Longform

Conspiracy, She Wrote

Page 5 of 6

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.

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Michael Freedman