Abductors recount Lily Snyderís
First in a two-part series
"They told us dozens and dozens
of lies. One of the things they told us was that, ĎIf you resist, we
have the authority from the U.S. government to shoot you in the head.í"
ó STEPHEN T. SNYDER, Lily
"They were intense. They told
me to get on the floor and crawl, and they put the knife to the back of
ó ELI SNYDER, Lily Snyderís
"You canít go in, hold someone
at gunpoint and take someoneís child. But itís up to the Costa Rican
authorities to pursue that."
ó JIM THOMAS, Blaine County
"It was so incredible. She was
so happy to see me. We couldnít let go of each other. The comfort level
was just as before."
ó MARGOT THORNTON, Lily
"It was pretty clear that
somebody was going to have to come up here while he was in jail. Margot
was really struggling to get by. It was really clear that they needed
some help. In fact, Iím sorry I didnít come up sooner."
ó ELI SNYDER, Lily Snyderís
"On the day I was to report to
jail, May 5, I bailed and left the state."
ó STEPHEN T. SNYDER, Lily
For the last 10 months, Eli and
Stephen T. Snyder have been incarcerated at the Blaine County Jail. Late
in December, the father and son pled guilty to one charge each of child
custody interference, and they are scheduled to be sentenced in Fifth
District Court in Hailey next week. Their sentencing will cap a
three-year saga that began when the two men took Lily Snyder, Stephenís
daughter, from her mother who lived in Ketchum. The road that landed the
father and son in jail in Idaho is winding. This chapter of their story
started in California and meandered through Idaho, Mexico, Costa Rica,
Florida and, finally, in Idaho again. As they told it during an
interview at the Blaine County Jail in January, this is their story.
By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer
Lily June Snyder is a pretty,
fair-skinned, blonde little girl who became a world traveler at the
tender age of 4.
The circumstances of Lilyís
travels, however, were less than idyllic.
In June 2001, Lily was taken by
her father and half-brother from her mother, who lived in Ketchum. The
mother and daughter would not see each other again until April 2003ó22
months later. Following a bizarre and mysterious vigilante rescue in the
rain forests of Costa Rica in the spring of 2003, Lily was reunited with
her mother, who had moved to Oregon.
When she returned to the United
States, the little girl was proficient in Spanish and had traveled
farther than many Americans do in the course of a lifetime.
"Youíre given adversity. Itís your
choice how you handle it," said Lilyís mother, Margot Thornton, who
lives in Portland. "I learned what I could to make the best decisions.
Weíve been happy with our lives. Weíve also had this great adorable life
here in this adorable house. We knew we were making a space for Lily."
On a quiet morning near the resort
city of Playa Chiquita, Costa Rica, Eli and Lily Snyderóhalf brother and
sisterówere sleeping in a bed protected by mosquito netting on the
second floor of an open-walled house. The house had a metal roof, solar
panels to generate electricity and running water. There was a Montessori
School nearby, along with an organic farmerís market called Feria de
Gaia, and a number of resort lodges.
The Caribbean Ocean and its
numerous protected tidepools was a 15-minute walk from the house.
Lily Snyder plays with friends
at the Punta Mona Permaculture Center in Costa Rica. This photo,
taken by a traveler in January 2002, helped rescuers track the missing
girl to the Central American country. Photo by Heidi Haller
Stephen T. Snyder, Lilyís father,
was sleeping in a hammock on the homeís first floor. It was April 12,
2003, a calm morning and the start of another leisurely day of Costa
Rican small-town living.
Eli and Stephen didnít know it at
the time, but that morning was the last time they would see Lily, who
they described as a loving, compassionate little girl.
As he opened his eyes, Eli said he
saw two men in army jungle fatigues and black ski masks standing over
him. One of the men was holding a big, black bowie knife to Eliís
"They were intense," Eli said.
"They told me to get on the floor and crawl, and they put the knife to
the back of my neck."
The men in ski masks ordered Eli
to scramble down the stairs to the houseís first floor, where he was
bound with duct tape. His hands were secured together behind his back.
His legs were bound together. His eyes and mouth were sealed.
"Iím telling you, the taste of
duct tape, Iím never going to be able to handle that again," Eli said.
While Eli was being assaulted on
the second floor, Stephen awoke to the sound of a creaking floorboard.
As he emerged from his sleep, another fatigue-clad man wearing a ski
mask sprung at the hammock.
