She lied to authorities about where Gabriel was after she told Tempe police that McQueary kidnapped the baby.
Instead, Gabriel was at Smith’s residence, where police permitted the baby to stay after the Smiths showed officers a document in which Johnson had signed over temporary guardianship of the boy to the couple.
However, McQueary said he never supported giving up Gabriel for adoption, and the Smiths gave Gabriel back to Johnson on Dec. 18, the day Johnson left for San Antonio in the midst of a custody battle, according to court documents.
During another incident, police had to restrain Johnson in the back of the cruiser as she was slamming her head into windows of the vehicle, according to the police report. Authorities believed Elizabeth had a mental disorder, according to reports. But she was never diagnosed with anything and never received professional care, according to her grandfather.
Of the three apartments and the contents within them Johnson destroyed, one item that survived was a picture of her and her twin brother with their mother as young children, according to Johnson’s grandfather.
“You can’t measure the love between a mother and a child,” Robert Johnson said. “Although Elizabeth’s mother was a drug addict and had other problems, there was still that love between a mother and her child, and Elizabeth loved her mother.”
'Gut feeling’ Gabriel is alive
Since the beginning of the year, the story of “Baby Gabriel” has been in the national media spotlight as McQueary, of Gilbert, remains steadfast in finding his son. For reasons yet to be told, Johnson took Gabriel to San Antonio in late December in the midst of the custody battle.
On Dec. 27, Johnson told McQueary via text message that she killed Gabriel and, in a phone call later that day, told McQueary she stuffed Gabriel’s body in a diaper bag and threw him in a dumpster. But at the time of her arrest three days later at a hostel in Miami Beach, Fla., she told an FBI agent that she gave the boy away.
McQueary’s quest to find his son also includes the pro bono help of renowned private investigator Jay J. Armes, who said his “gut feeling” is that Gabriel is alive and the victim of an underground adoption that possibly has whisked the baby south of the border into Mexico.
The child has blond hair and blue eyes and would have turned 10 months old on March 3.
San Antonio police are conducting a missing persons case parallel to a homicide investigation, not knowing whether the child is alive or dead. More than 30 people currently are searching a section of a landfill to see if they can find anything in connection with the case. Witnesses at the motel also told authorities that they saw Johnson with a Hispanic male and that they appeared to be a couple. However, authorities have been unable to locate him, according to police.
In the ongoing investigation, authorities have compiled 1,575 pages of discovery and 52 CDs of recorded interviews, according to Maricopa County Superior Court documents. As the story of “Baby Gabriel” has played out on national television shows, the Web search engine “Google News” shows more than 1 million hits, mostly originating from media outlets throughout the Valley, according to Maricopa County Superior Court records. On the social networking site Facebook, five pages dedicated to the search for Gabriel have at least 14,000 members.
Smith is facing charges of forgery and conspiracy to commit custodial interference and is free on $15,000 bond. Smith and her husband, Jack, who were interested in adopting Gabriel, were named by Tempe police as persons of interest in the case because authorities believed the Smiths withheld information that could have led to the whereabouts of the boy.
Johnson has been charged with kidnapping, child abuse, custodial interference and conspiracy to commit custodial interference. She is being held in a Maricopa County jail on a $1.1 million cash bond.
The Smiths have maintained their innocence and have been adamant that all they tried to do was talk Johnson into returning to Arizona with the baby. They have never been suspects in the baby’s disappearance.
Desperation and deception
Investigators said it was Tammi Smith’s “desperate attempts” to adopt the child that hindered the investigation. Police allege that the Smiths had a plan in place to adopt Gabriel or were developing a plan to somehow pick up the child in Nashville, Tenn., and her contradictory statements to police and to the media led to her arrest. Jack Smith, a former pedal steel guitarist in the Grand Ole Opry’s House Band in Nashville and a former studio musician for country music singer “Whisperin’ Bill” Anderson, was cleared in the case.
Smith’s attempts to acquire custody of the boy included trying to persuade a Maricopa County Family Court judge into letting her adopt Gabriel as she told the judge during a recorded phone message that she believed Johnson would bring the child back to Arizona if she knew he would be “safe.”
