Famed Delray Beach private investigator Virginia Snyder was 69 and working on her 85th murder case when Burt Reynolds came to visit.
Reynolds, dashing and handsome, looked the part of the fictional TV private investigator he played on his B.L. Stryker show that day in 1989. Snyder, the real deal, definitely didn’t.
With her white hair and straw hat, she could have been any South Florida retiree, instead of the dogged investigator whose work led to the release of six men from death row as well as the freeing of others sentenced for crimes they did not commit.
After Reynolds shot an episode of his show in the front yard of Snyder’s 1902 Delray Beach house, Snyder bluntly gave the actor her review. She liked his show because “they didn’t have any shootouts or automatic rifles,” she said, adding, “I like brains over brawn.”
It might have been the motto for Snyder, who died March 20 at age 96.
A former investigative journalist for the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale and the former Boca News, she was fired for her civic involvement.
In 1976, she became Florida’s second female private investigator when she got her license at age 56, becoming a fierce advocate for underdogs and those she felt were wrongly accused.
Snyder was a hard-boiled sleuth wrapped in the plumage of a binoculars-carrying birdwatcher, her favorite disguise.
“Nobody questions a little old lady carrying binoculars,” she once told The Palm Beach Post.
Sometimes, she gained access to places by pretending to be a little old lady looking for a lost dog.
Her most famous case was her two-decade battle for Luis Diaz, a Miami man who served 26 years in prison after being convicted of being the “Bird Road Rapist,” who attacked at least 25 women in Coral Gables between 1977 and 1979.
Believing authorities had the wrong man, Snyder tracked down a man who said a gang of men committed the rapes. The Innocence Project analyzed DNA found at the scene, which finally freed Diaz at age 67.
In an online obituary at legacy.com, her stepdaughter, Sally Snyder of West Palm Beach, recalled her as tough and opinionated, but caring. “She was there when you needed her,” Sally Snyder said.
Her work could be risky and exhausting.
In the late 1980s, she was a constant thorn in the side of the Delray Beach Police Department, spurring a year-and-a-half long corruption investigation by then-State Attorney General Janet Reno, who cleared the department of any wrongdoing.
Snyder’s cases earned her international notoriety as well as mentions in 184 Post stories through the years. Journalists loved this real-life Jessica Fletcher, who made Delray Beach into a tropical version of “Murder, She Wrote’s” Cabot Cove.
She appeared on “20/20,” “Inside Report,” “Late Night with David Letterman”, the “Today” show and “Unsolved Mysteries”.
She sometimes worked cases with her husband, Ross, a retired schoolteacher; many of them without pay.
In 1996, Gov. Lawton Chiles called to tell her she had been recognized as one of “Florida’s Finest.”
“There are not many private investigators that spend most of their time working pro bono and doing things to help other people,” Chiles told her. “That really caught my attention.”
Snyder, who was born in Winchester, Va., loved her adopted city.
She helped George Morikami donate the 200 acres that became the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens when Palm Beach County was reluctant to accept his gift.
Snyder helped establish libraries at the Florida Institute for Girls in suburban West Palm Beach and the regional juvenile detention facility on 45th Street in West Palm Beach. She also helped found the South County Neighborhood Center in Boca Raton that became the Florence Fuller Day Care and the Mae Volen Senior Centers.
She was 86 when she ran for mayor in 2005, but lost.
In 2012, she donated her papers to her alma mater, Florida Atlantic University.
Virginia and Ross Snyder had an adopted son, Shoji Oue, who died in 1997.
Snyder is survived by two brothers, Floyd “Mickey” Artrip and Cecil Artrip; step-daughters Sally Snyder and Rheta Bernice Culver; and numerous nieces, nephews and grand and great-grand stepsons and daughters, as well as many longtime friends.
Source: Palm Beach Post