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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.
All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited. 


Friday ó February 13, 2004

Features

For the love of a girl

Snyders say they acted
out of concern for Lily


"I felt like there would be something that would eventually happen, but I felt like I had a good enough plan that I could keep her away until she got big enough to fend for herself better, and in the end, thatís exactly what happened."

ó STEPHEN T. SNYDER, Lily Snyderís father


"Thatís when things really started rolling. Corey was real instrumental in giving us some other options we had not come up with at that point."

ó MIKE McNEIL, Ketchum Assistant Police Chief


"This guy was tight, man. He was good. He said his mission was to rescue children. He said this is what they do."

ó ELI SNYDER, Lily Snyderís half brother


"The thing thatís frustrating for me is that I really liked this Baz Bazzel. Under intense circumstances, youíre terrified, and your heart reaches out to this guy who has been beating you."

ó ELI SNYDER, Lily Snyderís half brother


"I think Lily was really sad for being forced to choose. She just wanted to be able to love everybody. Itís been really sad for Lily, and I donít think anyone wanted it to come to that."

ó MARGOT THORNTON, Lily Snyderís mom


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

Eli Snyder spends his evenings at the Blaine County jail scrawling with a pencil on pieces of ruled notebook paper. So far, he has finished 800 handwritten pages of a book he calls "Karma Lily."

The writing helps him pass the long, slow hours spent behind bars. Itís also a way for him to lend perspective to the events that landed him in jail with his father, Stephen T. Snyder.

In April 2003, Stephen and Eli were captured by a vigilante recovery team in Costa Rica, where the two men were hiding out with Stephenís daughter, Lily. In June 2001, Eli and his father failed to return the little girl to her mother, Margo Thornton, formerly of Ketchum, as agreed. After a brief stint in Mexico, Eli, Stephen and Lily spent the ensuing two years in Costa Rica.

The title of Eliís work-in-progress is not random. He said he believes everything works out for the best. He said he believes in karma.

"I believe it was the karma of everyone involved to have our destinies entangled in this way," he said. "Everything works out. I believe there was a reason this happened."

 

The journey

Stories from different sources conflict, but what is clear is that Stephen and Eli Snyder failed to return Lily to her mother in June 2001 and quickly made their way to Mexico en route to Costa Rica.

According to Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas, Stephen, Eli and Stephenís other son, Forest, met in a small town in Southern Oregon sometime after June 26, 2001. Forest, who later pled guilty to aiding and abetting child custody interference, left the little girl with his brother and father.

"íWeíll be in contact with you. Donít try to contact us,í" Stephen reportedly told Forest, according to Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas. Forest went to Radio Shack and obtained a disposable cellular telephone, which he used to maintain contact with his brother and father.

According to investigator interviews with Lily, the trio spent some time in Canada before making their way to Mexico in Stephenís van. Conversely, according to Stephen and Eli, they quickly headed south from Oregon in Stephenís pickup truck.

Lily, the men guessed, might have confused prior trips to Vancouver, British Columbia, in Eliís van with the journey to Mexico and Costa Rica.

For a while, two other people traveled with the Snyders, Thomas said. The timetable of their travels is difficult to pinpoint, however, "because they didnít leave much of a trace," Thomas said.

Eli and Stephen were similarly vague about where they were in Mexico, and when.

During their travels, Forest wired money via Western Union three times: twice to Mexico and one time to Costa Rica. According to Thomas, Forest also sold a van belonging to his family in order to send money.

Following the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001, Thomas said Eli and Stephen severed contact with Forest for fear that increased national security might uncover their whereabouts.

After traveling in Mexico for about a month, the trio made their way to Cancun, where Stephen said they sold his truck, bought plane tickets and flew to Costa Rica.

 

A life-altering decision

Eli and Stephen said they carefully weighed their various options before leaving for Costa Rica. They said they believed they were doing the right thing in taking Lily away from her mother, though Eli initially tried to talk his father into pursuing the matter in the courts.

Stephen said he had been devastated by Thorntonís refusal to grant custody. "I really agonized about what to do. Regardless of the personal sacrifice, I had to protect Lily and do whatís in her best interest," he said. "And so I didnít return her. I decided to keep her, and shortly after that, I decided to leave the country."

Stephen said he acted with the knowledge that there were potential repercussions, but he maintains that the act did not constitute kidnapping.

"I felt like there would be something that would eventually happen, but I felt like I had a good enough plan that I could keep her away until she got big enough to fend for herself better, and in the end, thatís exactly what happened."

Eli said his father, a parent with equal custodial rights, said over and over again: "This is not kidnapping. You can not kidnap your own child. This is not kidnapping."

