Conspiracy, She Wrote

For years private detective Virginia Snyder has accused the Delray Beach police of corruption. Now she's taking them to court.

In 1989 Snyder provided evidence to the Boca Raton News that the Delray Beach police had "fixed" 400 traffic tickets. She still has a copy of a ticket that reads "Void for Chief." The Palm Beach County state attorney's office investigated the charge in May of that year, ultimately exonerating Kilgore's department four months later but citing the department's sloppy record-keeping.

Earlier that year Snyder had appeared on the short-lived Fox Network tabloid news-magazine program The Reporters to tell the story of how the Delray Beach police allegedly protected a known felon, Omar Galvez, from prosecution. "I thought the show was totally misleading and totally biased," then-Delray Beach police officer Richard Lincoln told the Delray Times, a weekly community newspaper, after the show aired. "The report is insulting to the members of this department. I think the reputation we have is unfair."

Galvez, who had been convicted in 1982 of using a sawed-off shotgun to try to force a fifteen-year-old boy into his car to have sex with him, served as a paid informant for several Florida law-enforcement agencies throughout the Eighties. He was also a suspect in the June 1982 murder of sixteen-year-old Delray Beach resident Jimmie Shepherd, a case that remains unsolved. When police officers found Shepherd's body decomposing in a mangrove thicket near Linton Bridge in Delray Beach, they observed marks on his wrists and noticed that his underpants were pulled down around his knees and that his pants were pulled up over his underpants. When Galvez was interviewed by the Delray Beach cops as a suspect in the case, he indicated that he worked as a paid informant of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Galvez denied killing Shepherd. Police found insufficient evidence to charge him or anyone else with the murder.

On The Reporters Snyder called it a cover-up. "No matter what happened," she said from her office, "no matter how many people made complaints, they [the Delray Beach police] covered up."

Two months after the broadcast, Nancy Adams appeared, as if from nowhere, at Snyder's door. Snyder believes a connection exists. In another four months she would discover that Adams had collected hundreds of pages of her documents. "I was just totally shocked," Snyder now says of the incident. "I couldn't believe it, I couldn't understand. Once I found out it was the police department doing it, it made sense. Well, it made a lot more sense."

If you ask around Delray Beach, the jury remains undecided about Virginia Snyder. Is she a "crazy old lady who's got a vendetta against the police," as Snyder herself jokingly puts it, or a crusader fighting for people's rights backed by solid evidence?

"The town was somewhat divided," notes Doak Campbell III, a Delray Beach attorney who served as the city's mayor in the late Eighties. "If you were on Charles Kilgore's side, you thought that Virginia Snyder was a quack. And if you were on Virginia Snyder's side, you thought Charles Kilgore was a misplaced, redneck police officer that was as backward as she said he was."

Originally from Winchester, Virginia, a small town in that state's northern Shenandoah valley, Snyder became a private detective in 1976, becoming only the second woman in the state to open a private investigator's agency. Prior to that she worked as a reporter for ten years, covering south Palm Beach County for the Boca Raton News and the now-defunct Fort Lauderdale News. In 1974 she won seven national, state, and local journalism awards, including one from the American Civil Liberties Union and two from the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. She was fired from the Boca Raton News that same year for, she contends, an alleged conflict of interest in her reporting. When she lost that job, she now explains, she decided she didn't want to spend the rest of her days writing recipe or knitting columns, the norm for an older woman reporter at the time. "I wanted to be in a field where my investigative experience could be used to help people," she says, "and I didn't want to retire."

Her husband Ross suggested she open a private investigator's agency. After a short stint as a paralegal at Florida Rural Legal Services in 1975, she followed his advice. Her lack of law-enforcement experience has been to her advantage, points out Gary McDaniel, a North Palm Beach PI who started in the business at the same time as Snyder. "Her investigative skills are exceptional," he attests. "Her community skills are her greatest asset. Her tactical and strategic skills are of benefit to death row clients."

One such client was Willie Simpson, who in 1976 was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1974 death of John Kennedy, a Delray Beach police officer; Simpson received the death penalty. Snyder believes he was framed. "There was no forensic evidence whatsoever to show that Willie Simpson committed the crime," Snyder notes. "None. Whatsoever. In fact I've been able to show he had a cast on his arm when the murder was committed."

After Simpson was sentenced to death, Snyder tracked down the two men who testified as eyewitnesses to the shooting. One of the men revealed to Snyder that he lied on the stand. At a second trial in 1983, the charge was downgraded to second-degree murder, and Simpson was removed from death row. It gave Delray Beach police yet one more reason to dislike the private investigator, who to their way of thinking always opposed them.

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