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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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Wednesday ó February 11, 2004


Three-year child
abduction odyssey
nears closure

Abductors recount Lily Snyderís recovery

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 Snyderís father

"They were intense. They told me to get on the floor and crawl, and they put the knife to the back of my neck."

ó ELI SNYDER, Lily Snyderís half brother

"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 Prosecuting Attorney

"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 Snyderís mother

"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 half brother

"On the day I was to report to jail, May 5, I bailed and left the state."

ó STEPHEN T. SNYDER, Lily Snyderís father

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.

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."


Lilyís recovery

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 throat.

"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 the head.í"

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 laws.

"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 off.

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 Angeles.

"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 feared.

In an interview last spring, Lily told a reporter she was happy to be home and to give her mother a big kiss.

"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 fast."

"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 being squeezed."

"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 his studies.

"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 said.

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 advisor.

"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 family.

After the split, Eli said Lily had trouble sleeping.

"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.

Friday: Lilyís two-year adventure, her discovery by a random traveler and a peek at the identities of her rescuers.


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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.