"It was really important for Lily to stay with Pops at that point," Eli said. "I canít even speak to whether it was the right thing to do or not."

As for himself, Eli said he was considering staying in the U.S. Ultimately, it was Lily who talked him into going to Costa Rica.

"It was a hard decision. I agonized about it a lot and lost sleep about it," he said. "Lily looked me in the eye. She said, ĎNo, you have to come with us.í What was I supposed to do? I couldnít say no. She and I had been really, really close at that point. There was no way I was going to abandon her at that point, and so I made the decision to go ahead and go to Costa Rica."

With that decision, he joined his father as a wanted man.

 

Discovering Lily

In January 2002, a Southern California woman named Heidi Haller was traveling in Costa Rica during a seven months vacation. She stayed for about a month and a half at the Puta Mona Permaculture Center, a 30-acre sustainable living-oriented resort near Manzanilla.

While there, Haller became acquainted with three people she would not soon forget: a blonde little girl named Jessa; her father, Chris; and her grandfather, Pops.

In interviews with authorities, Haller said Jessa had been "such an engaging child." But she also said she had a feeling that something was amiss with the family she had met. Chris and Pops would not let people spend much time alone with the little girl.

Under the ruse at Puta Mona, Eli was Lilyís father, "Chris," and Stephen was her grandpa, "Pops." Lily went by "Jessa." It is something Thornton said was trying for Lily, though effective to avoid detection.

"Lily said to me, ĎWhat took you so long to get me?í I said, ĎYour dadís a good hider,í" Thornton said.

When she returned to California, Haller received a flyer advertising a car wash, and on the back was a photograph of a missing child: Lily Snyder. Immediately recognizing the missing girl as Jessa, Haller telephoned the FBI.

At that point, the agency, which had received close to 200 leads, was temporarily caught with its pants down. Hallerís photograph of Lily was placed in a file, and the agent who filed it took another job.

"From September 2002 to March 2003, this pictureís sitting in a file somewhere during the transition between FBI officers," Thomas said.

Brad Michaels, the Twin Falls-based FBI agent who took over on the case, eventually found the photo and sent a copy to Thornton, who said she was 99.9 percent sure it was Lily.

The other thing that happened that winter was the hiring of Corey Lyman as the chief of the Ketchum Police Department. Lyman, who had headed the Elisabeth Smart investigation in Salt Lake City, came to Ketchum in February 2003 with a wealth of resources, said Ketchum Assistant Police Chief Mike McNeil.

"Thatís when things really started rolling," McNeil said. "Corey was real instrumental in giving us some other options we had not come up with at that point."

By April 2003, Ketchum police and the Blaine County Prosecutorís Office were coordinating with the FBI and DEA to pinpoint and recover Lily, but another group, a private team that remains steeped in shadowy mystery, beat them to the punch.

"We were in the process of putting things together, and the next thing we know, this team that Margot was in contact with orchestrated this snatching, for the lack of a better word, of Eli and Stephen," McNeil said. "Next thing we know, Lilyís back in the country."

 

Held captive in Costa Rica

As the day of their capture wore on, Stephen and Eli Snyderóbound, gagged and blindfolded with duct tapeóoccasionally talked with two of the men who assaulted them hours before. At one point, they watched as the men ate a bag of fresh produce the Snyders had bought.

One of the men, who the Snyders called Captain America, made a big impression on the captives. As the groupís leader, the handsome man of moderate stature who wore his long hair in a ponytail did most of the talking. Using an Internet photograph, they identified the man as Bazzel Baz, a former U.S. Marine and CIA officer.

"This guy was tight, man. He was good," Eli said. "He said his mission was to rescue children. He said this is what they do."

According to a biography posted at tvtome.com, Baz has worked as an actor, producer, technical advisor and writer on a number of military-oriented movies and television programs. According to a Web site advertising his "Terrorism Survival Handbook," he also works as a recovery agent for the American Association For Lost-Stolen Children.

However, no indication of such an organization can easily be uncovered.

"He served in the U.S. Marine Corps with his final tour of duty as a counter-terrorism officer before being recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency," according to his book Web site at terrorismsurvivalhandbook.com. "Baz subsequently served for numerous years, supporting the CIA in field intelligence collection operations throughout the Far East, Middle East, Northern Europe, Central and South America, the Mediterranean and Africa. As paramilitary case officer, Baz developed and recommended policy, operational doctrine, hostage rescue, methods and techniques for use in clandestine activities.

"In addition to his qualifications with the CIA, Marine Corps and work in the entertainment industry, Baz is qualified as a Secret Service firearms instructor, Recovery Agent for the American Association for Lost-Stolen Children and was the recipient of the Nation's Intelligence Commendation Medal."

