Conspiracy, She Wrote

On the evening of his retirement party, October 31, 1990, Delray Beach Police Chief Charles L. Kilgore pulled out a pistol, and without much forethought, took aim and pulled the trigger. The result: a direct hit on the forehead of 69-year-old Virginia Snyder. But the shot produced no blood, no wound, no real damage. Kilgore's toy gun squirted out a suction dart that landed squarely on a photograph of long-time Delray Beach resident Snyder, a woman who would appear to be an unlikely target for the ire of the gun-toting (a real bullet-shooting one) boss of a police force. She wasn't a sociopath, a molester, or a murderer. At the time she didn't even have an outstanding parking ticket. Still doesn't. "I haven't had any kind of ticket in probably forty years," she exclaims. "Gosh, I'm a safe driver."

More than seven years later, the cordial, gray-haired, 77-year-old Snyder seems equally harmless. She looks to be the kind of woman who might pass an afternoon sitting on one of the two green rocking chairs on the front porch of her cozy white house on Swinton Avenue, a glass of lemonade in her hand, watching the hibiscus grow. "It doesn't bother me at all," she says, laughing about Kilgore's shot at her. "I think subconsciously he'd like to shoot me, so that's as near as he could come to it."

For the past 21 years, Snyder has been a private investigator, making a name for herself among attorneys and other local detectives. She has worked on more than 100 murder cases, and helped to free six convicted felons from death row. During that time Snyder has also taken a number of potshots of her own at Kilgore, making it her personal mission to ferret out racism, corruption, and what she believes were cover-ups, conspiracy, and criminal activity within the Delray Beach Police Department.

"As I recall there was always a running feud there," explains Lorenzo Brooks, a 23-year veteran of the Delray Beach police force who filed racial discrimination charges with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in August of 1978, but later dropped the charge, "because Virginia Snyder was always looking out for the citizens in the community. She would take complaints with people, and she would investigate these complaints, and there were those at the time who did not like her conclusions. And of course Kilgore didn't like that."

The septuagenarian claims that police have said in reference to her: "Get that bitch Virginia Snyder," "Wring her neck," and "She's a menace."

"There is no doubt in my mind that there have been officers who have wanted me dead," she states matter-of-factly. "I have been warned, and I am cautious.

"You don't think I have reason to be convinced?" she asks.
Many of Snyder's claims against Kilgore's department came to a head in 1989, when she asked the Delray Beach City Commission to request that then-Gov. Bob Martinez appoint an independent investigator to examine her accusations of cover-ups and incompetent investigations. She also asked for an investigation into what she considered a conspiracy against her, alleging that the Delray Beach police planted a spy in her home office to obtain details of her investigations and to steal documents. Martinez appointed Janet Reno, then the State Attorney from Dade County (now U.S. Attorney General), but after months of reviewing the various charges, Reno found no evidence of criminal offense.

Snyder, however, remains convinced that the Delray Beach police were involved in an organized plot to destroy her investigator's business and run her out of town. So in what amounts to the final chapter of a 26-year struggle between two of Delray Beach's strongest wills, Snyder will take Kilgore (and the police department he once ran) to circuit civil court in West Palm Beach this summer in an effort to prove that the cops secretly recorded her conversations, wiretapped her phone line, and pilfered her documents. "They had been worried for years about who had been giving me information [about the police department]," she contends.

These accusations, of course, have not made her many friends among Delray Beach's finest. "You've heard the expression 'You can tell a man by his friends?'" she asks rhetorically. "My belief is you can tell a woman by her enemies. If you don't make enemies, you're not doing anything."

When Snyder tells the story of the alleged police conspiracy against her, it comes out in a torrent of names, ideas, and theories -- digression upon digression in a whirlwind history of the City of Delray Beach. And like most tales of legal woe, the undisputed facts are few. As laid out by Reno's report, published in 1991, they are as follows:

On May 22, 1989, a 22-year-old woman named Nancy Lynn Adams approached Snyder in the hope of learning the private-investigator ropes; Adams told Snyder she was willing to work as an unpaid intern. Snyder, who was friendly with the woman's father, former city attorney John Ross Adams, grudgingly obliged. "I would never have considered hiring her," Snyder now asserts. "I finally said, 'OK, I'll tell you what, honey -- I don't have time to take on another intern, but if you want to come in sometime, and if I have time, I'll show you how to do research.'"

