CLEVELAND – There was not much doubt in the minds of police in the Ohio village of Hartville, best known for its fertilizer farms, which Phil Snider killed his wife of 53 years.
But it took an undercover female officer who was playing her role so convincing that the 73-year-old man proposed marriage over many cups of fast-food coffee, and he revealed in gruesome detail how he had bludgeoned 70-year-old Roberta Snider to death and disposed of incriminating evidence.
Along the way, after his wife went missing in January, Snider spun different versions of what happened to her when questioned by the police about how Roberta has died, and what happened to her body in the course of what he initially said was a trip to Memphis to visit Elvis Presley’s Graceland.
The undercover agent secretly recorded all of their meetings, including their last meeting on April 20. Snider had offered marriage, and the promise that she would get his pension when he died. The officer said Snider would have to be honest about what happened to Roberta as if he wanted their relationship to continue.
“Scenario-wise, if you have hair in the head, what did you hit her with?” the officer is heard to ask Snider if they played cards at a McDonald’s.
“I can’t tell you that,” Snider said.
“We are not married,” Snider said.
They kept pressing Snider for the data that he provided, while making the most of the revelations with the words, “Just the scenario.”
Snider, in the recording by the police to the media, described how he carefully placed a shop towel over the face of his wife as she slept on a love seat in the couple’s condominium and used a 2-pound hammer to kill her with two blows to the head. He said that he had to her body wrapped in garbage bags and put it together with blood-flecked proof in plastic storage containers that he slipped into the bed of his pick-up truck.
Snider told the undercover agent that he threw the hammer, a lampshade and two cushions of the love seat in commercial garbage cans on the trip to Memphis.
Even now, what Snider has with his wife’s body is unclear. It is a detail Snider failed to tell his faux fiancée.
Snider agreed police to the place where he removed his wife’s body when he pleaded guilty Monday to aggravated murder, gross abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence, in the northeast of Ohio Stark County. Snider’s deal with prosecutors calls for a prison sentence of 20 years to life in prison.
Snider’s lawyer refused to be interviewed.
Hartville police was involved in Roberta Snider’s brother asked for help Jan. 9, two days after Snider told some family members that Roberta had fatally choked on mucus as they arrived in Memphis. Authorities say she was killed Jan. 3.
Snider initially told Hartville police the same story. He added that an ambulance responded to a hotel parking lot in Memphis, where he told the doctors that he took her body home to be cremated.
No records of such a call were found.
When the police, on Jan. 14, showed Snider surveillance photos of a hotel in Sparta, Kentucky, which no images of his wife, he changed his story and said that they died between Columbus and Cincinnati, and that he continued to Memphis with her body in the back of his truck, because he wanted to see Graceland one last time. He said that he threw her body in the Tennessee River from an interstate bridge on the way home. No body is found.
The police gathered more video, this time from an Ohio gas station where Snider filled on the road to Memphis, that only Snider in the cab of his truck. Before he could be questioned, Snider was found in the basement of his apartment with a plastic bag over his head in what was described by the authorities as a suicide attempt. He was taken to a hospital, where he remained for weeks.
The day after the suicide attempt, a cadaver dog hit on in a large plastic tub in the basement of the couple’s condo. Inside was a swatch of Roberta’s favorite “Hartville, Ohio” sweat shirt that appeared to be blood-stained. Tests later match with the blood stains to Roberta. Confronted in the hospital, Snider, provided a different version of the events. He said Roberta died at home and that he would her body in a trash can.
The undercover agent charmed her way into Snider’s life after his discharge from the hospital, told him that she was in town to care for her dying mother. Hartville police chief Larry Dordea told The Associated Press the officer did a “great job” after sending her on what he called a “fishing expedition” to befriend with Snider. Dordea would not provide any details about the officer.
Dordea said he interviewed Snider, more than a dozen times before Snider’s April 20 arrest, describing the retired carpenter as “smug.”
There are only seven full-time agents in Hartville, a farming community of about 3,000 people about 50 miles southeast of Cleveland that is known for its rich, black soil.
“We got to know each other well,” Dordea said. “He was one of those people who felt he was smarter than the people with whom he was talking. Perhaps he underestimated our law enforcement capacities here.”
Dordea believe Snider had thought about killing his wife for “a long time.” He said that although the couple were known to argue, the police had never been called to their house.
In the recorded conversation, Snider tells the undercover agent: “I didn’t snap. I was numb.”
“And fed up,” the official said.
“And fed up.”
The authorities are to Roberta Snider’s family and the Hartville community to find her body, Dordea said. He would not disclose the location Snider has delivered, but said Snider will be riding with him on the trip.
“Until we get there, we won’t know,” Dordea said. “Maybe there will be a number of enlightening conversations between here and there.”