According to Eli, he was an amiable guy.

"The thing thatís frustrating for me is that I really liked this Baz Bazzel. Under intense circumstances, youíre terrified, and your heart reaches out to this guy who has been beating you.

"We seemed to develop kind of a rapport with him. The last thing he said to Pops before we left was, ĎI want you guys to fight this.í He said he would watch over Lily and make sure she was okay, and Iím damn well going to hold him to that."

Eli said Bazís work recovering missing children is admirable, but added that he believes the man was misinformed on his mission to Costa Rica.

"In my mind, from his perspective, heís a genuine hero. What he does most of the time is a great thing. I just happened to be on the receiving end. They had the best intentions for doing so, the best of intentions, but they took Lily from two people who love her, and who she loves.

 

Days before extradition

As night fell on April 11, 2003, Eli and Stephen Snyder were walked by their captors behind a bustling hotel and stuffed into the back of a station wagon, where they were forced to bend beneath the level of the carís windows.

They were taken to a hotel called Cabinas Tesoro in Playa Cocles. There, on the hotelís first floor, the Snyders were placed in a room with barred windows. The roomís sole door locked from the outside.

Their bonds were temporarily removed, and they were each fed a candy bar and some water. They were given quick showers. They were then rebound with their hands in front of them. Their hands and feet were tied together and lashed to the foot of a bed with nylon cord. They were told a boy with a shotgun was guarding the entrance to the room. That is how they would sleep that night.

"I had a miserable night that night," Stephen said. "It was no fun for me." Eli recounted a night full of nightmares.

In the morning, they were given another candy bar, more water and taken to the restroom. Baz was there, apparently having slept in a nearby room, and told the Snyders he was leaving to rendezvous with the FBI and American officials to arrange transferring custody of the alleged criminals. At approximately 8:30 a.m. April 12, Baz left, and said he would return in an hour.

Stephen and Eli quickly chewed through their bonds.

After ripping a screen off the hotel window and reaching his hands through to attempt bending the bars, Stephen said he heard a voice: "If I ever see a finger come out that window, Iím going to blow it off."

That afternoon, the weeklong process of being extradited to the U.S. began to transpire. Costa Rican police picked the Snyders up from the hotel.

"I canít tell you how grateful I was to be picked up by someone official, someone who wore a badge," Stephen said.

They were taken to a little jail in Koita, where they were fed chicken, rice and beans.

"We were all happy and smiling, and they were looking at us like, ĎWhatís the matter with you guys,í" Eli said.

They were kept there for about two hours before being driven in the back of a pickup truck to Limon, where they were interviewed by an immigration official. They were then taken in a Ford Explorer to San Jose, Costa Ricaís capitol, where they were left in a lobby with their single suitcase. One man, a clerk, occasionally checked to see if they were still there.

"He paid us very little attention at all," Stephen said. They said they considered walking out and going to the U.S. Embassy, but decided their fastest route back into the U.S. legal system was to stay the course they had been set on.

Throughout the ordeal that day, the Costa Rican authorities were extremely courteous.

"We canít emphasize enough how nice they were," Eli said.

 

For the love of a girl

There is a consistent thread throughout the story of Eli, Stephen and Lily Snyder and Margot Thornton. All parties involved said they acted out of love for the blond-haired, blue-eyed little girl.

"Lily has the biggest heart of anybody Iíve ever known," Stephen said, choking back tears. "I have no desire to take Lily away again. Sheís stronger, older, more self-reliant and independent."

Eli, too, said he looks forward to the day he can see his sister again, though courts have so far refused to grant him visitation.

"I really miss Lily. I know she really misses me. I hope that someday we can put it together so that we can see her again."

Thornton said that, with the trials behind them and with help from counselors, Lily is gradually settling into everyday life.

"Sheís doing normal things that seem to make her happy," Thornton said. "Sheís learning to read and write with normal children her age. Sheís well.

"I think Lily was really sad for being forced to choose. She just wanted to be able to love everybody. It'í been really sad for Lily, and I don't think anyone wanted it to come to that."

When she returned to live with her mother, Thornton said she taught Lily the story of the tortoise and the hare. "Slow and steady wins the race," she said she taught her daughter.

"I just hope we can start putting Lily first," she said.

 


Clarifications:

Eli and Stephen Snyder were captured the morning of April 11. Margot Thornton received a telephone call in the middle of the night and was reunited with her daughter, Lily Snyder, on April 12. Forest Snyder and Eli Snyder are brothers. Lily Snyder and Eli Snyder are half brother and sister. Thornton lives in Eugene, Ore.


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