For police detective, an intriguing suspect

Second of three parts

If he were honest with himself, Detective Richard Gibson had to admit that he was eager to meet Miss Cindy McKay.

It wasn't always that way with crooks. Most struck Gibson, a blunt Baltimore cop and former Navy petty officer, as barely sentient and uninteresting in the extreme. Experience had shown that most were far from criminal masterminds. And it was true, McKay was no genius. But, man, she had brass. She was fearless. He had to give her that.St. Mary's Seminary & University in Roland Park was already far along in its investigation of a suspected embezzlement when it brought its findings to Gibson. The oldest Catholic seminary in America had apparently been swindled out of tens of thousands of dollars, and all indications pointed to an inside job.

The chief suspect, Gibson soon learned, was a 46-year-old woman named Cindy McKay, who, unknown to the seminary, was an ex-con with a habit of stealing large sums from those who employed and trusted her.

Intriguingly, Gibson also discovered that despite her criminal bent, three of McKay's most serious romantic partners - and the fathers of four of her six children - had been police officers.

As the detective went over his notes, he marked the more curious details. None seized his attention more than the death of McKay's husband, Clarence "Buddy" Downs III, in a Christmas Day fire a few months earlier. As a result of that death, McKay stood to collect $300,000 in insurance and pension benefits.

According to police reports and interviews, some in Downs' family hadn't been convinced by the explanation that fire investigators had pinned on the case: "careless smoking."

Neither was Gibson.

Now, Gibson was finally going to get a chance to meet her. She had agreed to come in first thing in the morning to make a full confession. It was a chance for Gibson to match the woman he had envisioned from a distance, through the steady accretion of facts and deductions, with the flesh-and-blood reality. For a detective, short of arrests and convictions, this was the payoff.

He arrived early at Baltimore police headquarters that April day in 2003. He wore his trademark navy blue suit, red power tie and white shirt. He waited in an interrogation room, his notebook on the table in front of him.

Nine a.m. came and went with no sign of McKay.

By 10 o'clock, he knew she wasn't coming.

When money turned up missing at St. Mary's Seminary, it didn't take much time before suspicion fell on the recently departed office manager.

Hired in 1999, she was laid off four years later due to downsizing. Soon after, seminary employees began to notice large gaps between revenues and actual deposits.

As it turned out, the problems that had necessitated her layoff had been her own doing: Checks written as payment for using the facility had instead been deposited into McKay's bank account. More than $200,000 worth.

The seminary's dean, Christa Klein, then double-checked McKay's gleaming job references, and she couldn't find any contact information for her previous employer, a group called End the Cycle Inc., or her old boss, Joan Haarhoff.

Eventually, it would be discovered that End the Cycle was a nonprofit corporation set up by McKay while in prison, ostensibly to help female inmates to rehabilitate. And Joan Haarhoff was a fiction; the name was apparently an invention that combined McKay's mother's first name with an ex-husband's surname.

Another of her references - a self-identified insurance broker who testified to McKay's "wisdom and good humor" - turned out to be a former cellmate.

On March 27, 2003, McKay sat for an interview with Raymond Peroutka, a forensic accountant hired by the seminary. She calmly owned up to the scheme, he said. Yes, she had taken money. She had even kept a meticulous log of her thefts, she said.

But McKay insisted to Peroutka that her motives had been unselfish, the result of unsavory behavior on the part of her late husband, Buddy Downs - behavior that has never been corroborated and seems wholly at odds with the man everyone else remembers.

She claimed that he was a drug user, a gambling addict and a money launderer who had pushed her to steal the money to pay his debts. She had done so, she told Peroutka, because she was terrified of the "unsavory" characters to whom Downs owed money. One of them, she said, was a "Mafia-looking person" who had come to her home and jammed the barrel of a revolver in her son's mouth.

McKay signed documents pledging to cooperate with Peroutka's inquiries and offering to pay back what she had stolen.

After that meeting, McKay's lawyer advised her of the near-certainty that she was headed back to prison.

By then, Gibson had begun working the case. But he went further afield to learn what he could about McKay. One of those he made sure to visit was Downs' adult son, B.J., who had contacted Baltimore County police in late March after he learned that someone had obtained an American Express card in his name and made McKay an authorized user. The credit card company called to tell him he owed $8,100 for, among other things, a deposit on a new Chevy S-10 Blazer.

