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Plea deal struck in adoption-kidnap case

By Matt Bean
Court TV

NEW YORK (Court TV) -- A couple charged with kidnapping another family's child 22 years ago and raising him as their own is jail bound after lawyers reached a plea agreement Tuesday.

Under the deal, Judith Smiley, 54, pleaded guilty to second-degree kidnapping and an additional charge of custodial interference. The kidnapping charge will be vacated at sentencing and she will spend six months in prison with five years' probation.

Her husband, Barry Smiley, 56, pleaded guilty to second-degree kidnapping in exchange for a prison sentence of between two and six years.

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The couple could have faced up to 25 years in prison if convicted.

"We saw this hurting Matt," Barry Smiley told reporters, referring to his "adoptive" son, Matthew Propp, now 23. "Our whole aim was to protect him."

Judith Smiley, who is wheelchair-bound, said, "I'm relieved that it's over. [Matt's] with us and that's the most important thing."

After their 1979 adoption was overturned, the Smileys quit their jobs, sold their home in Queens and moved to New Mexico in 1980 under assumed names. Propp, who discovered only last year that the Smileys were not his biological parents, have stood by them throughout their case.

"The last few months have been chaotic ... hellish, not knowing for a year and a half was what made it the worst," Propp said, standing with the Smileys after the deal was signed. "Now we don't have to wake up and wonder anymore."

As part of the bargain, the Smileys will reimburse Propp's biological family, the Russinis, for money they spent searching for their son in the early 1980s, up to $100,000. Just how much they will pay is still undetermined. The Smileys, who run a small jewelry-making business, have only about $20,000 in retirement funds, said their lawyer Steven Brill.

Propp's biological father, Anthony Russini, who had lunch with his son before the plea deal was inked, expressed his disappointment Tuesday afternoon. "It's not what I would have hoped for," he said. "Unfortunately I'll never have the relationship with my son that I would have had if I raised him."

Propp's biological mother, Deborah Gardner, who was not then married to Russini, gave him up for adoption when he was three days old. Russini didn't learn of the adoption for several months, and then fought to get the child back. By the time a judge had overturned the adoption, however, the Smileys had fled. Gardner and Russini later married but have since divorced.

Propp learned of his true parentage when he decided to apply to become a police officer in New Mexico. Whether that decision prompted Barry Smiley to tell Propp the truth about his heritage, or the police department uncovered a discrepancy in his paperwork, is unclear, but Smiley surrendered to police in March 2001.

The Smileys will be sentenced on July 30 and have until then to arrange their affairs. Propp, an emergency medical technician, plans to take over the mortgage on their Albuquerque home while they are in prison, according to his lawyer, Fred Martinez.

District Attorney Richard Brown said that he had no second thoughts about sending the Smileys to jail. "I think that this is a fair disposition of a very difficult case," he said, but added that Judith Smiley's knee and kidney problems led to a lighter sentence.

Brown, who spent 18 years as a judge in Queens, said he hadn't been certain of a conviction either. "It's virtually impossible for us to predict what a jury would have done with this case had it gone to trial."




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