Two sets of parents caught up in a bizarre custody dispute are frantic with worry about a missing 8-month-old baby and are begging his mother to tell police the truth about what she did with him.
Gabriel Johnson's biological father, Logan McQueary, said he fears Elizabeth Johnson may have killed their son, despite the lack evidence. But a couple who had been in talks to adopt the baby are sticking by the Arizona mother, saying she hid Gabriel to protect him.
Tammi and Jack Smith told "Good Morning America" today that Johnson gave her baby to an unknown couple while on the run in San Antonio, Texas.
Johnson, 23, of Tempe, Ariz., disappeared before Christmas after McQueary refused to let her adopt out their son. She had lost custody of Gabriel after failing to appear at a Dec. 28 court hearing.
She was arrested Dec. 29 in Miami Beach for interfering with custody -- without Gabriel.
"What she is telling us is that she met a family, a Caucasian man and woman with no child -- young," Tammi Smith told "Good Morning America."
"And she met them in the park. And she was crying and distraught and they came up to her and said, 'How can we help you?'"
When pressed for details about the couple, Smith said Johnson didn't remember much despite having spent three days with them, just that the woman's first name was "Cheryl." Tammi Smith said Johnson told her she purposely tried not to focus on their car or last names so she wouldn't be tempted to change her mind and get her son back.
"She believed she was doing a closed adoption," Tammi Smith said.
In a jailhouse interview Tuesday with a Phoenix CBS affiliate, Johnson reiterated her claim that she had given Gabriel to a couple she met at a San Antonio Park.
"I made a hasty decision and I thought it was OK," she said. "They approached me. I was out alone with the baby at the park. I trusted them, I believe in my heart they are good people."
Johnson is scheduled to be extradited to Arizona this week.
Police have also questioned the Smiths and searched their home but found no clues to indicate where Gabriel might be.
Authorities have said witnesses last saw the child in San Antonio.
The FBI found Johnson's car in a San Antonio motel parking lot Tuesday night. According to ABC affiliate KNXV, investigators were combing the car for evidence but said there were no obvious signs of violence.
Father of Missing Baby Gabriel Fears Mother Killed Son
The Smiths have said she fled to keep the baby from McQueary.
McQueary, 25, said his fears for his son's life stem from a series of text messages he received from Johnson.
"She basically said, 'There is no way in hell you will see your son again,'" he said at a recent news conference. "She put in the text, 'I killed him."
Johnson has been interviewed at length by investigators but police said she refuses to tell them what happened to her child.
"She was confronted, arrested and interviewed exhaustively about the whereabouts of the child," Miami Beach Police Sgt. Wayne Jones said. "All we know at this point is Gabriel can be anywhere between San Antonio and Miami Beach."
McQueary said he last saw his son days before what would have been the baby's first Christmas.
"I gave him a kiss and put him in his bed and that was the last time I saw him," he said.
Tammi and Jack Smith said Johnson's story about the couple in the park sounds very similar to how they met her.
"We met in an airport. I saw her distraught and crying with a newborn baby," Tammi Smith said. "And that doesn't look like a mother that wants to be a mother."
Jack Smith admitted he thought the entire adoption process with Johnson "felt strange," but that they all lived nearby and they had bonded with the baby after keeping him for a couple of weeks in December.
McQueary has charged that the Smiths pressured him into giving up the rights to his child.
"When Gabriel disappeared they said, basically, 'You know, if you care about your son and you want him back, you will sign the paperwork and she will bring him back to us and you will know that he is safe,'" McQueary said.
The Smiths deny the accusation and said they were simply passing on that message from Johnson and that they told McQueary they knew such papers wouldn't hold up because he signed them under duress, though it might bring the baby back.
"The father and Jack and I were in constant contact when we found out Elizabeth fled with the baby," Tammi Smith said. "When we finally got to speak to Elizabeth, she was so angry with the whole situation and told me, 'I have one message to give to Logan.'"
That message, Smith said, was sign the papers and the baby will be brought back.
Anyone with information about Gabriel Johnson is asked to call the Tempe Police Department at 480-350-8311.