Some of the eight were strangers, having met only minutes before. And yet, they had a common purpose. After breaking in through the carport door of a simple one-story home in Apache Junction, the two youngest headed for the bedroom.
Each took a position on either side of the bed, one armed with an old, Western-style six-shooter, the other with a hunting knife. Their partners waited nearby.
Outside, a lone woman waited in her Dodge Caravan under a streetlight three doors down. The van’s rear door unlatched, the back seat removed.
The plan was simple: Kidnap a suspected child molester. Beat him. Turn him over to police.
But the plan took a horrible turn. The father of the intended victim ended up dead, and eight people now are in jail facing a variety of felony charges. The two youngest, ages 15 and 17, could face the death penalty.
The two teens are accused of shooting and stabbing the 59-year-old man to death while his wife, clutching a pillow, watched in horror.
Depending on how it’s viewed, Charles "Tom" Snyder was either slain on the night of Sept. 10 by a group of misguided youths trying to do good, or he was brutally murdered, plain and simple. Police reports and court records, as well as interviews with police and relatives of those accused, shed some insight into what led up to that deadly night.
Apache Junction police detective Charlie Fraley shakes his head at the senselessness of Snyder’s death, which police believe grew from the alleged molestation of a 9-year-old girl a day earlier.
"I have to believe that if (the girl’s mother) had notified police late Monday or early Tuesday about the molestation and let us do our job, you would not have a story to write," Fraley said. "It’s almost like they thought they were living in 1880s Arizona when vigilante justice was more common."
Cindy Johnson, 29, came home early on the morning of Sept. 9 to find the electricity in her Apache Junction trailer off and a 9-yearold relative trapped in a bedroom, the door tied to prevent her from leaving. Once freed, the girl told her Nathan Snyder, 23, had sneaked into the bedroom between midnight and 4 a.m. and molested her, detectives said.
Snyder had been living at Johnson’s home in a room he had rented a few days before. He invited Allen Pacheco, 15, to move in with him to help pay the rent, but before that could happen, Snyder was kicked out because he kept odd hours.
Allen Pacheco moved in to Snyder’s old room hours before the alleged molestation. The teen had not known Johnson or the girl until he was introduced to them by Snyder.
Pacheco would later tell detectives that, because he was babysitting the girl that night, he felt compelled to track Nathan Snyder down.
That day and the next, Pacheco, his brother, Johnny, 17, and Johnson tried desperately to find Snyder. They went to his parents’ home twice, put the word out on the street they were looking for him and tried to arrange a meeting over the phone.
Snyder’s mother would later tell police her son was "hooked on drugs and hanging around with some bad people."
THE PACHECO BOYS
Ellen Pacheco, 42, said that in February 1992, she and four of her children, including then 6-year-old Johnny and 4-year-old Allen, moved to Apache Junction from Dallas with "five boxes of clothes, a bike, a black-and-white TV and a poodle."
While Johnny was frequently traveling back and forth between his father’s home in Texas and Arizona, Allen lived with his mother consistently. Allen was a good boy until financial problems forced the family to move into an Apache Junction mobile home park in May, the mother said.
Allen, her youngest child, she said, went from being an A and B student and member of the ROTC at Excaliber Charter School last year to a rebellious teen who refused to go to school after the summer break.
"He had no trouble until I moved here," Ellen Pacheco said. "I think he got into trouble because of older friends, older influences and better drugs."
By June, Ellen Pacheco said, she was at her wits’ end. She was broke, too sick from diabetes and emphysema to work and living on her boyfriend’s income. Allen, his 14-year-old girlfriend and their friends were coming in and out of her house at all hours, and Johnny had just moved home with his 16-year-old girlfriend.
She said she kicked Allen and his girlfriend out and asked her brother to take Johnny and his girlfriend in.
Ellen Pacheco said her boys had never been arrested before, and she had never met any of the people who were arrested in connection with the slaying.
"My boys are good boys," she said. "They just took the law into their own hands, and it backfired."
LOOKING FOR SNYDER
Fraley said he believes the Pacheco brothers were still living at home at the time of the homicide, and that another suspect, 18-year-old John Ransom, was staying with the Pachecos.
When Johnson and the Pachecos couldn’t find Nathan Snyder on Sept. 9, Johnson sent the brothers back to the Snyder home, telling them not to mention the molestation. The boys went over the Snyders, saying they were seeking money owed for drugs.
"We think the suspects used the $60 drug debt to get the Snyders to give up Nate thinking they would be more willing to give him up over a drug debt than the molestation," Fraley said.
The ploy was unsuccessful, but Nathan Snyder called Allen Pacheco from his cell phone on three occasions and Pacheco tried to set up a meeting.
Nathan originally wanted to collect some belongings he’d left in the room he and Allen were supposed to share, Johnson told detectives. Later, however, Snyder told the boy he wanted to burn Johnson’s house "to the ground" and needed Pacheco’s help in getting arson supplies together, Johnson said.
Pacheco and Snyder never met, and Johnson and the brothers decided to look for Snyder at his parents’ home under the cover of darkness. They suspected he would be in either an enclosed porch behind the house or in a shed.
