Phillip S. Snider made up a story that his wife of 53 years died of natural causes during their trip to Graceland.

CANTON  Police, friends and relatives of 73-year-old Philip Snider initially wondered if he was suffering from dementia when explaining how his wife had died of natural causes on the way to visit the home of Elvis Presley.

But the Hartville man's story began to unravel as he changed it multiple times when investigators confronted him with evidence contradicting his statements.

Snider told police that his wife of 53 years, Roberta Snider, had fallen ill and died while in the parking lot of a Memphis hotel. He claimed paramedics had taken away her corpse in an ambulance. But he couldn't give other details or identifying markers of the vehicle.

Then he claimed Roberta had died between Columbus and Cincinnati and he continued to Graceland and dumped his wife's body into the Tennessee River.

Although video surveillance, witness statements and other evidence built a case for prosecutors, it was the Hartville Police Department's use of an undercover officer that sealed the investigation and culminated in Snider's guilty pleas Monday in Stark County Common Pleas Court to aggravated murder and other charges.

Judge Frank Forchione called it one of the most "ghastly" criminal cases he has ever seen.

Forchione sentenced Snider to life in prison with the chance for parole in 20 years. The judge, however, was emphatic it is the equivalent of a life sentence.

What prosecutors and police ultimately found was an elderly man who was mentally fit to stand trial. And a defendant who told the undercover officer he smashed Roberta Snider in the forehead with a hammer before stuffing blood-splattered pillows and other crime scene evidence in plastic containers and discarding them in trash bins.

The murder followed a fight between Philip Snider and his wife, the subject of which he never shared with investigators, according to prosecutors.

Bizarre case

As more details were released following Monday's plea and sentencing, the case became only more strange.

According to prosecutors, Snider told the undercover Hartville police officer that on the night of Jan. 2, following the fight with Roberta, she ended up sleeping on a love seat in their living room.

The husband awoke the next morning and went out for a cup of coffee at a fast-food restaurant before returning home and finding his wife still sleeping. The prosecutor's office said Snider told the undercover officer that he took a cloth, gently placed it over Roberta's head and struck her twice in the forehead with a two-pound stake hammer.

 

Snider told the undercover investigator he tied a plastic grocery bag over his wife's head and rolled her onto a plastic tarp before loading her body into his pickup truck.

Fred Scott and Dennis Barr, both assistant county prosecutors, had been preparing for Snider's trial to begin on Sept. 4 when the defendant decided to plead guilty to the aggravated murder count along with tampering with evidence and gross abuse of a corpse.

Physical evidence included the victim's blood on a piece of a shirt the husband had hidden in a container in the basement of the home he shared with Roberta. After police searched the condominium, a cadaver dog led investigators to the evidence, Scott said. Blood stains linked to the wife also were found on the love seat Philip Snider had taken with him when he moved to an apartment in Hartville, Scott said.

Trip to Tennessee

Snider initially had said his wife died in Memphis between Jan. 4 and Jan. 6, concocting the story about his wife's body being loaded into a random ambulance.

Authorities have been unable to locate the body.

Snider had faced a maximum term of life in prison with no chance for parole.

When given the opportunity to comment at Monday's hearing, Snider said in a flat voice that he had dumped his wife's body in the river. Nothing else was said.

As part of the plea agreement, he must show investigators where he dumped the body in the Tennessee River. If Snider doesn't, Forchione demanded that the defendant be brought back to court.

Scott said that authorities could request Snider be taken to the Tennessee River or he could pinpoint the spot with the use of satellite photos and other information. Snider said he disposed of the body near the Interstate 40 overpass, according to Scott.

Relatives of the victim supported the plea agreement, he said.

"They all realized he was going to die in prison anyway," Scott said, citing the defendant's age. "They wanted to see if they can get some kind of closure and some kind of idea where the body is or where the body could be."

Forchione noted that Snider hadn't expressed "an ounce of remorse" for killing his wife.

“The hottest places in hell are reserved for people like you,” the judge said.

Grieving family

At the hearing, several of the victim's relatives addressed the court, expressing a combination of anger, sadness and bewilderment.

Kenneth Snider told of the devastating impact of losing his mother. He said his father lied to him even after he begged for the truth.

"I don't hate my father," Snider said as his voice swelled with emotion. "I don't want vengeance or revenge."

A sense of closure is all he seeks, adding there are "no winners in this courtroom today."

Cynthia Heisler, Roberta's sister, focused her words on the defendant in a shaken, tearful voice.

"We do not hate you," she said. "There is no room for hate in our hearts. Our hearts are overflowing with sadness."

Family members cannot comprehend why Philip killed his wife, Heisler said. But "you will have many years to relive that fateful night that put these (events) in motion."

Wayne Graham, Snider's attorney, said his client entered the guilty pleas because "he did not want to traumatize the family further."

"This guy has been remorseful from the beginning," he said. "Sometimes you just can't undo a bad decision."

Background of the case

A sibling of Roberta Snider's had reported her missing to Hartville police on Jan. 9.

After talking with Philip Snider about the 700-mile trip he said he took with his wife to Memphis, both family and Hartville police started to have questions. Hartville police contacted authorities in Tennessee.

There was no record in any local hospitals, medical offices or police departments of Roberta's whereabouts. Video evidence showed that Roberta was not with Philip during his hotel stay on his trip, according to prosecutors.

The husband also told family members that his wife had been cremated but he left her ashes in Tennessee.

Scott said that Tennessee authorities had fruitlessly searched the river for Roberta's body.

Hartville officers continued to investigate, following up at a gas station in Wayne County off U.S. Route 30 in the Wooster area, where credit card records showed Snider had stopped en route to Tennessee. Security video showed Snider buying gas but his wife wasn't in the truck cab.

Aspects of his story changed after Snider tried to kill himself and ended up hospitalized, according to the prosecutor's office.

At Monday's hearing, prosecutors and the judge praised the work of the Hartville Police Department as the lead agency in the case. Along with Chief Larry Dordea and the undercover officer, Scott complimented Hartville Sgt. Robert Wittensoldner.

The unique form of undercover work took the investigation to a new level, Scott said.

The undercover officer and Snider began meeting regularly for coffee at fast-food restaurants. The female officer posed as someone caring for her dying mother, citing a strained relationship, prosecutors said.

"Eventually, the undercover officer confided in Snider that she wished her mother would die and even told him that she thought about killing her mother," the prosecutor's office said.

After a few weeks, Snider told the undercover investigator she could kill her mother without attracting suspicion.

Snider proposed marrying the investigator, so that when he died, she could collect his pension, prosecutors said. After the undercover officer asked him to be honest about his wife's death, Snider divulged the details involving the hammer and the disposing of evidence at locations between Hartville and Memphis.

"It was bizarre and strange and why in the world ... he thought people would buy this story, I don't know," Scott said.

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