AP

MARCH 14, 13:05 EST


Families Devoted to 'Adopted' Son
By DONNA DE LA CRUZ
Associated Press Writer

AP/Shawn Baldwin
Matthew Propp talks with reporters outside the Supreme Court building in the Queens borough of New York on Monday, March 12.

NEW YORK (AP) — Barry and Judith Smiley left behind good city jobs and a beautiful home in New York to eke out an existence making and selling trinkets on New Mexico streets. They needed a low profile to keep the baby they had ``adopted'' — Matthew, as they called him — hidden from prying eyes.

Back home in New York, the boy's 19-year-old biological parents — Anthony Russini and Deborah Gardner — were searching in vain for their baby, Anthony Jr. or A.J., as they knew him. They hired private investigators and put the boy's face on milk cartons.

A continent apart, the two couples sacrificed nearly everything for the love of the little boy. The Smileys gave up their identities and comfortable lives to keep their son. Russini and Gardner spent their life savings, and paid an extraordinary emotional cost that led to their divorce.

Now, the child is a 22-year-old man called Matthew Propp, an adult torn between the couple who raised him and the couple who gave him life. One, the Smileys, face criminal charges including kidnapping; the other wonders whether a belated reunion will be a lasting one.

AP/Suzanne Plunkett
Barry Smiley, left, is escorted from Queens Family Court following his arraignment, Friday, March 9, in New York.

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Before Matthew came into their lives, the Smileys were a successful couple. He was deputy director of personnel for the city of New York; she worked in the labor relations department. Together, they earned about $65,000, pretty good by 1979 standards.

Unable to conceive, they turned to adoption and on March 11, 1979, they thought their prayers were answered: Their lawyer had found a three-day-old boy, the son of an unmarried teen.

``They were great parents,'' neighbor Richard Rada recalled of the Smileys' first months at home with the child. ``When he cried, they cried. When he laughed, they laughed.''

But Matthew's biological parents soon married and went to court to overturn an adoption that had been arranged largely by Gardner's father. They won the boy back after a judge deemed that Gardner had not properly given her consent and that Russini was never notified.

AP/Shawn Baldwin
Anthony Russini, left, the biological father of Matthew Propp, is supported by his brother Richard Russini, Jr., as they appear outside the courthouse in Queens, N.Y., on Monday, March 12. Propp was kidnapped by Barry Smiley 22 years ago.
June 6, 1980, was the day the couples' lives were turned upside down. When the Smileys failed to hand over the child as appointed, Russini and Gardner went with police to the couple's home.

It was empty. The Smileys had vanished, changing their names to Bennett and Mary Propp, stealing the identity and Social Security number of another city employee and crossing the country to New Mexico.

Another round of legal maneuvers began. The Smileys were indicted, in absentia, with kidnapping. Russini and Gardner started their search, posting fliers with a picture of their chubby-cheeked child throughout the city and Long Island.

``All these years we never gave up,'' Russini said. ``I looked for him every day. I would walk down the street or in the mall, looking for him.''

But as the worries and doubts continued to build, Russini's wages as a plumber were exhausted. In the mid-1980s, the couple divorced.

``I'm sure it had to have been a great strain, never knowing if their baby were dead or alive,'' said Fred Magovern, Russini's attorney.

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As Russini and Gardner continued searching, the Smileys settled into a lower middle-class neighborhood of stucco ranch houses in Albuquerque, making money clips, cuff links and jewelry to peddle at open-air markets.

They doted on Matthew.

``He was raised well. His parents were the nicest parents on the block,'' said D.J. Whitney, who lives next door.

Matthew Propp was feted on his bar mitzvah, given a car when he was 16. He grew into a polite young man, joined a volunteer fire department and applied for a job as a police officer

His world was in order — until last July, when Propp learned the truth and everything that defined his life came tumbling down.

The Smileys told him his real identity, something they said they had always promised themselves they would do. Propp understood.

``Judging by how I was brought up, they probably did what they thought was in my best interest,'' he said this week.

On March 8 — Propp's 22nd birthday — Barry Smiley surrendered to authorities in Queens. Judith Smiley, recovering from knee replacement surgery, will surrender when she's well enough to travel. If convicted, they face up to 25 years in prison.

A week earlier, Propp met his biological father for the first time in 20 years.

Russini, too overcome by the moment, could only mumble ``Hello'' at first. ``Pops,'' was all Propp could muster.

Propp met the rest of his large family from Long Island, including his younger brother and sister. Gardner, who now lives in the Miami area, has said she would like to meet her son once the publicity has died down, Magovern said.

Though Propp is committed to forming a relationship with his biological parents, he is solidly behind the couple who raised him.

``Propp is the name that everybody knows me by,'' he said. ``That's what I intend to go by.''

Copyright 2001 Associated Press.