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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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Wednesday ó February 18, 2004


Snyder sentenced
to five years

Sentences conclude 3-year
child custody odyssey

Express Staff Writer

Stephen T. Snyder was sentenced Tuesday morning to five years in prison for taking his 4-year-old daughter to Costa Rica and keeping the little girl away from her mother for two years.

Being sentenced for the same crime, Eli Snyder, Stephen Snyderís son, was sentenced to 312 days in the Blaine County Jail and given credit for time he has already served. He was freed from the jail Tuesday and will undergo a two-year probation period.

Stephen T. Snyder was sentenced to five years in prison Tuesday following a harsh criticism from 5th District Judge James May. At one point during the proceeding, Stephen Snyder turned to his former wife, Margot Thornton, and apologized for the pain he had caused her when he took the coupleís daughter, Lily, to Costa Rica. "Iíd like to do whatever I can to get back into Lilyís life and support her with whatever love and financial support I can," he said. "My intention has always been to do whatís in her best interest." Express photo by Willy Cook

Each man was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine, and they are to split $7,000 in restitution costs. Stephen Snyderís prison sentence includes three years of fixed time and two that can be waived.

The sentences were issued by 5th District Judge James May on Tuesday, Feb. 17, in Hailey. Underlining his decision, May said he would have given Stephen Snyder five years of fixed prison time if it were allowed by the statute.

Sentencing in the case capped a nearly year-long court proceeding. It began when the Snyders were captured last spring in Costa Rica and flown to American authorities in Florida, where they were then extradited to Blaine County. The Snyders were captured in Costa Rica on April 11, 2003, by a vigilante child recovery group. The group returned Lily Snyder, Stephenís daughter, to her mother, Margot Thornton, and arranged to transfer custody of the men to authorities.

Late in December, each man pled guilty to one charge each of child custody interference, a felony. Plea agreements were struck just weeks before a scheduled trial.

The proceeding landed in 5th District Court in Hailey, because Lily Snyderís mother, Margot Thornton, was living in Ketchum at the time the little girl was not returned.

Tuesdayís hearing had several dramatic moments. Thornton took the stand to point out how painful it was to lose her daughter for two years.

"Itís really hard to wrap up everything thatís happened to me since three years ago," she said. "But itís pretty devastating losing a child for one year and 10 months. That emotional impact was hard to live with. It was sort of like having a death in the family, except there was no closure."

Eli Snyder was released from jail this week and received credit for time served for his admitted part in a child custody interference case involving his father and half sister. "I am truly sorry for everything thatís happened," he said. "I am looking forward to making a positive contribution upon my release and continuing with my life." Express photo by Willy Cook

In a statement to the court, Stephen Snyder said he has learned from being in jail and not seeing his daughter about the pain his former wife must have gone through. He began his statement by apologizing to Thornton.

"Lily has been my highest priority since she was born," he said. My intention has always been to do whatís in her best interest. The past eight months without Lily have been very hard. They have made me realize how Margot must have felt."

But at least Stephen knows where his daughter is and that she is being cared for, pointed out Blaine County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Justin Whatcott. That is not a courtesy he provided to Thornton.

"Mr. Snyder took the law into his own hands," Whatcott said. "He felt like he was the better parent to have her. His actions in this case are very serious, and they warrant punishment."

May agreed.

"Youíre making excuses," May said. "Today, youíre indicating remorse. Your actions speak much more loudly than your words at this point."

May said Stephen Snyderís actions were planned and premeditated "more so than in any case I have presided over."

In his sentencing, Eli Snyder was painted as a young man with a promising future whose allegiance to his father clouded his otherwise sound judgment. In 2001, when the Snyders left the country with Lily Snyder, Eli gave up his partially completed doctoral studies in physics at the University of Colorado.

"I think Eli Snyder is probably paying for his loyalty to his father," Whatcott said. "I think the main player here was Stephen Snyder. To his credit, he shows remorse for what he has done."

Eli Snyderís attorney, Keith Roark, said his client is a painfully honest man who acted out of concern for his little sister.

"From day one, this man has taken responsibility for what he did," Roark said. "But he was caught between a sister who he loved and a father who thought he knew what was best for the little girl. The abduction, if you choose to call it that, would have taken place whether he went along or not."

Prior to sentencing, Stephen Snyderís attorney, public defender Bob Pangburn, called Snyderís mother to the stand.

Virginia Snyder, who lives in Costa Mesa, Calif., said her son is "one of the most remarkable parents Iíve ever seen."

"Heís one of the wisest persons Iíve known in dealing with children," she said. "He became Lilyís father when he was able to appreciate, even in a greater way, the beauty of a child. He loved her, he loved her greater than himself."

Against Roarkís advice, Eli Snyder also testified on his fatherís behalf. He said Stephen Snyder "has always put Lily as his highest priority" and added that there is no indication that he ever placed Lily in danger.

Just last week, an Oregon court finalized the details of Stephen Snyder and Thorntonís divorce. As part of that proceeding, the Snyders were not granted any rights to visit Lily Snyder, though Stephen Snyder said he is excited that he has been permitted to write letters to the little girl as long as the letters are screened.

Thornton said her daughter is doing well, but pointed out that getting used to everyday life in Oregon has been an adjustment. She also said she didnít see the problems of three years ago until it was too late.

"I think for Lily, I never tried to deny the Snyders access," she said. "I believe that a child needs both parents. I just thought he would take responsibility for the domestic violence," a California charge Stephen Snyder still must face when he completes his sentence in Idaho.

"I really didnít see coming what was coming," she said. "Thatís okay. Iím willing to take responsibility for it, and I feel like I have a better life for it.

"I feel really badly for Lily. They didnít have to kidnap Lily. We could have worked it out in court. Admit it or not, we all failed Lily because of our own inability to communicate clearly."


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