A Kidnap Victim Half Her Young Life, Denise Gravely Is Home at Last

UPDATED 04/26/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 04/26/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT

On Aug. 28, 1980, a warm day in Cleveland, Pat Wright was preparing lunch for her children, Elizabeth, then 7, Connie, 5, and Denise, 2. As the television flickered with The Beverly Hillbillies, Pat asked Connie to go outside and call Elizabeth. When Connie replied, "In a minute," baby Denise piped up and volunteered to go. "It tickled me to death," recalls Pat, 25. After a few minutes, when neither girl returned, she got worried. She went outside but saw only Elizabeth. "I looked up the street and the alley," Pat says, "but Denise was nowhere to be found."

For the next 19 months the tot's mother lived a nightmare. Soon after Denise's disappearance, Buddy Gravely, 33, the child's father and Pat's common-law husband, scraped together a $1,000 reward fund, which was duplicated by a local church. He also organized search parties to post pictures of the missing child, who had a distinctive wandering left eye. Among those recruited was Donald Gress, a friend of Buddy's whose family lived near Buffalo. But as the days lengthened without any sign of Denise, Pat reports, her husband became despondent. Two days before Christmas in 1980, their house was burglarized. Four days later Buddy went on a drinking spree. When Pat refused to let him in the house, he went to the garage to sleep in his car. The next morning he was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Unknown to Pat and Buddy, the case of their missing child might have been solved just seven days after she disappeared. When a Buffalo motorcycle gang member named David Paul Hildebrand was indicted in Columbus, Ohio on an illegal-weapons charge, authorities report, he offered to trade information about "some kidnapping" in exchange for leniency. The federal agent in charge asked him to elaborate. He refused. Alas, the vague lead was not pursued.

The case remained unsolved until Donald Gress, Buddy Gravely's friend, decided last month to return to upstate New York to see relatives. There his mother introduced him to her new husband, Ralph Schmidt—and a 4-year-old girl with a distinctive wandering eye whom she said they had adopted. Gress, 25, says he was shocked: It was Denise Gravely. "As soon as I saw her," says Gress, "I turned white as a sheet. This was Buddy's baby. I had to go to the authorities."

Armed with photographs he had obtained, Gress went to the Cleveland police, who then asked Pat if she recognized the little girl. "I told them I didn't think it was Denise," she says, "I knew it was Denise." The next day Pat, three Cleveland police and two FBI agents apppeared at the Schmidt home in Mayville, N.Y., 50 miles southwest of Buffalo. Mrs. Schmidt was arrested and charged with federal kidnapping, which carries a maximum life sentence, and child stealing, punishable by two to five years under an Ohio statute. Also charged was another of Helen Schmidt's sons, Charles Gress, 21. Motorcyclist Hildebrand, already behind bars on the weapons rap, was expected to be indicted on the kidnapping charge last week.

According to police, Mrs. Schmidt, who has four grown sons, apparently wanted a baby girl. Police say that for $100 apiece, she enlisted son Charles and Hildebrand to help her get one. On the day of the kidnapping the trio drove the 150 miles to Cleveland and roamed the streets for several hours. When they saw Denise come out of the house to get her sister for lunch, they grabbed her. She was given a new name in Buffalo: Susan Dawn Schmidt. Neighbors report she was seldom allowed to play with other children. Instead, she was restricted to the front porch of the Schmidt house and was sent upstairs when visitors came.

When Pat finally saw her daughter at the Schmidt house, she dropped to her knees and called the child by her nickname, Nee-Nee. "My name is Suzie," said Denise. "I'm going to tell my daddy you're calling me names." But during the ride back to Cleveland in a police car, Denise and her mother began to get reacquainted. "She was calling me Mommy before we got back," says Pat. Still, there are problems: When a television report showed Mrs. Schmidt being led away in handcuffs, Denise said, "That's my mommy from Mayville," and began to cry. Pat hasn't ruled out the need for a child psychologist—especially this June, when the child's "Mayville Mommy" and the two men are expected to stand trial in Cleveland for kidnapping.

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