YORK, Pa. — Albert Snyder is a soft bear of a man — more teddy than grizzly — with thinning hair, a trim goatee and tired eyes. He has a folksy, polite manner and speaks with the gentle tone and tempo of a storyteller.
But if you mess with his family, he turns fierce. You can see the change whenever the Westboro Baptists of Topeka, Kan., are mentioned. They messed with his son in what he considers an unimaginable way.
"You don't go after one of my kids," Snyder said from his lawyer's office in York, Pa.
Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, 20, was killed in a Humvee accident in Iraq on March 3, 2006. A week later, church members stood outside his funeral at St. John's Roman Catholic Church in Westminster, Md., waving signs that said "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "God hates fags" while mourners grieved inside. Later, they posted a diatribe on their Web site claiming that Matthew's divorced parents raised him "to commit adultery" and to support "satanic Catholicism."
The Westboro church members had never met Matthew, who wasn't gay, nor his family. Yet seven of them — adults and children — traveled 1,100 miles across a half-dozen states to celebrate the young Marine's death as part of their anti-gay gospel aimed at the military. They contended that the protest was directed not at Snyder but at the U.S. government and its tolerance of homosexuality and gays in the military.
Snyder sued Westboro Baptist Church and its leaders in Baltimore federal court a few months after Matthew died, contending that they invaded his privacy and intentionally inflicted emotional distress. He testified that the defendants placed a "bug" in his head so that he could no longer think of his son without thinking of them and their signs.
The trial, too, took its toll, wearing on him physically and emotionally as he relived his son's death each day.
Snyder won a multimillion-dollar jury verdict, with the judge calling Westboro's actions "outrageous" and "highly offensive," but an appeals court reversed it. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case during its fall term, vaulting Snyder's personal fight onto a national stage.
He appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" last week, and taped an episode with MSNBC's Chris Matthews the week before. On March 30, shortly after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that Snyder would have to pay some costs of Westboro's appeals, Bill O'Reilly of Fox News pledged to pay the $16,000 bill.
Snyder's lawyers have become part-time publicity agents and celebrities. And military families across the country consider Snyder — a man who never wanted his son to be a soldier — a champion for basic human decency.
"I'm usually a very quiet person, a very private person, and this is so out of character for me," Snyder said.
The case has consumed him, as his lawyers warned him it would. It's with him when he wakes up and when he goes to sleep, and throughout the day when reporters call. It rides along the few times a year he can bear to visit Matt's grave, at a veterans cemetery in Owings Mills, Md.
It won't go away, and he can't let it go.
"He knows what Matt went through in Iraq, and he feels like he can't back down just because this is getting tough, because Matt didn't back down," said Craig Trebilcock, one of two York lawyers representing Snyder pro bono. He calls Snyder the "bravest man" he's ever met.
"He's tougher than when we started out," Trebilcock said, "kind of like something that's been hit so many times, it's become tougher."
Albert Snyder, 54, was born and raised in Southwest Baltimore, and brought up his own family — two girls and a boy — in Carroll County, sharing joint custody with his ex-wife after they split around 2000, when the kids were in their teens.
Daughter Sarah came first, followed by Matthew two years later in July 1985 and Tracie two years after that. The children were a close trio who looked out for one another, with Matt, despite being small for his age, stepping into the role of protective brother if anyone gave the girls guff.
He was an athletic child, who played basketball in his church league along with soccer and baseball growing up, and he was a bit of a cut-up in class.
But he was always serious about joining the military. When Matt first announced his intentions around age 9, Snyder wrote it off as an ambition his son would outgrow. But it never went away.
"He just really believed in that model of 'a few good men,' " Snyder said.
When Matt was 17, in his senior year at Westminster High School, he came to his father with a hard question. He wanted his consent to sign up for the Marines before his 18th birthday, which wouldn't come until after graduation.
"I talked to him for probably a good week, two weeks, three weeks," Snyder said. "At the time, we were just getting involved in the Iraq war, and I wasn't too thrilled about him going in."
But he couldn't say no. Matt would have done it without his permission if he had to, and Snyder had to support him. His hope for his children was that they "would be themselves and do what they wanted to do," and this was what Matt wanted to do.
"It was hard when Matt went into the military," Snyder said. "But I would have never stopped him from doing that because it was something that he had wanted his entire life."
Matt matured quickly in the military. He came out of training at Parris Island, S.C., a different kind of kid, more disciplined and less of a jokester. He was based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., before being assigned to Twentynine Palms, Calif., in August 2004 as a generator mechanic.
It was from there, in early 2006, that he was sent to western Iraq.
"At that point, the war had heated up, and I was really concerned," said Snyder, who was then living in York with his youngest daughter, who was finishing high school. But Matt "was like, 'I have a job to do, and that's what I'm going to do.' "
On March 3, 2006, Matt Snyder was riding in a Humvee in Iraq's Anbar province, serving as the gunner in the rooftop hatch. The driver lost control of the vehicle and it rolled, killing the lance corporal.
About 8:30 that night, two Marines rang Snyder's doorbell in York. He has spent most days since fighting off the recurring shock and sickening depression that followed.