Several days later Adams called Robert Musco at home, a sergeant with the Delray Beach Police Department. Although Musco had known the Adams family for years, he hadn't seen Nancy since she was a young girl. It seemed peculiar to him that she had his unlisted home phone number and had used it to call and invite herself to the police station. Stranger still was that Adams claimed to have a list of all of the Delray Beach officers' unpublished home phone numbers and addresses, and she told Musco that she could produce any information she wanted about the force. "All this stuff that's supposed to be in your personnel jacket at City Hall, this girl's spitting out," Musco said in testimony taken by Reno's office. "She knew what high school I went to."

Adams told Musco that the information came through Robert Sylvester, a former Delray Beach police officer involved at the time in a legal tussle with the department. Sylvester, she said, provided data about police officers to Virginia Snyder, Inc., a licensed private detective agency staffed by Virginia Snyder; her husband Ross Snyder, now age 76, who performs administrative tasks for the agency; and her nephew, private investigator K. Wayne Campbell, now age 36.

Musco reported this news to a superior in the department, while Adams began bringing him documents from Snyder's office. He promptly photocopied them and returned the originals to Adams. In all, the Delray Beach Police Department ended up with hundreds of pages of documents. Musco, who declined to comment for this article, claimed in testimony that he never asked for any of it.

"Virginia Snyder believes she [Adams] was used by the Delray Beach [police] department out of some vendetta to get her [Snyder] and that they had improper motives," notes Fred H. Gelston, the West Palm Beach civil defense attorney who represents Kilgore and three other police officers named in Snyder's civil suit: Musco, Allen W. Cole (now retired from the Delray Beach police force), and Richard Lincoln (a former Delray Beach cop who in 1996 was promoted to the second-in-command job at the Palm Beach County Sheriff's office). Like Musco, Kilgore and Lincoln refused comment for this story.

"Because of the hard feelings that went both ways in this case," Gelston adds, "Virginia Snyder has concluded that people in the police department were quote unquote 'out to get her.'"

It is, in fact, a rather suspicious chronology of events: On May 26, 1989 -- four days after Adams first approached Snyder -- at his weekly breakfast meeting with then-City Manager Walter Barry, Kilgore revealed that the police department had a mole in Snyder's office, according to Barry's testimony to the state attorney.

On July 14, 1989, the Delray Beach police equipped Adams with a hidden recording device and instructed her to enter Snyder's office. They later claimed it was part of a legal investigation because Snyder had allegedly told Adams to commit perjury in a criminal case.

That's nonsense, Snyder says now. "She [Adams] kept saying, 'I'll testify, I'll testify,'" Snyder recalls. "They have me on tape saying, 'You tell the truth when you testify.'"

On August 7, 1989, Snyder received a phone call from a woman at the Palm Beach County courthouse in West Palm Beach. Two manila envelopes with Snyder's business letterhead had been found there. Snyder rushed to the courthouse that afternoon to collect the documents. Snyder recognized Adams' handwriting on the envelopes, which contained a set of privileged notes taken from an interview Snyder had conducted with Norberto Pietri, a client who was accused, and later convicted, of murdering West Palm Beach Police Officer Brian Chappell. "I'm thinking," Snyder now recalls ponderously, "how did two documents from my office end up there?"

On August 18, 1989, Snyder called a press conference to inform the public of the recording device and the lost documents. That same day Kilgore promoted Sergeant Musco to lieutenant. "In my opinion that was Kilgore's m.o.," Snyder offers. "He promoted people that were good to him."

On August 30, 1989, the police admitted sending Adams in with a body bug, but denied telling her to take documents. "I was never instructed by any of my supervisors to do anything, ask for anything, to request any information," Musco later said in testimony. "I mean, she [Adams] was just producing, producing, producing, giving, giving, giving."

"Were you reading it when she gave it to you?" asked the assistant state attorney who was taking the deposition.

"Some of it I was, but it was such -- you know, it was such horse shit that I got sick of it," he replied. "You know, same stuff, you know, Kilgore's corrupt, uneducated, he failed high school."

In fact Snyder had been freely making such accusations since 1973, back when she still worked as a newspaper reporter at the Boca Raton News and made her first investigation into the Delray Beach Police Department. In March of that year a Delray Beach police officer shot and killed a sixteen-year-old Mexican-American boy named Bridigo Cabrera. Snyder's subsequent investigation of the boy's death would engender the first of a quarter-century's worth of encounters with the Delray Beach cops.

According to Snyder's report of the event, Cabrera held a part-time job at an auto-parts shop in northwest Delray Beach. On the evening of March 16, while waiting for a ride home from his boss, he sat on the hood of a Cadillac in a parking lot near the shop -- just outside a crowded shack suspected by police of housing a gambling and prostitution ring.