Stephen said he resisted at first.
"Then someone said, ĎPut your gun to his head,í though weíre not sure
anyone actually had a gun." Stephen said he stopped resisting at the
mention of firearms.
Hearing the sounds of Eliís tussle
upstairs, Stephen called out to his son and daughter: "Donít resist,
donít resist, donít resist."
"It was traumatic," Stephen, a
former U.S. Marine, recalled. "I get shaky just thinking about it."
In all, the Snyders believe four
men converged on the small Costa Rican home that morning. Two men bound
Eli and Stephen and watched over them during the course of the day,
about 14 hours in all. The other two men took Lily away.
"They told us dozens and dozens of
lies," Stephen said. "One of the things they told us was that, ĎIf you
resist, we have the authority from the U.S. government to shoot you in
During the course of their first
day of capture, Eli and Stephen said they were occasionally able to peek
beneath their tape masks to see the men who had assaulted them. One, who
they called Captain America, was the groupís leader. The other men
called him Scott. Another was called Bad Monkey. Another, a John
Travolta look-alike, went by Conan. Eli and Stephen called him John
Travolta Jr. The four men wore no patches or insignia.
"At first I thought they were
Colombian gangsters, a scary thought," Eli said. "They said, ĎThere is
no higher authority.í It turns out they were just killing time and
waiting until dark to get us out when the neighbors wouldnít see. Under
Costa Rican law, that was kidnapping."
Several days later, the Snyders
were flown to Miami, where they were arrested by FBI agents once they
were on U.S. soil. They were then extradited to Blaine County on a
felony kidnapping warrant.
Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney
Jim Thomas agreed that Lilyís recovery undoubtedly broke Costa Rican
"You canít go in, hold someone at
gunpoint and take someoneís child," Thomas said. "But itís up to the
Costa Rican authorities to pursue that."
However, Eli said that once Lily
was gone, the two-year ordeal was through.
"The thing is, once they took
Lily, it was over."
In the middle of the night on
April 12, 2003, Margot Thornton received a telephone call at her
Portland, Ore., home and was told to board a plane to San Jose, Costa
Rica, at 6 a.m. that morning. She complied and was reunited with her
daughter hours later.
"I heard people were going to try
to get her. I knew it was the right thing to do," the 35-year-old woman
said. "They werenít asking for money. I have to trust I can get what I
need. Thatís how I assessed people the whole way through. It felt okay."
Margot Thornton and her
daughter, Lily Snyder, were reunited after the girl had been missing for
two years. The details of Lilyís recovery by a vigilante rescue team
in Costa Rica are steeped in mystery. Courtesy photo
When she arrived in San Jose,
"someone picked me up, a local boy like a cab driver. He had no idea,"
she said. The boy dropped Thornton off at a house in the city and drove
Upon entering the building, she
saw her pint-sized curly blonde child asleep in bed. "It was so
incredible. She was so happy to see me. We couldnít let go of each
other. The comfort level was just as before."
Thornton said Lily told her that
Eli and Stephen had told the little girl they were better parents, and
that Thornton was a mean mother. Thornton also said she marvels at her
childís strength "There was no one to validate her feelings, but she
knew what to believe and what to focus on," she said.
Following her recovery from the
Snyders in Playa Chiquita, Lily was handed over to an escort team that
took the girl to San Jose to wait for her mother. The reunited pair were
later accompanied by some of the girlís rescuers on a flight to Los
"I donít know who they work for,
but they are a network of angels," Thornton said.
As for Lily, she is reportedly
adjusting well. Thornton said the girlís health was not as bad as was
In an interview last spring, Lily
told a reporter she was happy to be home and to give her mother a big
"Well I gave her one already when
she came to get me. It was night, and I was asleep, but I kissed her
anyway," she said.
A child custody dispute
Margot Thornton and Stephen Snyder
were married in 1996 in Eugene, Ore., and gave birth to Lily June Snyder
on June 24, 1997. By December of 1999, the couple split up, and Margot
moved to Ketchum with Lily in March 2000.
The immediate events leading to
the break-up began with a Dec. 12 argument over a glass of orange juice,
according to Stephen. During the argument at the coupleís Costa Mesa,
Calif., motor home, Stephen said his wife ran into the street yelling
obscenities and kicking the glass sliding door of the trailer the couple
was living in.
