It's been over 13 years since 7-month-old baby Gabriel Johnson disappeared, but his family is no closer to getting an answer about what happened than they were in December 2009. Shortly before Christmas of that year, Elizabeth Johnson left Arizona with her infant son and drove to San Antonio, Texas; a few days later, she told Gabriel's father, Logan McQueary, that she had killed Gabriel and left his body in a dumpster. When authorities located her on December 30, 2009, Johnson retracted the confession and claimed that she had given Gabriel up for adoption to an anonymous couple she met in a San Antonio park. To this day, Gabriel has not been found, and his family remains in the dark about whether he was murdered or adopted.
Director Thomas Leader (Monster in the Shadows) set out to answer this question in his new Peacock documentary Where Is Baby Gabriel?, but with so many unknowns remaining, the three-part series declines to elevate one theory over the other. Instead, Leader leaves viewers with what he describes as "credible evidence" from both perspectives, as explained by the major players in the case. That includes Tammi Smith, to whom Johnson granted temporary guardianship of Gabriel — against McQueary's wishes — shortly before leaving Arizona. Johnson later claimed that Smith organized the San Antonio adoption in hopes of eventually regaining guardianship of Gabriel, an allegation Smith denies. (Smith was, however, convicted of custodial interference and forgery for attempting to wrangle custody away from McQueary.)
Smith doesn't come across as the most reliable narrator, but in a Q&A with Primetimer, Leader explains why he prioritized creating "an open, comforting environment" rather than approach her interview as an "interrogation." Leader also discusses the possibility that "Gabriel is out there" alive and his hope that Where Is Baby Gabriel? will be "a message of hope" for his family.
What drew you to this case? Were you familiar with the details of Gabriel Johnson's disappearance before the research process began?
Being from the U.K., I hadn't actually heard this story at all. I know in Texas and in Arizona in 2009–2010, as the trials were happening, it was a huge story. It was on Nancy Grace and covered nationally. But how I found out — just through research. My last documentary, which is featured on Peacock as well, is called Monster in the Shadows, and that's a missing persons story. I feel like I want to make documentaries that maybe can help — I know that might sound cliché. So finding this Gabriel Johnson story and then realizing, "Oh, okay, this isn't quite as straightforward as I thought it was," and then engaging with it that way, and hearing that actually there hasn't been this kind of thing ever made before — really, [I was interested in] how this documentary could help raise awareness and try and find some answers as to what happened to Gabriel.
At what point did you realize that this story is more complicated than it seems?
When you do the first bit of research, you read a paragraph and it seems straightforward, but as soon as you start talking to any family member — particularly Logan's Aunt Sandy, she was like, "I don't know how you're going to be able to do this. Because we've lived this since 2009, and even for us, it's hard to grasp, hard to fill the nuances and the details. How are you going to make our audience understand what's happened?" So, probably from my first conversation with a family member, I realized, "This is more complex than I initially thought it would be."
Where Is Baby Gabriel? boasts impressive access to many of the people involved in the case, including Tammi Smith and San Antonio detective Jesse Salame. Were any of these subjects hesitant to participate? If so, what changed their minds?
Jesse was probably the most hesitant because, from his perspective, this is still an ongoing investigation.
This was his first on-camera interview about the case, correct?
Correct. He's never given this level of detail before, so yes, this certainly was his first on-screen interview with anybody. It's the balance, isn't it, of getting that information out — maybe somebody could actually help — to actually then turning this into a piece which is for entertainment. And I think that was also his [concern]; you have to have that balance. And from my perspective as well, that's why I always have to go down to the ethical element. Am I making something that can make a difference? Am I showing the family that someone cares? But then, the access and the interview that he gave me was hugely enlightening and hugely important to giving balance to the whole documentary.
It's interesting that many of the family members have almost soured on his investigation. [Salame approached Gabriel's disappearance as if it were a murder investigation, rather than a missing persons case.]
