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 after tearfully telling the judge she thought she deserved the maximum of 9 1/2 years.
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.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Joseph Kreamer also sentenced Johnson to four years of probation when she is released. She'll receive credit toward her prison sentence for the nearly three years that she has served in jail since her arrest.
Prior to sentencing, Johnson stood before the judge sobbing and apologized for what she did, but she maintained her story that she gave Gabriel away to a couple in Texas.
"I wanted to give Gabriel a life that was better than I had growing up," she said softly. "What I have done is unbelievable. There's not really anything I can say for myself.
"I would convict myself," Johnson added. "It's horrible. ... I do deserve the max."
Kreamer could have sentenced her to 9 1/2 years but said he took into account her troubled childhood and mental instability, agreeing with a psychologist who testified she needs treatment.
"Her chances to succeed are increased if she gets treatment, there's no doubt about it," the judge said while noting he had to give her prison time, given that Gabriel is still missing.
"We are three years downstream. We don't know where Gabriel is," he said.
Authorities said Johnson initially told the boy's father, Logan McQueary, that she killed Gabriel and dumped him in a trash bin, but she later recanted and told police she gave the infant to a couple at a San Antonio, Texas, park. She never provided the couple's names and refused to do so during Friday's hearing.
Prosecutor Angela Andrews offered to only seek probation if Johnson would tell them where Gabriel is, not just "vague statements, but his actual physical whereabouts."
After the hearing, Andrews said no one knows but Johnson if Gabriel, who would have turned 3 this past April, is still alive.
"She's the only person that has the answer," Andrews said. "We just wanted her to give it to us."
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 prison term.
"This isn't over for our family," McQueary said. "This is not going to be over until we know where Gabriel is."
Prosecutors say 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.
"What Elizabeth has done has not only robbed me but also my friends and family," Logan McQueary said in court by telephone. "I did not get to hear Gabe's first word. I did not get to see him walk or run. ... I do not get to see what a great man he would have been."
Johnson's attorney Marc Victor, who wanted 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 and was being manipulated by a woman who wanted to adopt Gabriel.
Johnson's grandfather, Bob Johnson, said after the hearing he hopes she gets the treatment she needs, but added that no one but his granddaughter knows what happened to Gabriel.
"Sometimes you have to think the worst," he said.
Sandy Peters, Logan McQueary's aunt, said the family was pleased with the sentence but nothing will bring closure until they find Gabriel.
"It's never been about how long she stays in prison," Peters said. "It's just about trying to find Gabriel."
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.