Smith also researched the possibility of changing the jurisdiction of Johnson’s custody hearing and the possibility of adopting both a child and an adult so she could adopt Johnson and Gabriel in order to have custody of her child, according to court documents.
Smith also wrote the name of her first cousin, an ex-convict named Craig Cherry, as being a potential father to Gabriel on a paternity-test petition before she drove Johnson to the courthouse, according to court documents, which lead to the forgery charge against her.
In late 1996, Smith was arrested in another forgery case — for stealing checks from Facio and signing his name to them, according to St. Bernard Parish District Court documents in Louisiana. Smith was not authorized because her spending habits had put the family in financial straits before, according to a police report. The charges against Smith were later reduced to attempted theft, misdemeanors, and she was ordered to repay Facio $1,149 in restitution, according to court records.
“Hey, the money was mine, too,” Smith said in a brief telephone interview with the Tribune.
She claimed that the fourth man she married — Michael Edwyne Riddle — forced her into marrying him at the Davidson County Courthouse in Nashville on Nov. 30, 1998, according to court records. Smith said Riddle beat her so badly that she knew she was at the courthouse but didn’t realize she was getting married, the documents state. When Smith married Riddle, she became married to two men at the same time — Mikel Sikora of Phoenix was the other, according to court records.
When Sikora was contacted by the Tribune, he replied, “I think I’ll stay out of this one.”
Smith, who said she could not track down Riddle, had the marriage annulled in Maricopa County Superior Court in 2002, according to court records.
When Smith was asked by the Tribune about Riddle or if she has been in contact with him, she said, “Who’s Mike Riddle? And why would I want to contact him?”
During 2006 and 2007, Smith operated a colon-cleansing business in Nashville for 15 months without a license before the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners ordered her to close and fined her, according to a document from the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners.
Neglect and silence
Smith’s oldest daughter, Gabriele Victoria Facio, 19, recently wrote in a Facebook message to a Tribune reporter that she only considers Tammi her biological mother and not her “real mother.”
“She neglected us,” Gabriele Facio said. “She took us, sorta kidnapped us, right before I turned 6. After that, my dad had enough and divorced her. She wanted money and fame. She didn’t like working or taking care of children. It was never her thing. She wanted to make an album, be a country singer. That’s when she met Jack and left her guy.
“In the end, it was us or him. She chose him.”
Gabriele also said she helped raised her siblings.
“I remember being mom,” she said. “I helped my dad raise my brother and sister. I cared for them even when Tammi was around. She neglected us, didn’t always feed us, didn’t always change diapers. She spanked us for crying or doing something little. We were children.”
Although Smith does not express any regrets for giving up the rights to her children, she said, “I love my children very much and I always will.”
Robert Johnson isn’t sure if his granddaughter feels the same way about her child. He said he never heard Elizabeth express “any particular joy” in having Gabriel, and he said he never heard her say that she loved him.
Nearly three months after she fled Arizona with Gabriel, Elizabeth Johnson still refuses to reveal his whereabouts.
The longer the case continues without Johnson revealing where Gabriel is, concern increases that the case will have a “tragic outcome,” according to Dr. Erin Nelson, a forensic psychologist who has worked for Steven Pitt and Associates in Scottsdale on national cases such as the Columbine school shootings in Colorado, the rape allegations against Kobe Bryant and the Baseline Rapist case in Phoenix.
“It’s not an accident she’s keeping her mouth shut. Denial is a powerful psychological defense mechanism,” Nelson said. “But there can be a number of factors that can ultimately compel someone to cooperate.”
A “significant person,” Nelson said, might be able to get Elizabeth Johnson to talk. Or, she added, an attorney telling the young mother what she’s facing might prompt her to cooperate.
Johnson’s attorneys are urging her to remain quiet as part of their legal strategy. But her grandfather wants her to come clean — now.
“Tell them where the baby is and get on with it,” Robert Johnson said. “If the baby is alive and well, she’ll be able to get out of jail, but she seems content with staying there.
“I just don’t understand. I still don’t understand why she won’t say where that baby is.”