That night police raided the place, swarming in on it from every direction. Cabrera hopped off the car and sprinted down NW Fifth Avenue. A cop took off after him and chased him through the grassy corridors between houses in the residential neighborhood. As Cabrera turned the corner of one house facing NW Sixth Avenue, the police officer ran around from the other side. "As he ran around the corner, the police officer stumbled, and the gun went off," Snyder recounts. "That was the police version."

The police also claimed that Cabrera was the lookout for the gambling ring -- a charge the boy's father believed was a lie. At the urging of his son-in-law, who knew Snyder from the volunteer work she did at a neighborhood center in Boca Raton, the father approached Snyder for help. As a favor she went to the scene of the shooting and spoke with neighbors and possible witnesses. One little boy started grabbing at the bottom of her shirt. "I heard the shots," the boy said. "Bang! Bang!"

Snyder ignored him.
"I heard the shots," he said again. "Bang! Bang!"
The police reported that a single bullet entered and exited through Cabrera's lower arm and reentered his chest before lodging in his heart. That scenario was physically possible, Snyder concedes now, but, she adds, "It didn't make too much sense." With the child's account as a slim lead, Snyder kept digging. She questioned witnesses, reviewed police reports, and examined the bloodied site where Cabrera was slain. As a result of her intense investigation, she says, the Cabrera family sued the City of Delray Beach for wrongful death. The parties settled out of court, with the city paying the family $100,000. "It was the first serious investigation [I made of the police department]," Snyder recalls. "It didn't make me many friends, of course."

On the western border of Delray Beach, a sign beckons tourists to what it terms an "All-American City." Outwardly Delray Beach, a Palm Beach County coastal city of 52,000 residents, verges on being trendy. Upscale restaurants and jazz and blues clubs line East Atlantic Avenue, the main corridor of a recent redevelopment effort. Locals gather for pleasant lunchtime conversation on weekdays in the myriad diners and sandwich shops along that same road. In front of the police station -- an eleven-year-old modern structure with a red, barrel-tile roof -- palm trees sway gently in the winter breeze. Taken as a whole, Delray Beach hardly appears to be the kind of place that would harbor a redneck police chief and a bunch of good-ol'-boys pulling political strings. And if you ask most Delray Beach residents, it's not. At least not any more.

But back in 1979 when Charles Kilgore became chief of the Delray Beach Police Department, things were markedly different. Kilgore inherited a legacy of racism and intolerance from his predecessor, Chief Murray O. Cochran. In a blunt January 1979 editorial headline, the Miami Herald pronounced: "Cochran Should Resign Job Now."

"Rather than working to soothe the strained relations between his department and Delray's black community, Cochran has angrily issued press releases to denounce black community leaders and his highest-ranking black officer," the editorial stated. "Cochran has fanned the city's internal hatred and appeared proud for doing it."

Kilgore, a former truck driver who was born in Alabama and never graduated from high school, also encountered trouble with racial issues. In 1990, as part of a federal discrimination case, six black Delray Beach police officers sued the department, alleging that it promoted on the basis of race and tolerated racism within the ranks. (According to testimony in the case, Kilgore once said that an ax he kept in his closet was a reminder of a day when "they used to beat black people.") Snyder worked on the discrimination case with West Palm Beach attorney Cary Klein, who represented two of the six plaintiffs. In 1996 a federal court jury awarded the six plaintiffs $760,000, to be paid by the City of Delray Beach.

Complaints regarding discrimination within the force persisted throughout Kilgore's eleven-year tenure as chief. Less serious complaints, often leveled by Snyder, tainted the department's credibility. "She has questioned some things over the years that the average person might have heard about and not done anything about," explains Delray Beach City Commissioner David Randolph. "That's why I feel she and Charles Kilgore didn't like each other, because she stayed on Chief Kilgore's back."

For example, in 1984 Delray Beach City Manager James Pennington ordered Kilgore to stop accepting contributions for a "flower fund," a pot of money collected from police department staff that purportedly went to buy flowers in the event that an officer's family member died. The fund contained $8700. According to a published report in the Miami Herald, the money was used instead for lavish parties and gifts. A year later Pennington ordered Kilgore to stop selling vitamins to city employees out of the back of his truck -- no one, it seemed, ever dared to say "no" to the chief. And in 1989 City Manager Walter Barry told the chief to stop moonlighting as a rent collector for landlords.

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.

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.

For most Delray Beach residents well versed in the police department's storied past, the case will mark the end of an era. But not for Snyder, who will keep all of her unsolved inquiries open. "I was investigated by the police, and I am an upstanding citizen with no record, and they've tried to run me out of town," Snyder asserts, still angry after all these years. "I want to be vindicated.

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Michael Freedman