MARCH 09, 22:58 EST

Man Surrenders on Kidnapping Charge
Associated Press Writer

Barry Smiley of Albuquerque, N.M., is seen on Thursday, March 8, in New York.
NEW YORK (AP) — Matthew Propp grew up believing that was his name, but when he applied for a job with the New Mexico prison system last summer, a search for his birth certificate began to unravel the truth.

He had been kidnapped as a baby two decades ago and raised by another couple.

The people he knew as parents — Bennett and Mary Propp — were actually artisans Barry and Judith Smiley, who say they ran off with him at 15 months when adopting him fell through.

So, on Thursday, as Propp — born Anthony Joseph Russini — turned 22, he watched the only father he's ever known surrender to New York authorities and plead innocent to a charge of kidnapping on a warrant issued in 1980.

Smiley's wife was recovering from knee replacement surgery in Albuquerque, N.M. Her court date has not been set yet, said Steven Brill, a court-appointed lawyer.

Barry Smiley remained in jail on $25,000 bail on Friday. If convicted, the Smileys each face up to 25 years in prison.

Meanwhile, Propp's biological father, Anthony Russini, who with his ex-wife Deborah Gardner spent tens of thousands of dollars on a fruitless search for their child, are still in shock.

AP/Matt Moyer
Anthony Russini, second from right, biological father of a male child kidnapped in 1980, speaks with reporters after the alleged kidnapper was arraigned in New York on Thursday, March 8.
In a reunion last week arranged by prosecutors, Russini greeted Propp with a simple, 'I love you.' Gardner, who now lives in the Miami area, declined to attend.

While Propp acknowledged his birth ties, he said he wouldn't trade his upbringing.

The Smileys are ``the people who have loved me, cared about me, have always taken care of me, have always made sure I had everything I wanted and needed,'' he said. ``I'm very happy with the way I grew up and I'm very happy with the people I grew up with.''

Propp also defended the actions of Barry Smiley, saying he does not consider Smiley's actions to be kidnapping in the strict sense of the word.

``The man I know as my father is in a ... county jail for something that legally may have put him there, but morally I don't think he should be there,'' he said.

Propp said the meeting with Russini and his side of the family went ``very well'' and he hopes to maintain a relationship with his biological father.

On Friday, the ``adoptive'' and biological fathers sat two feet apart and avoided eye contact during another court appearance in Queens. Each man stood and told the judge that he was Propp's father.

Hearing the alleged kidnapper say that was heartbreaking, Russini, a plumber from Long Island, said tearfully afterward. ``He's not his son; he's my son.''

But a former neighbor warmly recalled the adoptive family.

``They are good people. They were great parents to the baby,'' said Richard Rada, a neighbor 20 years ago. ``When the baby cried, they cried. When the baby laughed, they laughed.''

The Smileys say they left Queens on June 6, 1980, the day they were ordered by a judge to return the child to his biological parents. A judge earlier had voided the adoption, saying Gardner's father coerced her consent.

The Smileys settled in New Mexico and earned a living making handicrafts. Their attorneys say the couple had no malicious intentions.

``Put yourself in their shoes,'' lawyer Eugene Sarchiapone said. ``They've had the baby since he was 3 days old; and when he's 15 months old, all of a sudden a court says give up the baby. They just couldn't do that.''

Copyright 2001 Associated Press.