Murder charge in death of baby puzzles friends

September 30, 1990|By Joel McCord

For all of her too-short life, Alyson Snyder was a sickly child. Her parents, Peter and Vicki Snyder, both 20, had her back and forth to doctors repeatedly during the nine months that she lived.

Records from the hospital at Patuxent Naval Air Station in Lexington Park, where Mr. Snyder is stationed, show almost monthly visits and at least two hospitalizations, said Edward Smith Jr., Mrs. Snyder's lawyer, as he leafed through the records.

"Every time they came home -- at least it seemed like every time -- they took the baby to the doctor here," said the Rev. Jeff Bingman, their pastor at the Community Church of God in Cooperstown, Pa.

"My wife's a nurse, and Pete and Vicki were always asking her what she thought," he said. "Everybody knew the baby was sick. She was onprayer chains at our church and at the Methodist Church."

That's why folks in Cooperstown, a town of less than 500 people nestled in a valley in the Allegheny Mountains in Westmoreland County in the northwestern corner of the state, are stunned that the couple was charged two weeks ago with murdering Alyson by depriving her of fluids last November.

Alyson was dead when her parents took her to the naval hospital Nov. 22, the day before Thanksgiving. An autopsy showed that she died of dehydration and an acute electrolyte imbalance.

The Snyders, targets of a 10-month probe by the Naval Investigative Service, were arraigned last Monday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore and released on their own recognizance after pleading not guilty.

"That's just not the kids I know, not the ones I remember," said Robert Louis, assistant principal at Rocky Grove High School, where Mr. and Mrs. Snyder were students. "They were good kids from good families, and you never had any problems with child abuse."

"They're all good people," added the Rev. Joseph Martin, pastor of the Cooperstown Charge United Methodist Church. "Something's really wrong here."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Welsh said prosecutors "are aware of the child's medical history from birth to death and expect to present it at the trial," but he would not elaborate.

Mr. Smith, the lawyer, suggested Monday that Alyson's death could have been triggered by an allergic reaction to infant formula.

Dr. Jose Saavedra, a pediatrician at Johns Hopkins Hospital who specializes in problems of dehydration in children, said it is "possible, but highly improbable" that the electrolyte imbalance could have been caused by an allergic reaction.

Such imbalances occur when someone is deprived of fluids, which drives up the level of salts and minerals in the blood, he explained. They can take place within a matter of hours, days or weeks, depending on how the imbalance is caused.

It is difficult to determine how the imbalance was created without further details about the type of imbalance, he said. Prosecutors have refused to release the autopsy report, which could contain those details.

"Children," Dr. Saavedra said, "are in a very delicate balance all the time, and anything can disturb that balance. You need to be constantly renewing their sources of salts and fluids."

Mr. Snyder, a strapping 6-footer, son of a blue-collar employee of local small manufacturing firms, grew up on his family's farm just outside Cooperstown. His wife, the former Vicki Sanner, whose father was also a blue-collar employee, was raised in a relatively new subdivision inside the town limits.

The couple began dating in ninth grade, Mr. Louis recalled. "I think he might have been her first real boyfriend," he said.

Mr. Snyder was a vocational-technical school student with an outstanding attendance record and excellent grades. Vicki Sanner was in aprogram for gifted youngsters, but was an indifferent student with a spotty attendance record and mediocre grades.

"I thought she was bored," Mr. Louis said.

"Both of them were kind of lazy," said Maryann Porterfield, the attendance officer at Rocky Grove who lives in Cooperstown. "They were not very ambitious, either one of them."

"Their intention was to get married, and she didn't want to wait until she finished school," said Mr. Bingman.

Vicki became pregnant with the couple's first child, Amanda, and dropped out of school after her junior year. They were married just before Amanda was born.

By that time, Mr. Snyder, who graduated in 1986, was in Navy boot camp. He was transferred to Patuxent in November 1987, where he is a supply clerk. He also works part-time for Domino's Pizza.

Mrs. Snyder, who was to have delivered her third child last week, worked part-time as a waitress and later in a nursing home, Mr. Bingman said. Since Alyson's death, she has stayed in Cooperstown with Amanda, returning only occasionally to the housing area on the base known as Conrad Heights.

Mr. Snyder returned to duty after he used all his leave but spends nearly every weekend at Cooperstown.

Since the couple was charged in Alyson's death, the Maryland Department of Social Services decided to remove Amanda from the home, even though she showed no signs of abuse or neglect, according to Ella May Russell, director of Social Services in St. Mary's County.

Amanda now lives with her paternal grandparents in Cooperstown.

Mrs. Russell said that her department is "working in conjunction with the family services people on the base" to determine whether the new baby is at risk, but has not decided whether to seek custody.

"Whether we make a move depends on a determination of risk after the child is born," she said.

She said that the department has no record of reports of abuse or neglect of Amanda or Alyson.

With all the doctor's appointments and hospital visits, Mr. Bingman said, "If the baby was neglected, you would think somebody would have picked up on it."

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