Peter and Vicky Snyder were just finishing up breakfast the day before Thanksgiving 1989 when Mrs. Snyder went upstairs to get their 9-month-old daughter, Alyson, ready to go with them to run errands.
"The next thing, I heard screaming," Mr. Snyder testified yesterday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, where he and his wife are standing trial on charges of killing their daughter by denying her food and fluids.
"I ran upstairs into Alyson's room. Vicky was backed against the wall, screaming and looking at the crib."
As he spoke, the face of the pudgy, 21-year-old sailor contorted with agony at the memory. The words came in short bursts, his voice choking with sobs.
"I looked down. I looked at Alyson. She was lying on her back. She wasn't breathing. I didn't know what to do. I grabbed her and ran downstairs."
For more than an hour, Mr. Snyder recounted Alyson's too-short life, her illnesses, the harrowing day they found her dead in her crib and the mad dash to the emergency room at the base hospital at Patuxent Naval Air Station in St. Mary's County. The family lived in base housing, which is why they face federal charges.
"When we got there, Vicky jumped out of the car," he recalled. "There was a guy there and she was begging him to help her 'cause her baby was dead. But he said, 'Oh, no, she'll be all right.' "
When they went into the emergency room, a nurse took the baby, and someone ushered the Snyders into another room, Mr. Snyder said.
"I kept telling Vicky that everything would be all right," he recalled. "I don't know how long it was until the doctor came in and said he was sorry, but there was nothing else he could do."
Later, the doctor asked them to identify Alyson's body, Mr. Snyder said. "I didn't understand why. We brought her in."
As he spoke, Mr. Snyder fiddled with a small, white book he and his wife had used to record the first time Alyson smiled, the first time she lifted her head, the first time she rolled over.
Mr. Snyder's testimony came near the end of the defense case. The jury is expected to begin deliberations today or Monday.
Prosecutors have presented autopsy reports that show that Alyson died of a severe electrolyte imbalance brought on by dehydration and have charged that the Snyders starved their daughter to death.
But defense experts challenged the autopsy, arguing that Dr. Frank Peretti, the assistant medical examiner, missed sure signs of meningitis.
Alyson had an extremely high fever when she died, noted Dr. Patricia Charache, head of microbiology at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, who reviewed the medical records. The fever, inflammation of the liver and clusters of cells in the spleen and tissue covering the brain all are consistent with a particularly virulent strain of meningitis, she said.
Moreover, Dr. Charache, testified, none of those signs are consistent with fluid deprivation, but dehydration can be caused by meningitis.
And while Dr. Peretti said he found no signs of infection in Alyson's body, Dr. Charache said the bacteria is difficult to detect and could have been killed while the body was refrigerated for a day before the autopsy.
Prosecutors also noted that Alyson's room was in disarray, clothes and toys tossed about and urine-soaked blankets in her crib.
But Mr. Snyder said he did that after Alyson died. He and Mrs. Snyder and their other daughter, Amanda, stayed with friends, who also lived in base housing, the night after Alyson died, and he went to their home to get clothing.
"I went upstairs," he said, flipping throughout the pages of the book. "I had to go back into Alyson's room. I guess I was hoping that if I went back in, she would be there, alive. I went in and started going through her stuff.
"I pulled down a box of clothes she had outgrown, and I started remembering how she looked in each outfit. There was a box of toys. I spread them around.
"I was trying to find something, anything, some way to bring her back."
The next day, he said, they went to a funeral home, then came back to pack to go to their home town of Cooperstown, Pa., to bury Alyson. Mrs. Snyder went to the laundry room to wash clothes they would need and began screaming again. Alyson's blankets, the ones she soiled when her diaper leaked, were in the wash.
"I took them back upstairs and threw them in Alyson's crib," he said.
He recalled that Dr. Peretti originally told him Alyson died from meningitis and that he, his wife and other daughter must take medication to avoid catching it.
And he appeared indignant when his lawyer asked him if he had murdered his daughter.
"No," he shouted, his voice cracking. "I loved my daughter. I would've never done anything to hurt her."