Conspiracy, She Wrote

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

But after a quarter century, even those who have questioned Snyder's motives concede that she has been largely responsible for ushering in a new era for Delray Beach law enforcement -- one in which the department has modernized, become more professional, and examined the very real concerns of patronage, racism, and corruption. Richard Overman, Delray Beach police chief since 1991, has made notable improvements to the force, Snyder allows, including introducing community policing and the use of volunteers to help patrol. "That's good," she says, "but you still have the mentality of them against us, because you still have much of the same upper echelon that you had under Kilgore."

These days Snyder keeps in her extensive files a list of notes on Chief Overman, including selections from reviews made by superiors at his former job as a police officer and deputy chief in Orlando. And she and her husband still take verbal jabs at Richard Lincoln. "She's made I can't tell you how many accusations over the years," offers Capt. Ross Licata, the spokesperson for the Delray Beach Police Department. "I think the investigations speak for themselves."

One of Snyder's strongest past supporters, Mary McCarty, a former Delray Beach deputy mayor and current Palm Beach County commissioner, thinks some paranoia may lurk behind Snyder's continued insistence that corruption exists in Delray Beach's police department. McCarty suggests that, at least in the past, evidence supports the contention that Snyder was harassed by the cops. "They were doing some weird stuff," McCarty says. But those days are long gone, she adds, and when Snyder calls the commissioner now with theories about police corruption, she listens politely but takes no action. "We've done more for her than anyone in the world, and it still wasn't right," McCarty argues, "so maybe what's not right is her, or maybe what's not right is just not right, and you're going to have to live with it.

"Kilgore was her nemesis," she continues. "We got rid of Kilgore, and she's bitching about five or six others, and it's like, 'Give me a break, Virginia.'"

There is evidence -- but no proof -- that Snyder was the inspiration behind TV's Jessica Fletcher, of the Emmy Award-winning CBS TV show Murder, She Wrote, in which an aging writer, played by Angela Lansbury, solves murders in her spare time, relying upon her wits, observation, and deductive reasoning rather than muscle, car chases, and gunfire.

Investigation for Snyder means poring over thousands of pages of legally obtained public documents, newspaper clippings, sworn statements, and testimony that she keeps filed in her home office in the green-shuttered Cathcart House, the oldest inhabited residence in Delray Beach. The picturesque two-story home, built in 1902, withstood two 1926 hurricanes and the 1928 hurricane that destroyed 227 Delray Beach dwellings. It was also the site where a Jif Peanut Butter commercial was filmed. Much of the interior, where Virginia works with her nephew and husband, is a cozy hodgepodge of dark wood cabinets, plush armchairs, and wood floors that Ross restored himself.

Ross Snyder is a tall, white-haired man who wears overalls or a denim shirt with bright red suspenders, spending much of his time working in the yard tending to the hibiscus and a number of fruiting trees that he has planted over the years. (This is the second marriage for both Ross and Virginia. She has no children of her own. A son, adopted at age 28 from Japan, died this past September at age 51 of Lou Gehrig's disease.) "Sometimes I worry about her, because she's a bulldog," Ross says with a smile that implies tacit approval, if not outright admiration. He is carrying a couple of sweet, yellow star fruits that he picked from his garden. "I try to tone it down a little bit when I can, but she's not frightened by anything. She just figures when you're on the side of right, you should just do it no matter what people think."

With that philosophy in mind, Virginia Snyder will bring her contentions to court this summer, despite Reno's 1991 decision not to press criminal charges regarding Snyder's allegations. The report, for instance, found no evidence of a cover-up in the investigation of the Jimmie Shepherd murder, although it termed the investigation "incompetent." And after months of research and interviews, Reno found no evidence that the Delray Beach police conspired against Snyder.

For his part Chief Kilgore didn't wait around for the official vindication. The onslaught of criticism and the cumulative effect of eleven years of charges of racism and intolerance had already taken its toll. Kilgore retired seven months before his department was exonerated. In City Manager David Harden's final report on the chief, he cited Kilgore's reluctance to work with certain neighborhoods, his failure to come down on racism within the department, and his ongoing difficulties working with the public. That last comment noted one person in particular: Virginia Snyder.

With no intention of ever retiring, Snyder still awaits her chance to prove in court that the Delray Beach Police Department orchestrated a plot against her. In a 21-page response to Reno's 22-page report, Snyder lists several perceived inaccuracies and instances of questionable interpretation. The lawsuit that will go to court this summer requests damages in excess of $15,000. Snyder will take as much as she can get, she says, although a final settlement seems unlikely.

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