Stephen said he tried to restrain
her to pull her back into the motor home. Neighbors called the police,
and he was charged and pled guilty to spousal abuse, false imprisonment
and child endangerment.
He was released from the Orange
County Jail on his own recognizance on the condition that he return two
months later to fill his sentence. He would not return.
Meanwhile, he said he called Lily
"almost every day" and discovered that she "was going downhill pretty
"She wasnít getting the attention
and the love she was accustomed to getting from me," Stephen said.
So he moved to Ketchum, landed a
job, ironically, at the Steve Snyder Photographs-Gallery, and spent as
much time with his daughter as he could. He spent days with his
daughter, sometimes riding the local bus system for hours and watching
the world pass by. Margot would pick Lily up each night at 6 p.m. He was
living at the Bald Mountain Lodge in downtown Ketchum.
The father and daughterís bus
rides eventually aroused suspicion, however, and in March 2001 Ketchum
police arrested him for violating a restraining order that stemmed from
the California confrontation with his wife. Following a brief court
appearance in Blaine Countyís Magistrate Court, he boarded a plane and
returned to California, though he contested that he had ever breached
the restraining order.
Through subsequent telephone
conversations with his daughter in the weeks to come, he said he
believed she was continuing to go downhill and crave the attention he
had showered on her. "I was getting kind of frantic. I felt like I was
"On the day I was to report to
jail, May 5, I bailed and left the state," he said. He hopped on a
bicycle, pedaled to a nearby airport and flew to Washington.
With that decision, Stephen T.
Snyder became a fugitive from justice.
Eli Snyder, 30, is Stephen
Snyderís son and Lily Snyderís half brother. In 2000, he was enrolled in
the doctoral program in Physics at the University of Colorado.
During the spring of 2000, after
his father was forced to leave the Sun Valley area, Eli decided to put
off his potentially bright future and arranged to take six months off of
"It was pretty clear that somebody
was going to have to come up here while he was in jail," he said.
"Margot was really struggling to get by. It was really clear that they
needed some help. In fact, Iím sorry I didnít come up sooner."
Eli arrived near the beginning of
June and struck camp north of Hulen Meadows, where Thornton was living
with Lily. He, too, worked for the Steve Snyder Photographs Gallery in
Ketchum for a spell.
Eli said he developed a really
close relationship with Lily during his time in Ketchum. "It was really
good for me. We really both mutually benefited from that relationship,"
He eventually moved into Margotís
garage in Hulen Meadows and began taking vacations with Lily. They went
to Boulder to visit Eliís former roommate. They went to Oregon and
Vancouver to visit Stephen, who was working in Canada as a construction
"Every month, weíd go off for a
week or so," he said.
After several visits to Canada to
visit Stephen, Eli said he was prohibited to take Lily out of the
country any more. Additionally, in June of 2001, Margot was preparing to
move to Ketchum and told Eli he could no longer live as part of the
After the split, Eli said Lily had
"Being removed from that situation
was a real tough thing for me to take," Eli said.
According to Eli and Stephen,
several simultaneous events occurred that spring that prompted them to
take matters into their own hands: Lily was turning 4, an age Margot had
allegedly agreed to consider a custody exchange; Margot wanted more
money from Stephen, who said he had been sending $1,000 per month; and
Eli was being forced out of Margotís home.
For the Snyders, who were trying
to be a part of Lilyís life, the situation had become dire.
On April 27, 2001, Margot entered
a written contract with Eli to allow the siblings to visit family.
According to the contract, Lily was to be returned to her mother by June
28. On May 25, Eli took Lily to Oregon. It was the last time mother and
daughter would see each other for two years.
According to Thomas, Eli, Stephen
and Eliís half-brother, Forest, met at a Portland, Ore., cafť on June 24
and hatched a plan to try to get Thornton to transfer custody of Lily to
them. Two days later, Thornton refused and called The Advocates, who
called the Ketchum Police Department.
"But a law really hadnít been
broken," Thomas said. "The contract didnít require Lily to be returned
for two more days."
According to Thornton, Forest
called her sometime after June 26 and said that if she didnít transfer
custody, she would never see Lily again.
With that, at the tender age of 4,
Lily Snyderís adventure began, and the Snyders became wanted men.
Lilyís two-year adventure, her discovery by a random traveler and a peek
at the identities of her rescuers.