The three also decided they needed "backup" and turned to Ransom to recruit his friends, Fraley said.
It was Ransom, police said, who introduced the Pachecos and Johnson to Dave Michienzi, 22, Henry Mitchell, 21, and Fredrick "Wayne" Besenhofer, 21, on the night of the slaying.
THE RANSOM TEEN
Ransom’s mother, Maureen Prince, said she and her son moved to Apache Junction from Colorado when he was 5 years old.
Ransom never met his father, but Prince said he had been abused physically by one stepfather and sexually abused by another. She didn’t learn of the sexual abuse until he was 15, but looking back she realizes now her son’s behavioral problems began at around the time of the sexual abuse.
"Until the time he hit 12 he got straight As," Prince said. "Then he tried to shut me out of his life, and he started doing what he wanted to do. I was working, and I couldn’t stop him.
"I tried grounding him. I tried doing whatever I could to punish him. I threw him out, but the cops just kept bringing him back."
Ransom was arrested at age 13 in February 1998 on suspicion of shoplifting three cigarette lighters from a Walgreens store in Apache Junction, but the charges were later dismissed. During a threemonth period in the spring of 2000, Ransom was arrested on suspicion of running away from home, stealing his mother’s cigarettes and car and inhaling spray paint after stealing it from an Ace Hardware.
After his mother declined to pursue the theft charges against him, Ransom was placed on probation until his 18th birthday, ordered to attend counseling and perform 100 hours of community service. He also was told to write a 500-word essay on huffing (inhaling toxic substances to get high).
Probation officers asked that Ransom’s probation be revoked three times after he continued to shoplift, repeatedly used illicit drugs, refused to attend counseling sessions and associated with others on probation. Twice, he was reinstated to probation with additional conditions. On the third occasion, in January 2002, Ransom was sent to an Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections facility for six months.
Ransom was released from the juvenile system on his 18th birthday, Nov. 29, 2002.
Although her son dropped out of Apache Junction High School in the ninth grade, Prince said he had recently been talking about getting his GED. His girlfriend was pregnant, and Prince thought her son might have changed for the better.
ROUNDING UP HELP
On the evening of Sept. 10, Johnson, her neighbor, Michael David White, 25, and the Pachecos drove to Ellen Pacheco’s home to pick up Ransom and borrowed a car from a neighbor. Then, at Ransom’s suggestion, they drove to a North Meridian apartment to pick up Michienzi and Mitchell, who shared the apartment, and Besenhofer, who was visiting the pair.
Michienzi was serving three years probation for punching a woman in the nose during a May 19 dispute in Apache Junction. He also pleaded guilty to biting a man’s finger during the same altercation. He was ordered to attend either anger management or domestic violence counseling.
When he was 15, Michienzi was ordered to perform 40 hours of community service for stealing soft drinks from a Mesa Wal-Mart.
Terri Mitchell, a relative of Henry Mitchell, successfully sued Michienzi for child support last year. He was ordered to pay her $18,636 in back support and $544 per month for his 4-year-old daughter.
Henry Mitchell grew up with both his parents in Mesa, the oldest of four children. His mother, Mary Mitchell, described their family as tight knit. She and his father, Henry Sr., have been married 20 years.
Although he dropped out of Skyline High School in east Mesa after completing the 11th grade, her son has worked for Sonic Drive-In restaurants for the last six years, she said.
Court records indicate that in March 1999, he was placed on probation and ordered to perform 32 hours of community service after burglarizing a Mesa home. He also was told to pay almost $1,800 restitution.
Mary Mitchell said her son had been doing well recently, however, even getting his own apartment in March. Henry Mitchell Sr. described his son as "shy and quiet."
"He just got in with the wrong crowd," she said.
Besenhofer had been raised by a single father since he was 8 months old.
Court records indicate that Besenhofer was sentenced to a year of probation when he placed two children under 15 "in reasonable apprehension of imminent physical injury" with a rifle at the age of 14. Then, in August 1999, he was given a 30-day suspended sentence for shoplifting from the Great Price Smokes Store in Apache Junction.
Family court records show that Besenhofer’s wife, Jessica, filed for an order of protection against him in January in the midst of their divorce. Jessica Besenhofer said her husband drew his finger across his throat in front of their 1-year-old daughter and told her she was "going to die."
More recently, Besenhofer was arrested on suspicion of armed robbery and criminal damage. Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office records show that, on June 26, Besenhofer threatened a tow truck driver with a baseball bat in a successful effort to take back a Chevrolet Lumina the man had repossessed. The case is currently being reviewed by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.
UP THE CRIME LADDER
Of the eight, White has the most extensive criminal history.
He was convicted of 15 misdemeanors while a juvenile and was placed on probation and in juvenile detention centers. At age 14, he stole $74 from the Apache Junction Junior High School pep club before progressing to stealing cars and burglarizing homes.
In December 1996, when White was 18, he and his friends burglarized a Mesa home, stealing almost $14,000 in electronics, champagne, jewelry and weapons. He was placed on five years probation in March 1997, but violated his probation by stealing at least two cars, using marijuana and burglarizing a Tucson home.
