Baby Gabriel's mother denied house arrest, ordered to appear for next hearing

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By Alicia Barron By Alicia Barron

PHOENIX – The mother of the Tempe baby who has been missing for nearly two years will not be released to house arrest and must appear in court in a few weeks for her final competency hearing.

Elizabeth Johnson, who has rarely appeared in person in court for scheduled hearings, saw Judge Paul McMurdie, who made those rulings, face to face Thursday.

Johnson is facing charges of child abuse, kidnapping and conspiracy to commit custodial interference in connection with disappearance of her son, Gabriel, in 2009. He was just 8 months old at the time.

The case and subsequent investigation have been full of twists and turns with Johnson saying she killed the baby and then changing her story to say she gave him to a mysterious couple in San Antonio, Texas.

Johnson has been in jail since she was extradited back to Phoenix from Florida in January 2010.

The last time Gabriel was seen alive was in photos taken in a San Antonio hotel room shortly before that. Despite an extensive multi-state search and investigation, there has been no sign of Gabriel in the nearly two years since then.

On Thursday, McMurdie made it clear that Johnson must be present at her final competency hearing, which is slated for Sept. 16. He said there will be no more delays in the process.

There have been conflicting opinions on whether Johnson is competent to stand trial now or in the future. Initially Johnson was ruled incompetent to stand trial in June 2010. Then she was ruled competent in September 2010, but in May was ordered to undergo another psychological evaluation.

A final decision is expected at the September hearing.

McMurdie also denied the defense’s request to have Johnson transferred to house arrest, which means she will remain behind bars for the foreseeable future.

If she is found incompetent, Johnson could be ordered to a psychiatric facility rather than face a jury on those kidnapping, child-abuse and custodial interference charges.