Conspiracy, She Wrote

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"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.

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Michael Freedman