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Couple Goes on Trial in Kidnap Case

June 15, 2002

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) _ Barry and Judith Smiley say they saved their son Matthew from parents who couldn’t raise him. By the time the boy was a year old, he was sick with a heart condition, and they decided they couldn’t give him back.

``We were needed. This young woman needed help and this baby needed us,″ said Judith Smiley, accused of kidnapping Matthew 20 years ago. ``We feared for his life.″

The Smileys go on trial Monday in New York City on charges they fled the state with Matthew in 1980 to raise him in Albuquerque after a judge declared their adoption was invalid.

They changed their names to Ben and Mary Propp and raised Matthew without attracting authorities’ attention. They came forward last year after honoring an agreement they made years ago to help Matthew locate his birth parents when he turned 21.

Matthew Propp, now 23, said he worries a jury will take away the people he will always consider his parents.

``The fear is that I could lose everything,″ he said. ``My parents are basically my life.″

Barry and Judith Smiley could go to jail for up to 25 years if convicted of kidnapping Matthew in 1980. A Queens grand jury indicted them in 1982.

In 1980, Matthew Propp’s maternal grandparents arranged for his adoption and had Debbie Gardner, the biological mother, sign papers authorizing her son’s adoption. Propp was given to the Smileys when he was 3 days old.

The biological father, Anthony Russini, was not notified.

A judge voided the adoption in 1980 when Matthew was 15 months old, ruling that Gardner had not given her full consent.

By then, Judith Smiley said, Matthew had been diagnosed with a ``double heart murmur.″ The couple started looking at New Mexico, one of four states without uniform custody laws and reciprocal custody agreements.

They piled Matthew into a car and drove away, looking over their shoulders at every car that got on the highway behind them.

``We’d make sure we weren’t being followed,″ Barry Smiley said. ``We thought we’d get caught going through the tollways on the throughways of New York.″

As the years passed, their fears eased somewhat. Matthew Propp attended Albuquerque High School, went out for soccer, baseball, golf and wrestling. His medical problems didn’t bother him.

But the Smileys agreed long ago that they would tell Matthew when he was 21 that he was adopted and give him the opportunity to find his biological parents.

``We had our attorney here in New Mexico contact the legal authorities and proceeded from there,″ Barry Smiley said.

Matthew, who works as a security guard at an Albuquerque hospital, said he was shocked to learn of the circumstances of the adoption at first. Then, he decided, ``I wasn’t going to let it change my life.″

Matthew says he has met Russini, who lives in New York City’s suburbs, and Gardner, who last lived in Florida, and gets along fine with them.

But ``there’s no way to form a relationship while this case is over everybody’s head,″ he said. ``The hope is that we can find resolution between everybody and that my parents will be here at home.″

The Smileys could face 25 years in prison if convicted.

Barry Smiley said, ``We’re terrified of going to court, of going to prison.″

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