DELRAY BEACH — Virginia Artrip Snyder, a longtime private investigator renowned for her tireless efforts to help oppressed people and improve her community, died March 20 at her home in Delray Beach following a stroke. She was 96.
Mrs. Snyder was born on a farm near Winchester, Va., on Nov. 27, 1920, the oldest of six children. She grew up during the Great Depression and was timid and awkward, but had a strong social conscience.
Her first husband was a cattleman and in her early career, she wrote a column for the American Hereford Journal and worked in a cattle-breeding laboratory.
After graduating from Florida Atlantic University in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in government and politics, Mrs. Snyder worked as an investigative journalist with the Fort Lauderdale News and later, the Boca Raton News, where she won seven national, state and local awards.
In 1976, she became the first woman in Florida to own a private investigative agency, which was based in the historic Cathcart House, her home in Delray Beach. She gained prominence by investigating difficult and challenging cases, some involving people facing life in prison or the death penalty. As a result of her efforts, six men were freed from death row, and others who were sentenced to life in prison for crimes they did not commit were released.
Mrs. Snyder didn’t hesitate to confront the likes of the Ku Klux Klan, powerful Colombian drug lords, and corrupt police departments. She often worked pro bono for indigent people.
Seeking justice was a main motivating factor in her life, and she earned the respect of both friend and foe.
In one of her best-known cases, Mrs. Snyder’s work was credited with helping to free Luis Diaz, a Cuban fry cook wrongly imprisoned for the Bird Road rapes in Miami. She never lost faith in Diaz’s innocence during the 25 years he was behind bars.
Her sleuthing landed her on such television shows as 20/20, Inside Report, Late Night with David Letterman, Today and Unsolved Mysteries. She was also the inspiration for the TV series Murder, She Wrote.
As a community activist and volunteer, Mrs. Snyder spearheaded such efforts as the founding of the South County Neighborhood Center at Boca Raton, the nonprofit agency that grew into the Florence Fuller Child Development Centers and the Volen Center for older adults. She was also instrumental in the reform of the Palm Beach County women’s prison system.
After befriending George Morikami, a Japanese immigrant and farmer, she played a key role in securing land he owned for the site of the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens. She ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Delray Beach in 2007.
Mrs. Snyder received many accolades. Gov. Reubin Askew named her one of 14 “Outstanding Women of Florida” in 1975, and Gov. Lawton Chiles included her as one of “Florida’s Finest” in 1996. More recently, she received the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Greater Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce.
Her papers were donated to Florida Atlantic University in 2012. “It serves as a lasting reminder of the tremendous difference one person can make in the lives of others,” says Carol Hixson, dean of FAU’s University Libraries.
Sally Snyder, Mrs. Snyder’s stepdaughter, said she had strong opinions and didn’t pull punches. She was also a giving person “who would give you her right hand, if she could. She was there when you needed her.”
Mrs. Snyder had many interests. She was a published, award-winning poet and was passionate about history, archaeology and parapsychology. She was a past president of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Boca Raton.
Although she had no children of her own, Mrs. Snyder and her second husband, Ross Snyder, had an adopted son, Shoji Oue, who died in 1997.
Ross Snyder, now deceased, was central to her life.
“She was a strong woman and such a force. She’d walk into a room and everyone gravitated toward her,” said Nicole Campbell, her grand-niece. “But he was her mainstay.”
Apart from Nicole and Sally, Mrs. Snyder is survived by two brothers, Floyd “Mickey” Artrip and Cecil Artrip; stepdaughter Rheta Bernice “Bonnie” Culver; and numerous nieces, nephews and grand and great-grand-stepsons and daughters.
Mrs. Snyder also cherished what she called her “soul family,” longtime friends who live in the U.S. and abroad.
A celebration of her life was set for March 31 at the Old School Square Fieldhouse, Delray Beach. In lieu of flowers, donations should be made to Florida Atlantic University, the Morikami Museum, Florence Fuller Child Development Centers and the Volen Center.
— Obituary submitted by the family