Certainly, from the beginning — at one point in the documentary Logan says, "One day you can convince me that Gabriel's dead; the next day you can convince me he's alive." I think he's holding onto that hope as well. But also, I feel like that hope is not misplaced, either. It's credible. When I talked to someone before, we were talking about all these different theories and all of these rabbit holes you can go down, and you can have one person say something which is very credible, and then you can have somebody else say something that also seems really credible. And they both back it up with some evidence, as well.
So, I certainly know there was some conflict in the beginning with the family, where they felt as if it were being treated as a homicide investigation when they were wanting it to be treated as a missing person investigation. But hopefully there's been some healing. Hopefully by Jesse coming on and then Sandy, Logan reaching out to him, hopefully there's been some healing in that process to realize, maybe San Antonio's doing a bit more than they thought.
Tammi Smith is such an enigmatic figure in both this case and the documentary. What was your impression of her before filming? Did that change at all as you spent more time with her throughout production?
Tammi initially was very hesitant– she wasn't hesitant to interview. She wanted to interview; she wanted to get her side across. During her trial, there was a moment at the end where she had an opportunity to talk, and she was advised not to by legal counsel, so she didn't get to say what she wanted to say. So when I saw that, I thought, "Okay, what do you want to say there, Tammi?" And certainly through the process of her initially, when Gabriel went missing, talking to the media and then eventually that souring, I know there was a certain trepidation there [about] whether or not the same experience would happen. So for me, [the goal] was to create an open, comforting environment where you could actually just be free to talk. It wasn't some level of interrogation where she wouldn't feel comfortable to open up.
And initially, she was nervous because her experience hasn't been like that, or she hasn't felt it's like that. But she warmed up and she spoke candidly when I needed her to.
The doc features a few moments in which Tammi's testimony contradicts the evidence discovered during the investigation or statements made by Elizabeth Johnson and Logan McQueary. Did you press Tammi on these discrepancies beyond what made the final cut?
I think you have to. I'm trying to wrack my brain if I can think of a specific example, but we certainly had a conversation where– if things I felt like didn't line up... But also, this was a chance for her to say how she felt, how she saw that reality, as opposed to doing, "I have the prosecutors saying this, Tammi, but you're actually saying this" and trying to make those two things add up. It was more of an opportunity for her to speak.
At certain points, it seems that while Tammi is willing to say, "This is how I was feeling in the moment," she skirts around the specific allegations made throughout the documentary.
That's interesting for you to say. And this is why it's always great to talk to people. She seemed very open to me, the questions that I asked. But what you're saying is you don't feel like she actually gave a direct answer to the questions I was asking. Is that how you feel?
There were moments where, as a viewer, I felt as if she found a creative way to avoid answering.
Interesting. Yeah, whatever she said is basically what was there.
So there wasn't anything left on the cutting-room floor?
No. Naturally, you have to make those decisions as you're moving forward because it can't just be a four-hour interview with someone, but there is not– the pertinent things are all there.
Ultimately, Where Is Baby Gabriel? offers no concrete answers about Gabriel's disappearance, and unless there's a major break in the case, it seems unlikely that his family will ever know the truth. With that in mind, what do you hope viewers take away from this series?
First of all, I approach it from [the goal of] giving the family hope that someone cares and that they're willing to make this story and share this story as far and as wide as possible. I've talked to lots of people, and when they see it, they think, "Maybe some answers could come out of this." You go into it wanting that miracle.
The viewer takeaway– you're a viewer, as well, and you come at it with a particular perspective, and then somebody else will watch it and think it's something else. I feel like there's potentially credible information, credible evidence, that Gabriel is out there. And I would like that to be a message of hope, really, to say, maybe this can change what this family has gone through.
Gabriel's 14 now, and the pain and the suffering– the ripples go far and wide. You have a journalist who, because it happened around Christmas, hasn't taken a Christmas tree down until he's found. She's had that tree up, I think, this whole time. It affects so many people. And I just hope the process is cathartic for the family in some way, that they've been listened to and been heard, and will bring people together. But as an audience, an outpouring of love is a wonderful thing, as well.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Where Is Baby Gabriel? is now streaming on Peacock.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.