Firefighter struggles to regain his reputation Child-abuse charges are withdrawn, but he says 'scars' remain

June 30, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Larry Snyder anticipates there will always be the firehouse jokes, the sideways glances and the whispers behind his back.

It is to be expected, he says, when you're an Annapolis firefighter and you've been charged with child abuse.

"The allegation itself may fade, but the scars it leaves on me and my family probably never will. There will always be people out there who say, 'There's that child abuser,' " Snyder says.

Snyder, 35, was charged with child abuse, battery and a third-degree sex offense after a friend's 7-year-old daughter told police that he fondled her in a bedroom in his Glen Burnie townhouse in August.

The Anne Arundel County state's attorney dismissed the charges Tuesday -- the day he was to stand trial -- after deciding the prosecution's case was too weak.

The case has left Snyder relieved but angry -- relieved that the charges are finally behind him, but angry that the state has such awesome power that it could tarnish his reputation and put him through such an emotional, eight-month ordeal. "It's been a nightmare, a flat-out nightmare," Snyder says, sitting in his lawyer's office.

An Anne Arundel County grand jury indicted Snyder on Nov. 2. PTC Conviction could have put him behind bars for 20 years.

He turned himself in to the county police department's Northern District station, where he was fingerprinted, photographed and briefly locked in a holding cell before he was released on personal recognizance by a District Court commissioner.

Overnight, his life changed.

"You go from being a hero -- and the public thinks of firefighters as heroes -- to being a criminal. Overnight, a lifelong reputation was destroyed," he says.

Word that Snyder was going to be arrested leaked to him in the fall, well before his indictment, but it was still a shock when he arrived at work Nov. 3 and a friend pointed out an article reporting his indictment in a local newspaper.

"I read about it in a damned newspaper," he says, shaking his head with bitterness.

He has not heard any negative comments but knows they are out there.

Snyder says the experience has made his 10-year marriage stronger, taught him who his friends are and made him a lot more skeptical of what children say.

He would not discuss the effect of the charges on his relationships with his 6-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter, and he refused to be photographed for this article.

"A picture is worth a thousand words, and I don't want to go out on a [911] call and have someone say, 'You're that child abuser. I don't want you in my house,' " he says.

He also will avoid going into a room alone with a child when he responds to a call. "It's just made me a lot more careful," he says.

Snyder returned to work last week after eight months of paid leave -- which he says cost him $10,000 in lost overtime and shift-differential pay. He spent his time painting his house, working in his garden and taking courses at Anne Arundel Community College to upgrade his training as a paramedic and firefighter.

Assistant State's Attorney Nancy A. Harford has declined to say what persuaded her to drop the charges. But she said the case hung over Snyder for eight months only because the defense kept requesting postponements for the trial, originally scheduled March 5. "We were ready to go forward," Harford says.

But she says that after consulting with the child's mother last week, she learned a defense witness could have seriously attacked the credibility of the child's story.

She declined to elaborate except to say the dismissal was in the best interest of the child.

John H. Robinson III, Snyder's lawyer, says: "The fact is that Larry Snyder is innocent."

Robinson, a former prosecutor, notes that a grand jury indictment means only that the state's attorney persuaded a majority of a 23-member panel that the case should be prosecuted. It is far from proving guilt.

He says that there was no physical evidence to show the child was abused, that police never interviewed Snyder before charging him and that Snyder offered to take a polygraph test but the offer was declined. He says that the complaint was not made until a month after the alleged incident and that if the child had been assaulted, there was evidence pointing to someone else.

"A person can be chewed up by the criminal justice machinery, and there are people who should be chewed up, believe me. But Larry Snyder isn't one of them," Robinson says.

State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee insists his office is not out to chew up anyone.

He says that "less than 1 percent" of the child-abuse cases in the Anne Arundel Circuit Court are dismissed on the day of trial.

Weathersbee says there are mechanisms to prevent such dismissals: Cases are screened by a team of prosecutors, and witnesses usually are interviewed several times before trial.

But, he says, dismissals sometimes are necessary -- particularly when the case hinges primarily on the word of the accuser against that of the accused.

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