Virginia Snyder

Virginia Snyder and I had a long and complex relationship.

Virginia lived a long and fascinating life and I suspect she had a lot of long and complicated relationships.

She called ’em as she saw ’em—regardless of how the information might land, so in the spirit of Virginia, I thought I would share some unvarnished thoughts. I knew Virginia well enough to know that’s how she would have wanted it.

When I heard that she passed away March 20 at 96, I knew I would need a few days to process the news.

Virginia and I go back to my very first days in Delray—which is now 30 years ago.

She was a must see person if you were a reporter in Delray in the 80s and 90s and so like many other local journalists I beat a path to her door when I was assigned to cover the city in the summer of ’87.

Virginia and her husband Ross lived in the historic Cathcart House on South Swinton Avenue. It was built at the turn of the century and Virginia would correct you if you cited the nearby Sundy House– named after Delray’s first mayor– as the city’s oldest home.

She was feisty, but always friendly to me. Ross was handsome and quiet. She was very much in love with him and that devotion continued as Ross struggled with a disease that robbed him of his memory. She wrote and published poetry and many of them were about Ross.

When you visited Virginia, you would sit in her back office which served as the headquarters for her private investigation firm. The office was cramped and full of papers, files, news clippings and photographs. She was one of the first female private investigators in South Florida and before that an award winning investigative reporter, including a stint at the old Boca News, where later in my career I ended up as editor.

But in those days I was a newbie reporter—new to Florida, new to newspapers and working for the old Monday-Thursday Papers– still the finest community newspaper group I’ve ever seen. We had great editors, photographers and reporters and I tried my best to learn from them because Delray was a fire hose of news—and Virginia had a lot of story ideas, some good nuggets of information and a lot of pretty spectacular conspiracy theories too. I leaned on some of my more experienced colleagues to help me sift through it all.

She specialized in investigating death row cases and exonerating people who she thought were innocent—and several of them were –including a man accused of being the “Bird Road Rapist.” DNA evidence later exonerated the man convicted of the crimes, but he served 25 years in prison for something he didn’t do.  He was 67 years old when he was exonerated and freed from prison—with Virginia’s help in 2005. The case haunted Virginia and she talked about it often.

She was also deeply involved with a man named Omar Galvez—that name will ring a bell to some old timers out there. “Omar the Evil” as he was known by the national tabloid TV shows that visited Delray to “cover” him. Omar was a confidential informant for local law enforcement. Virginia thought he was a bad man (or worse) and that he was being protected by cops who prized his information on local drug dealers.

These were the days of murder, mayhem and crack cocaine in Delray Beach. The days when entire neighborhoods were open air drug markets, when the lights flashed on Atlantic Avenue because it was too dangerous to stop at night and when kids got in trouble for going to Doc’s because they were not allowed to cross Swinton.

East Atlantic wasn’t any great shakes either.

I was robbed of my wallet one night where Worthing Place now sits and one time, in broad daylight, when I was interviewing someone for a ‘man on the street’ story, someone grabbed me from behind and ripped my shirt sleeve clean off. We both stood there in shock. It was a clean rip—very impressive.

Virginia was in the midst of it all and her primary foil was then Police Chief Charles Kilgore, a man straight out of central casting if you were looking for a stereotypical Southern Chief from a bygone era.

Chief Kilgore was an intimidating figure. And a very cagey interview subject—especially if you asked him to respond to anything related to Virginia Snyder.

Virginia unearthed questions about his educational background and was a constant and persistent irritant to the chief.

Virginia went after the department on a variety of issues. She didn’t have much use for many of Kilgore’s officers or the upper ranks of the department, but she did have sources among the troops and acknowledged that there were good officers too. It was those good officers that she invoked when she urged the local press corps to dig into the department.

She was also upset that Omar was being used because she thought he was up to no good and was being protected.

I wrote about it—even visited Omar at his house once—probably not the smartest move since he had quite a reputation. But I was young and adventurous and Delray was an amazing place in those days. It still is, but in a much different way.

I wrote one story that so incensed Omar that he called the newsroom and we had some words over the phone. I didn’t give it a second thought, until I bumped into him a few weeks later at a store. I was with my very young daughter at the time and it was a tense moment. He had something in his eyes you don’t forget.

But Virginia was fearless. And they had confrontations—one that resulted in a scary scene that led to charges. Virginia never backed down from anything or anybody.

If she liked you, she was your best advocate. If she thought you were bad or dirty, watch out.

I was never fan of Chief Kilgore. But I respected and admired his immediate successors—Rick Lincoln who introduced community policing to Delray and Rick Overman who was the best manager I’ve ever seen up close and Larry Schroeder who was a good man who handled lots of difficult situations with dignity and professionalism. I became a very strong supporter of the Police Department and credit them with making Delray safe so that we could have progress and investment.

So Virginia and I had our struggles. Sometimes I didn’t buy what she was selling but for the most part we kept a good relationship.

She began to taper off ever so slightly by the time I ran for office in 2000. She later closed the PI agency, but remained involved around town and we kept in touch. Ross was ill and it took a toll on her.

When I was terming out in 2007, she decided to run for mayor. It’s funny—that running for mayor of Delray never even made the obits that I read about her in the local papers. It’s a testament to her life that it didn’t warrant a sentence. For some, that would have been the obituary.

Anyway, in 2007, I endorsed my colleague on the commission, Rita Ellis who ended up winning.

In recent years, I took Virginia to lunch a few times and we had many laughs and shared memories. To the end she was pitching theories and fighting for causes she believed in.

Recently, I lost a friend at age 38 to a blood clot after he broke his foot. It was a tragic and unexpected loss and took from the world an immensely talented educator who had already left a mark in Florida and New Orleans at a young age. On his Facebook page was a saying from the legendary cellist Pablo Casals who was asked at age 90 why he continued to practice; “Because I think I’m making progress,” he replied.

That was Virginia. Practicing, writing and fighting for her causes to the end. She would have had it no other way.

I won’t ever forget her. Neither will Delray Beach or anyone who knew her. She was an original.






  1. Bob Wieder says

    Nice story Jeff…..

  2. Joan Boyd says

    My Husband and I felt proud to call her our Friend and spent many a happy holiday season with her,
    She was unforgettable.

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