National Post

Page URL:

March 10, 2001

Stolen baby found 22 years later

Kidnapping charges laid: Infant stolen after young mother tricked into adoption

Sarah Kershaw
The New York Times
National Post

David L. Pokress, The Associated Press
Deborah and Anthony Russini, seen in 1981, spent years searching for their son. Authorities say the baby boy was abducted by a couple who had adopted the infant but then lost a legal battle to retain custody.

Suzanne Plunkett, The Associated Press
Anthony Russini says he cried when he was reunited with his long-lost son, Matthew Propp, last week.

NEW YORK - Twenty-two years ago, a woman gave birth to a boy in a Long Island hospital. Soon after, the delirious and exhausted mother signed what she thought were standard forms authorizing a circumcision. But what she really signed were adoption papers.

The mother, 19-year-old Deborah Gardner, had been tricked into signing them by her parents, who were ashamed she was having a baby out of wedlock, she later told a judge.

At three days old, the boy she called Anthony was placed with Barry and Judith Smiley, two municipal employees who lived in a middle-class Queens neighbourhood. They called him Matthew and prepared to finalize the adoption.

The story of what happened next is both a mystery and a tear-jerker that seems ready-made for an episode of Oprah. Ms. Gardner and the boy's father, Anthony J. Russini, took the Smileys to court and eventually won a court ruling ordering the return of their son. Rather than turn him over, the Smileys fled to New Mexico with the boy when he was 15 months old. They have lived there for two decades as fugitives, using the aliases Bennett and Mary Propp, authorities say.

The boy's paternal grandfather, desperate to find him, said he tried at one point to seek help from president Ronald Reagan. But moments before he could approach Mr. Reagan, the president was wounded by an assassin.

The woman who raised the boy used a stolen Social Security number belonging to the spokeswoman for the Queens district attorney, the very office that was hunting for her and her husband, authorities say. And the boy, who grew to adulthood under the name Matthew Propp, might never have learned the truth of his identity had he not applied for a job as a police officer.

On Thursday, Barry Smiley, 56, pleaded not guilty to a kidnapping charge in a Queens courtroom. He could be sentenced to 25 years in prison if convicted. After bail was set, Mr. Smiley was whisked away in handcuffs as the Russini family screamed at him, on the day the boy they had battled over turned 22.

The young man, Matthew Propp, declined an interview through his lawyer in New Mexico, Fred C. Martinez, who said Matthew had no idea until a few months ago the Propps (Smileys) were not his biological parents. Barry Smiley revealed the truth after Matthew Propp recently applied to become a police officer in Bernalillo County, not far from his home in Albuquerque, according to Mr. Smiley's defence lawyer and Mr. Martinez.

Mr. Smiley was concerned Matthew might unknowingly give false information about his identity on the application, which was sure to be thoroughly examined, Mr. Martinez said. So he told his adopted son the whole story, hired a lawyer and turned himself in.

But investigators cast doubt on this version of events, saying Mr. Smiley had no choice because New Mexico authorities had raised questions about his son's application and background.

Both the Queens district attorney and the FBI had outstanding warrants for the couple's arrest, because several months after the boy was born, his biological parents -- Gardner and Russini, who eventually married -- won custody in Queens Family Court.

But Mr. Smiley, a deputy director of personnel for New York City, and his wife, who worked for the city's Office of Labor Relations, were unwilling to give up the boy after caring for him for more than a year. So they gave up their civil service jobs, fled their home in Jamaica Estates, Queens, changed their names and settled in Albuquerque, where they lived modestly, raising their only son, and making and selling crafts.

Judith Smiley, 54, is expected to surrender soon, according to Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown.

Barry Smiley's defence lawyer, Eugene J. Sarchiapone, of the Legal Aid Society, said Mrs. Smiley recently underwent knee replacement surgery and was advised by her doctors not to travel for three months. Mr. Smiley declined to comment.

Judge Joseph A. Grosso of state Supreme Court in Queens, noting that he is an adoptive father, ordered Mr. Smiley held with bail set at $45,000.

After the arraignment, Anthony Russini, a plumber from Westbury, on Long Island, who met his grown son for the first time last week, said he had never given up searching. "Every day, every time I saw a kid with blond hair, I thought it was him," Mr. Russini said. "We never gave up. All these years, we kept looking."

The Russinis have since divorced and Mr. Russini's former wife, who has remarried and lives in Florida, could not be reached for comment. Mr. Russini said she did not want to speak publicly about the case.

Their odyssey began in 1979. About four months after the boy was born, Deborah Russini -- then Deborah Gardner -- decided to leave her parents' house. She wanted to rekindle her romance with Anthony Russini, whom she had dated for about two years before she became pregnant, and hoped to get the baby back. Soon after they sued the Smileys for custody, they married. Later, they had two more children.

After the Smileys fled, the Russinis spent years searching for their son, giving interviews to newspapers and broadcast stations, offering a $10,000 reward and posting signs that said, "Where is Baby Boy Russini?"

In 1981, Anthony Russini's father, Dick, was attending a plumbers' union convention in Washington, when he went to listen to Mr. Reagan make a speech at the Washington Hilton. He planned to approach the president with a packet of material about his missing grandson and dashed out of the ballroom to talk to him before he left the hotel. But before he could do so, he heard gunshots. John W. Hinckley Jr. had tried to assassinate the president.

Nothing came of the Russinis' search and the years passed.

Recently, Mr. Smiley, after telling his son about his true identity, hired a lawyer in New Mexico, who contacted the FBI and discovered there were federal and state warrants, according to Mr. Sarchiapone, Mr. Smiley's criminal defence lawyer in New York.

In another twist, Mr. Brown's spokeswoman, Mary de Bourbon, was informed by the IRS last year she was not entitled to her tax refund because, she was told, she and her husband, Bennett Propp, owed the government money.

That was when she discovered someone named Mary Propp was using her Social Security number, apparently having obtained it through city personnel records. The matter was under investigation when Mr. Smiley turned himself in. Mr. Sarchiapone said Mr. Smiley surrendered because "he wanted to set the record straight; he wanted a clean slate."

Authorities say Matthew Propp, who lives in the home where he grew up, does not want to press charges against the Smileys.

He has not yet met his biological mother, but he flew to New York last week to meet Mr. Russini. The tearful reunion took place in Mr. Brown's office.

"I was dumfounded," Mr. Russini said of the meeting. "I hugged him, and then I cried."

Copyright © 2001 National Post Online