Police launch landfill search for missing baby Gabriel

by Megan Boehnke - Feb. 9, 2010

San Antonio police began excavating a city landfill Tuesday in search of the body of missing baby Gabriel Johnson, all the while saying they remain hopeful the child is still alive.

Police haven't said whether there is new evidence suggesting the child is in the dump beyond text messages sent from the mother, Elizabeth Johnson, to the boy's father nearly seven weeks ago in which she claims claiming she had smothered him, stuffed him in a baby bag and left him in a dumpster.

Police are sifting through trash that came from a motel where Johnson was staying the last time the child was seen alive.

The likelihood of finding the body in the dump, experts say, is not good. That is especially true in a case where there's no confirmation that the child is dead, said forensic expert Paul Laska, who oversaw a landfill search for a child in Florida.

"Sometimes unfortunately, you end up having to do things because you have a public out there expecting you to," Laska said.

Gabriel's mother, Elizabeth Johnson, 23, recanted her original statements that she killed the boy but has since her arrest refused to speak with Tempe Police.

She is being held in a Maricopa County jail on kidnapping, child abuse and custodial interference charges. Any additional charges, Arizona authorities said, would have to come from San Antonio law enforcement, where the child was last seen alive.

Police would not say how they identified where the child might be, but only that one of many leads led them to the landfill.

San Antonio Police announced over the weekend that they are investigating the case as both a homicide and missing person's case. The homicide classification allows them to do the landfill search, said Sandy Gutierrez, a spokeswoman with San Antonio police.

The landfill operators will spend the next six days removing 45 feet of debris before reaching the trash from the motel. Police will then begin their search for any evidence using volunteers and cadaver dogs.

Such searches cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, take weeks to complete and are often fruitless. Once the landfill operators determine exactly where in the dump the trash of interest is, dozens of volunteers from the police and fire departments gather for weeks to sift through the debris. They use cadaver dogs and forensic anthropologists.

They follow dates on discarded newspapers to make sure they are looking in the right spot.

They become experts on the difference between turkey bones, chicken bones and steak bones. And often times, they never find the body.

The two most publicized landfill searches in the Valley both came up empty despite partial admissions from suspects and forensic evidence found in garbage cans.

The bodies of Tempe mother Cookie Jacobson, whose children told police they found her dead and stuffed her in a garbage can, and an Ahwatukee teen who was shot to death by a friend who said he also disposed of the body in a residential garbage can, were both never found.

The same thing happened to 10-year-old Florida girl Andrea Parsons who disappeared in July 1993, a case worked by Laska.

Police suspected convicted child molester Claude Davis, who told the Martin County Sheriff's Office he was collecting cans with the girl when she fell and hit her head. He said he panicked, throwing the body in a dumpster.

Police and landfill owners at the time tracked the trash from that dumpster to an area the size of a couple landfills and spent the entire month of December searching, said forensic expert Laska, who was, at the time, the head of the crime scene for the Martin County Sheriff.

Her body was never found and charges against Davis did not hold up.

Though police never believed his story that she died accidentally and he dumped her body, authorities had an "obligation" to search the landfill, Laska said.

Deputies used heavy machinery and cadaver dogs in the search, and though the stench was overwhelming, the dogs were able to ignore animal bones and pick up scents that led them to human hair clippings from barber shops and discarded feminine products.

If the child is in the dump and authorities have identified the right place, Laska said, he has confidence that cadaver dogs could pick up the scent. It's unclear whether San Antonio police are using cadaver dogs.

"Landfill people are our best source of information, because you're trying to take this big landfill to find this specific area," Lasks said.

Police in San Antonio worked with the phoenix-based owner of the landfill last month to identify exactly where to find the trash from the motel. The company immediately cordoned off that area and began re-directing dump trucks, said Peg Mulloy, a spokeswoman for Republic Services, Inc.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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