In a pre-sentence investigation report, probation officers wrote that White’s upbringing was "completely and utterly dysfunctional" and his parents stopped having anything to do with him once he began running away at the age of 12. His mother, Karen Lytle, declined to comment for this story.
White himself professed to a judge a need for help.
"I have come to the conclusion that I cannot make it on my own. I simply lack the discipline and knowledge to get my life in the right direction," White wrote. "I need help to keep my goals in focus and to stop doing drugs. I am an alcoholic and a pot smoker."
White was sentenced to four concurrent prison terms in September 1997, the maximum for 3 1 /2 years. He was released from prison on Oct. 30, 2002.
As for Johnson’s background, no criminal record could be found for her. Attempts to reach her husband, Todd Leib, were unsuccessful, and messages left for her mother, Linda Jo Johnson, were not returned.
The eight drove to the Snyder home in the 1400 block of South Grand Avenue in Johnson’s van and the borrowed car. Once they arrived, Johnson parked her van a few houses from the Snyder home.
She shut off the van’s engine and turned off the lights. She said she "popped" the rear hatch door and waited with the driver’s window down while her three passengers walked south on the sidewalk to the Snyder residence. The other four, who had come over in the car, walked down the alley behind Snyder’s house.
Johnson lost sight of the men as they stood in the shadows of the Snyder house. A few minutes later, she told detectives, she heard a loud "bang."
While driving away from the scene, Johnson said the young men in her van would only say that "something went wrong."
Marilyn Snyder told police she and her husband woke up that night when two unidentifiable men told them to roll over on their stomachs. One of the men stood on her side of the bed, the other on her husband’s side.
Her husband was shot as he sat up and then tried to leave the bed, she said. The other assailant then leaped over the bed to help his partner. Charles Snyder was shot and stabbed multiple times.
Charles Snyder got up from the floor using the padded side rail of their water bed and using the rail then chased his assailants out of the house before collapsing. He was rushed to Scottsdale Healthcare Osborn hospital, where he was pronounced dead a short time later.
A neighbor described the victim as a sweetheart of a guy, an ex-hippie and retired house painter from Philadelphia who loved doing handyman-type jobs for people. Marilyn and Nathan Snyder did not return phone calls for this story.
Police believe the Pachecos were the two assailants in the bedroom and that Allen had the gun and Johnny the knife. Mitchell and Besenhofer were in the kitchen, according to police interviews. Besenhofer’s father claims his son didn’t go in the house. The location of the others isn’t readily known.
There are varying accounts as to why Allen Pacheco could have ended up with a gun that night. Michienzi told detectives he brought it in case he needed to defend himself, but then had a change of heart. The Pachecos said Michienzi urged Allen to take the gun.
"There was a belief that Tom (Charles) Snyder was heavily armed and had guns all over the house," Fraley said.
Neither the gun nor the knife used in the attack have been found.
The police investigation moved quickly. Marilyn Snyder told police that the incident could have been related to her son and the molestation allegations, and an acquaintance of Nathan Snyder’s helped lead police to Johnson and Allen Pacheco. The eight were arrested within days and booked into Pinal County Adult Detention Center.
Fraley said the defendants, once they admitted their involvement, have been fairly open about what took place that night. "We’ve heard remorse, and we’ve heard surprise," he said.
Police have heard no second thoughts, however, about their original plan to beat Nathan Snyder, he said.
Two days after the slaying, Johnson’s 9-year-old relative told a DARE officer at school that Nathan Snyder molested her.
The Pinal County Attorney’s Office, citing a conflict of interest, has asked the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office to determine if charges should be filed against Nathan Snyder.
If he is charged, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office would then prosecute the case. The case is still pending.
Meanwhile, the eight arrested in connection with the slaying remain in custody with bails for the Pachecos at $500,000 each and the others at $50,000 each. A trial date has not been set, but a pre-trial conference is slated for Jan. 6.
Vigilantism doesn’t explain Charles Snyder’s death, said Apache Junction police Sgt. Ron Martin.
"They had every opportunity to walk out of that house without hurting anyone," he said. "They had already searched the house and they knew Nathan wasn’t there, but they didn’t leave."
Moreover, Johnny Pacheco grabbed the hunting knife he had off a wall in the Snyders’ home, after he knew Nathan Snyder wasn’t home, Martin said.
Dr. Steven Pitt, a nationally known forensic psychiatrist based in Scottsdale, speaking in generalities, said it is not uncommon for people to engage in behavior they normally wouldn’t if they are part of a group.
"There’s something to be said about a mob mentality," Pitt said. "Many times in these situations you get peer pressure, an adrenaline rush and there’s this fear that you’ll be excluded or shunned if you don’t go forward no matter how reprehensible or unlawful the act might be."
Group dynamics also play a role in such instances, but without knowing the individual players it is difficult to speculate on everyone’s motivation, Pitt said.
"However, whether or not this child was molested isn’t a matter for vigilantes to determine, that’s a matter that ultimately should be left up to the courts," Pitt said. "At it’s most fundamental level, you can’t have one person or a group going out and taking matters into their own hands, no matter how heinous the alleged act may have been."