"I was by myself," Snyder said, "and that was the hardest part."
Days passed, though he doesn't remember how. He was stunned and traumatized and medicated to help handle it all. He thought of the last conversation he had with Matt — that his 21st birthday was coming up and they could toast his return with a drink. He read his son's letters, which came addressed simply to "Dad," the last arriving after Matt's death. And he tried to be strong for his daughters.
"I was pretty out of it," Snyder said. "It's not easy to bury a 20-year-old."
The military took care of the funeral details, and Snyder thought he had already endured the worst, losing his son.
He had no idea what to think when the Westboro Baptist Church issued a news release March 8, 2006, saying that Matthew "died in shame, not honor — for a fag nation cursed by God" and that they planned to bring their anti-gay gospel to the funeral at "St. John's Catholic dog kennel."
Snyder had never heard of these people, but officials had. They sent state and county police to the funeral, along with an ambulance, a fire truck and even a mobile command center.
The windows were blocked at the Catholic school next door and a SWAT team was placed inside the church, mixed in with hundreds of mourners.
"I had no idea they would be as disgusting as they were," Snyder said.
He never saw the Westboro group in person that day. He was shielded by the Patriot Guard Riders, a team of motorcyclists who came to the funeral to show respect for Matthew and to block the protesters from view. But he saw them later, on television news reports.
The church members hollered about going to hell and God hating homosexuals while carrying signs that said things like "God hates you," according to a civil complaint Snyder filed in federal court three months after his son died.
It was the first such lawsuit against Westboro.
Fred W. Phelps Sr. founded the church in 1955 and populated it with his children and theirs. He's a retired lawyer who was disbarred decades ago for harassing a court reporter, and most of his 13 children followed him into law. They also followed him into hating homosexuals and Jews.
Church members blame AIDS, Hurricane Katrina and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on what they see as the country's permissive attitude toward homosexuality, and they say it is their duty to spread that message. They say funerals are their chosen venue because they believe that's when the living have eternal damnation and mortality on their minds.
Topeka officials have labeled Westboro Baptist and its 75 or so members a "hate group," and city residents have tried to dismiss the church's rants as background noise. But they are hard to ignore.
"They are not a quiet little bunch standing on the corner with some quiet little signs," Snyder said.
Snyder says the church members' actions caused his depression to deepen and his diabetes to worsen. He asked his attorney about possible recourse and was referred to two York lawyers — Craig Trebilcock and Sean Summers — who were veterans and members of the U.S. Army Reserve's Judge Advocate General's Corps.
Trebilcock and Summers took on the case for free and tried to prepare Snyder for the long road ahead.
As a plaintiff, Snyder has sat at the same table with the Phelpses and endured hours of examination by their doctors and lawyers. He has testified in court, sometimes through tears. He does interviews from morning to night and worries about how he'll pay the expenses associated with the case, already in the tens of thousands of dollars and rising. While the lawyers donate their time, Snyder has to pay the copying and filing fees.
He says he offered again and again to drop the lawsuit if Westboro would stop picketing funerals, but the church wouldn't agree.
When a Maryland jury awarded him $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages in October 2007, Snyder was shocked. He wasn't in it for the money and doesn't expect to see a dime, but a number that big sends a message that such behavior will not be tolerated. The message persisted even after U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett reduced the award to $5 million a few months later.
In September 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., overturned the lower court's verdict, with two of the three judges citing the church members' right to free speech. But Snyder and his attorneys are still fighting.
"The reality is, if they said the same exact things that they said, but they did it at their church in Topeka, nobody would have cared," Summers said last month from his office at Barley Snyder LLC in York. "But they traveled all this way to specifically target the Snyder family and protest the funeral. For anyone to suggest they had their freedom of speech taken away, that's just nonsense."
To Snyder, this is a matter of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and his lawyers petitioned the Supreme Court to take the case on those grounds. They're asking the court to consider several things, including whether free-speech rules apply to private individuals in private settings. On March 8, shortly after the fourth anniversary of Matthew's death, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in the fall.
During the past four years, Snyder has been interviewed by Australian, Canadian and Chinese news media. And he has received thousands of letters and e-mail messages via the Web site matthewsnyder.org from soldiers and their parents around the world.
The outpouring has changed him, said David Bader, manager of the York electric company where Snyder works as an industrial equipment salesman. "He feels he has an obligation to the memory of his son, but also to other families," Bader said.
Snyder has taken on Westboro alone. He won't allow others to be involved, though he draws strength from his daughters and their encouragement.
"They have stood by from the beginning," he said.
Both Sarah and Tracie Snyder declined to be interviewed for this article, but in an e-mail message, they described their father as a hero.
"By continuing on with this trial he has the chance to make it so that no one will ever have to go through this ordeal that our family and many other families have gone through," they wrote. "It has not been easy for him, and he has faced challenges, but that will not stop him. He is a strong man, and even stronger now with the Nation behind him."
Snyder knows there are still many months ahead. But even if the Supreme Court does not find in his favor, he thinks he will be OK.
"Even if it doesn't go my way, I won," he said, "because I know that I took it all the way for Matt. I couldn't have taken it any further."