Virginia Snyder, whose passion for social justice and knack for solving crimes led to a celebrated career as a private detective, has died. She was 96.
Snyder had worked as an investigative journalist for two local newspapers when she opened up a private detective agency in Delray Beach in 1976, becoming one of the state’s first female private detectives. She gained prominence investigating cold cases and cases of convicted or imprisoned inmates who she thought were innocent.
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From the Miami Herald archives on August, 11 2005: Wrong righted, sleuth can now rest easy at 84
By Elinor Brecher
Virginia Snyder, octogenarian sleuth, had been working the Bird Road Rapist case for almost 20 years before hanging up her gumshoes in 1998.
The previous year, Ross, her business partner and husband, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Shoji, their adopted son, died.
But Snyder couldn't let go. She was sure that Luis Diaz, diminutive Cuban fry cook, couldn't have done the crimes.
The payoff came last week.
Moments after a judge liberated Diaz, his son, Jose Diaz, first thanked God. Then, even before thanking the Innocence Project - which ruled out Diaz in two of seven rapes through DNA - he thanked Snyder.
"We love you, " he declared. "You're like our grandma."
Snyder, 84, beamed behind owlish glasses.
If the private-eye stereotype is a seedy guy in a rumpled trench coat, then Snyder, with her Buster Brown hairdo and sensible shoes, defies it utterly, which served her well.
Once, posing as a philanderer's battle-ax wife, she staked out the apartment of a secretary who was suspected by her boss of selling dope.
"About 11, a very nice young Boca Raton police officer came by . . . and said, 'Any problem, lady?' I put on what I call my 'righteous indignation' act: 'No problem for me, officer, but you wait till my husband comes out of there! I don't give a damn if I have to sit here all night; I'm gonna catch him!' I sat till about 3 a.m. and he never made me move."
Snyder threw back her head and guffawed.
"A man never could have gotten away with that!"
She was in her home office - home being the historic Cathcart House, built in 1902. The office is a 1970s-era time capsule, with dark paneling and an IBM Selectic typewriter.
Age and back injuries have slowed Snyder down, but she still talks like a tape recorder on fast forward, and her memory is as solid as a bank safe.
Stacks of oversize scrapbooks detail her exploits not just as a PI specializing in Death Row cases, but also as an investigative reporter and muckraker who bedeviled politicians, police chiefs, prosecutors and the powerful.
Barely known by contemporary South Florida investigators, Snyder was a celebrity before some were born.
"There's a lot of strange people in the PI business - rip-offs, BS artists - but Virginia delivered the goods, " said Miami defense attorney Ed Carhart, who used her agency in the 1970s and '80s.
In 1982, Ms. Magazine called her "Florida's own Miss Marple, " Agatha Christie's fictional spinster detective.
People magazine profiled her. The National Enquirer bestowed the snappy sobriquet "Gumshoe Grandma."
She appeared on Late Night with David Letterman, and on NBC's Today show.
Snyder, a published poet, has long claimed the latter led to the creation of Jessica Fletcher, the matronly mystery writer in Murder, She Wrote.
Producers had unsuccessfully pitched a series about her to both NBC and CBS two years before CBS unveiled Murder, She Wrote.
Snyder believes it was more than coincidence, but William Link, a Murder, She Wrote creator, says his team never heard of Snyder. The head of CBS programming had said, " 'I'd like to do a murder mystery with a woman . . .' I'm sorry to say there is no connection, " Link said.
Virginia Artrip grew up on a Winchester, Va., farm.
She got the first of several newspaper jobs in 1951, The Orlando Sentinel's Shopping with Jeanne column.
She married Ross Snyder in 1954, earned a degree from Florida Atlantic University in 1965, then spent five years at the old Fort Lauderdale News.
Before joining The Boca Raton News in 1970, she founded the South County Neighborhood Center through her Unitarian church.
Shoji Oue, from Japan, was one of three young foreigners whom the Peace Corps' Volunteers to America program placed with the center. The Snyders "fell in love with" Oue and later adopted him.
By 1971, Snyder was working for Davis "Buzz" Merritt at The Boca Raton News.
"She caught a school board member running a scam on the federal government, " said Merritt, retired executive editor of The Wichita Eagle and author of Knightfall: Knight Ridder and How the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism Is Putting Democracy at Risk. "He had . . . applied for and almost got a huge federal grant to build bridges."
But an editor who thought she was overly involved in civic affairs fired her in 1974.
Initially devastated, she realized "it was the best thing that ever happened because it made me reevaluate the rest of my life."
She opened her agency in 1976. Later, Ross and her nephew Wayne Campbell joined her.
Three years later, attorney Roy Black brought her into the Diaz case.
Snyder had "strong doubts" about Diaz's guilt from the start. She became certain of his innocence after she read seven victims' disparate descriptions of the rapist's height, weight, cars, hair, complexion and speech.
The women said the rapist spoke fluent English. Diaz still can only manage the basics.
"I was observing him, and when someone was speaking in English, he was perfectly blank, " Snyder recalled. "As soon as [the Spanish translator] would interpret, you'd see his face light up or darken, the appropriate reaction."
Snyder figured there were three rapists. Her break came after a fellow state prison inmate named Luis Nuñez told Diaz he knew he was innocent.
Snyder schmoozed Nuñez until he identified three of his street-gang friends.
"I gave all of this to [then-State Attorney] Janet Reno . . . and nothing was ever followed up, " she said.
Reno's office reviewed the case in 1991, upholding the conviction.
Reno said this week that at the time, Snyder could be "very difficult to deal with . . . She was not as objective as she could be in presenting her positions. If she'd been more objective, she'd have been more effective."
Reno said her office reviewed Snyder's letters, then asked Black "if there was anything we should follow up on."
Snyder then took her information to the TV show Unsolved Mysteries, which aired an episode about the case in 1992.
In its aftermath, two victims recanted to Snyder.
Given the new evidence, prosecutors vacated two of the convictions in 2001, making Diaz eligible for parole. He didn't get it.
Ultimately, the Innocence Project got involved and DNA won Diaz's freedom.
And Snyder checked off one item from her "things I want to live long enough to see" list.
Another is "positive proof that Christopher Marlowe wrote the works of Shakespeare."
"Of course I expect to see it!" she roared. "The older I get, the more optimistic I get . . . One of my great-grandmothers lived to 105, and I plan on following her record."