About a year and a half ago, before he made headlines for allegedly kidnapping an eight-year-old girl in Aurora, John Snorsky contacted me. He'd read a story I'd written about a state law that would allow counties to place abused kids at a facility for juvenile delinquents, and he wanted to let me know he thought the law was a terrible idea. He'd been abused as a boy, he said, and he proceeded to tell me a long, and sometimes complicated, story about his life.
At the time, I didn't know what to think.
But his account was intriguing, and I listened to him tell it for about an hour. Here's what he had to say:
Snorsky, who's 26, said he was born on Christmas Eve to a father who immigrated from the Soviet Union and a mother who was "mentally unstable." All his life, he said he'd been told the same story: that his father shot his mother during an attempt to take Snorsky and his siblings away from her. She survived and proceeded to move the family from state to state -- without their father, who Snorsky said he never knew much about.
But she wasn't a good parent, either, he said. According to Snorsky, she beat him, stabbed him, burned him, tried to drown him in the bathtub, and made him confess to things he hadn't done -- things she knew would elicit more beatings from Snorsky's brother. Knowing that Snorsky took pride in his hair, his mother once shaved it off with a Bic razor as punishment for drinking his brother's chocolate milk, he said, even though she'd actually drunk the milk herself.
"When she was beating me, I'd never cry out," Snorsky said. Instead, he said he'd pretend he was dead. Although social workers intervened, he said, he ended up back in her care.
When he was eleven, the family moved to Aurora, and Snorsky said he ran away soon thereafter. Along with a friend and the friend's older brother, Snorsky told me he slept in abandoned buildings and ate out of dumpsters. He and his friends broke into cars to steal money and eventually became errand boys for the neighborhood crack dealers, he said.
Shortly after his twelfth birthday, a friend called the cops and told them about Snorsky's situation, and he said he was put in a group home for "abused and abandoned" children. But Snorsky said he knew that the chances he'd be taken in by a new family were slim, so he escaped and hopped a freight train in Golden. "I had a backpack full of energy bars, bananas, water and military boots stolen from Goodwill," he told me.
For the next two years, Snorsky said he hitchhiked around. At night, he crashed with family members, in strangers' hotel rooms, in laundromats and in what he described as an old "Scooby Doo van." He stole things and then sold them to survive, which is how he eventually got arrested again, he said. The cops shipped him back to Colorado.
He said he ended up at Jefferson Hills, a residential treatment center for at-risk kids in Aurora. There, he said, some older boys abused him. At age fourteen, he was paroled and proceeded to bounce from foster home to foster home. "When boys are abused, we can't just cry and break down and tell everybody what happened," Snorsky told me. "They'll say, 'You're a pussy.' We internalize it and it comes out as anger."
Drawing helped Snorsky deal with his anger, he said. He told me he started drawing when he was six years old and continued to do so even when he was homeless, offering to sketch people's portraits on the 16th Street Mall to make a few bucks.
But even art couldn't help him handle the group homes he lived in as a teenager. At seventeen, after having several "freak outs" and fights in his group homes, Snorsky said he ran away to be with a girl he loved. Homeless on the street once again, Snorsky said he began burglarizing gun shops and then selling the weapons. A deal gone bad led to his being arrested again and this time, he said, he was sent to prison for seven years.
"While I was in prison, I started realizing I was intelligent," Snorsky told me. He read books and perfected his drawing; some of the inmates nicknamed him "Sangre de Lapiz," or "Blood of the Pencil," he said. Even though he said he spent several years in solitary confinement, Snorsky found a sort of family in prison. According to him, his fellow inmates encouraged him to become a motivational speaker when he got out, because he had such an amazing story of resilience and survival.
The day he was released, however, Snorksy said he had nothing but an ankle monitor, $100 and a voucher to stay in a "hotel for homeless people" on Colfax Avenue. Unable to make a living on his drawings, Snorsky said he began looking for a job. One day, he got lucky: After hearing his story, he said, a woman named Linda Taylor, who owned a sub shop in Aurora, offered him a job. When he was told he'd have to return to prison if he couldn't find a stable place to live, he said Taylor allowed him to move in with her, as well.
"It's the first time I've ever had a bed," Snorsky told me. At the time we spoke, Snorsky was renting the studio apartment in her basement and working at her shop, called the Sub Stop. He was also trying to drum up interest in his drawings and paintings, and was looking into doing some motivational speaking. "The way I say it is, 'I've been through everything and I feel like I'm a samurai,'" Snorsky said. "What I'm trying to do right now is to make sure nobody else has to battle to find their garden and see the beauty in life."
Snorsky was eager to tell his story and eager for me to believe it, even assuring me that he'd saved all of the paperwork documenting his life in case he ever appeared on Oprah. But I wasn't sure what to believe, and there was an edge to his voice that unnerved me. It wasn't detectable all the time. In fact, he sometimes spoke in a way that almost sounded rehearsed. Other times, however, he seemed angry and frustrated, especially when he talked about negative reactions to his drawings. He'd been snubbed by several gallery owners in Denver, he told me, even though his art was better than theirs.
Now, as more details about Snorsky come to light in the wake of the kidnapping, it seems as though at least some of what he told me is true. Snorsky did spend time in prison; the Colorado Department of Corrections website lists convictions in 2004 and 2007. And the Denver Post has reported that Snorsky worked at the Sub Stop deli in Aurora, whose owner, Linda Taylor, had given him a place to live. The paper quoted her as saying she was "totally shocked" about Snorsky's arrest for kidnapping.
As soon as his name was released by the police, I immediately recognized Snorsky as the man who'd called a year and a half earlier to tell me the story of his abusive childhood.
Snorsky's story isn't over yet, but the latest chapter is beginning to unfold. Today, he was formally charged with second-degree kidnapping, first-degree burglary, second-degree burglary, enticement of a child, child abuse and third-degree assault. He's scheduled to make his first appearance in Adams County Court at 8:30 a.m. Friday.
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