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Matthew Propp, 22, sat next to his biological father, Anthony Russini, 41, in State Supreme Court in Kew Gardens Monday while the man whom he always knew to be his father posted $25,000 bail and was released from police custody.
Barry Smiley, 56, pleaded not guilty last Thursday to charges that he had fled from Jamaica Estates in 1980 with 15-month-old Matthew to avoid complying with a family court judges order to turn the baby over to his natural parents.
I am 100 percent behind my parents, Propp said of the Smileys at a news conference Monday, but I am also supportive of the Russinis.
The clean cut, articulate young man flew into Newark Airport Sunday from Albuquerque, N.M., where he lives with his family, to support Smiley at a court session Monday. State Supreme Court Judge Joseph Grosso permitted Smiley to leave Queens Monday and return to his home in Albuquerque.
Smiley, whose adoption of Matthew with his wife Judith was never finalized, was arraigned last Thursday on charges of kidnapping in the second degree on Propps 22nd birthday. The Smileys face a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison if convicted.
Propp was reunited with Russini, who lives in Westbury, L.I., earlier this month at Queens District Attorney Richard Browns office after his natural father and his relatives spent two decades searching for his lost son. The Russini family hired private detectives, psychics and bounty hunters to find the child.
Russini said the reunion was very emotional and there was not a dry eye in the room. Propp met his grandfather, Richard, his aunt and uncle Richard Jr. and Patti Hannon, and his siblings, Christopher and Jenn.
Propps biological mother, who lives in Miami, did not take part. Russini said she does not want to be in the spotlight during the legal proceedings.
The Smileys decided to tell Propp about his background after he turned 21 and was training to become a police officer.
In their New York days, they held high-level positions in the city administration, but in Albuquerque they worked as jewelers and made crafts to provide for Propp.
Their attorney said the Smileys were both in poor health. Barry Smiley spent the previous weekend in an infirmary on Rikers Island, because he suffers from diabetes and other health problems, his lawyers said.
Propp, born Anthony Joseph A.J. Russini on March 8, 1979, was removed from Syosset Hospital on Long Island by his maternal grandfather when he was three days old and placed with the Smileys, Brown said.
The grandfather allegedly made arrangements for the babys adoption, convincing his unwed 19-year-old daughter, Debbie Gardner, to sign adoption papers, Brown said.
Gardner sought to rescind her consent [of the adoption] on the grounds that it was not knowingly or willingly given, Brown said.
Russini said he did not know about his childs birth until after the baby was placed with the Smileys.
I asked her, What happened? and she said, They made me give him up for adoption, Russini recalled in a meeting with reporters at the DAs office last Thursday.
Russini and Gardner, who married in 1980 but later divorced, fought for custody of their son in Queens Family Court, which ruled in their favor in 1980, ordering the baby to be returned to its biological parents.
The Russinis went to the Smileys residence in Jamaica Estates to retrieve the 15-month-old child, only to find the house empty, Russini said.
The Smileys had left town, abandoned their jobs for the city and assumed the names Bennett and Mary Propp, raising the child as Matthew Propp in Albuquerque, the DAs office and lawyers for the Smileys said.
The Smileys also used false Social Security numbers, the DAs office said. In a strange twist, Judith Smiley, a.k.a. Mary Propp, used the Social Security number of Mary de Bourbon, a spokeswoman for the Queens district attorney who used to work for the Manhattan DA, de Bourbon said.
While Russini and Gardner had two more children together, there was a missing place in the family circle. Russini said they bought and saved birthday and Christmas presents for the son they called A.J.
Throughout his childhood, Propp was unaware that the Smileys were not his birth parents, their family lawyer, Fred Martinez, said. A few months ago, around the time when Propp decided to apply to become a police officer, Martinez said the Smileys asked him to check if they had any criminal warrants in New York.
Martinez contacted Federal Bureau of Investigation and told the Smileys of the warrant out for their arrest. Then the Smileys revealed the truth to Matthew and Barry Smiley decided to fly to New York and surrender to the Queens DAs office.
The FBI got in touch with the Queens district attorneys office, which in turn notified Russini, who was overjoyed to hear that his son had finally been located.
I was stunned, Russini said. I almost fell out of my chair.
Judith Smiley, who recently had knee surgery and suffers from severe arthritis, remained at her home in Albuquerque. Brown said he expects her to surrender shortly.
Further criminal court proceedings in the case against Barry Smiley have been tentatively scheduled for April 25.
Family court proceedings involving a 20-year-old warrant ordering that Matthew be returned to his biological parents began Friday in Jamaica and were slated to resume in April.
Reach reporter Betsy Scheinbart by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300 Ext. 138.
©2001 Community Newspaper Group
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