He shared all of those tidbits with Gibson, as well as one more: McKay had been the sole beneficiary of about $300,000 worth of benefits from his father's insurance policies. B.J. also told Gibson, both later recalled, that he did not believe that McKay was an innocent bystander in his father's death.

McKay's neighbors in Baltimore Highlands knew nothing about the suspicions gathering around her. Instead, they saw a family ripped apart by tragedy and a widowed, single mother who needed help.

With such warm intentions, the Highlands community began the Clarence Downs Fund to help the grieving family. The fund received many donations, ranging from $10 to $1,000, including contributions from seminarians and McKay's former co-workers at St. Mary's, who did not know about the theft investigation.

When McKay requested $8,000 from the fund, community association president Moses Rodriguez was surprised to see that the account had recently swelled to $10,000 on the strength of a single $5,000 contribution.

He tried to persuade McKay to take a lesser amount for now, but she insisted. Rodriguez withdrew the cash and handed it to her in the bank's parking lot.

A week later, the bank contacted Rodriguez. The account had been overdrawn because a stop payment had been placed on that $5,000 check, according to a police report. When he inquired, Rodriguez discovered that the address on the check was McKay's, though the name on it was John Crites, the owner of the home before McKay. Contacted in New Mexico, Crites told police that he had not written the check.

Meanwhile, McKay indicated through her attorney that she was ready to talk to Gibson about the St. Mary's thefts. He was ready, having drawn up a two-page list of questions he intended to put to her at that April 15 meeting. In particular, he planned to quiz her about the death of Buddy Downs.

When she didn't show, he knew the chase was on.

About 150 miles away, police officers in Ocean City found an abandoned Hyundai Santa Fe in the inlet parking lot, with the lights on and the doors unlocked. The registration indicated its owner was Cynthia McKay. On the front passenger seat was a woman's handbag and next to that, a folded note.

The note was addressed to David Haarhoff, McKay's former husband.

"I feel all alone," she had written, "and have decided to die rather than rot in prison. I'm sorry."

In the back seat, police found an empty box for an inflatable raft and a receipt for a pair of oars, purchased the day before at a nearby Wal-Mart.

With that, police ordered an aerial search of the water. Nothing turned up - no raft, no body.

Ocean City investigators contacted Gibson, who didn't believe for a second that McKay would have killed herself. He and his partner rushed to Salisbury to execute a search and seizure warrant on McKay's new home - a Cape Cod she had recently purchased. They found photos of her in jail and bank deposit slips but nothing to suggest where she was.

Gibson walked into a child's room, where he ran into McKay's youngest daughter, 13-year-old Katie. The girl looked up at him, her eyes watery and lip quivering.

"My mom's going to jail for a long time, isn't she?" she asked Gibson, the father of two young girls.

He was honest. "Once I find her," he said, "she's going to jail for as long as I can send her to jail."

Two weeks later and an hour's drive north, a group of women at the People's Church of Dover, Del., were mixing chicken salad and preparing for their annual yard sale when a middle-aged woman with dark hair and a kindly smile walked in looking for the main office.

The office was closed, they told her, but the woman stayed and helped wash dishes. She said that she lived a block away, next to the firehouse, but that it was very noisy so she was looking for a new place.

The woman volunteered a short but arresting life story. She had been a nun who had left the cloister when she fell in love with a priest. The two had married, but it hadn't worked out. Now she was trying to start a new life. She was taking classes at a nearby university and working at a Burger King. She had no car and got around by bicycle.

Her name, she said, was Annie Pillar.

The church women knew just the person to help Pillar and benefit from her. Shirley Bluhm, the widow of a Playtex executive, was 77 and experiencing the early stages of Alzheimer's. She had been looking for someone to move in with her and help with housework and also to keep an eye on her.

Pillar and Bluhm became a close pair. Pillar took the elder woman to appointments and to the grocery store. She also cleaned the house, which she said was the least she could do for staying there rent-free.

Bluhm's daughter, Sue Limpert, a lawyer who lived three hours away in New Jersey, was uneasy about the presence of a stranger in the house, but her mother was so happy. Limpert didn't want to disappoint her over unsubstantiated apprehensions.

Pillar was always willing to chip in, but on occasion she required help herself. Once she needed a ride to pick up a used Oldsmobile she had bought. Another time she asked someone from church to pick her up from the doctor's office after she had liposuction and other plastic surgery.

Pillar immersed herself not just in Bluhm's life, but in the People's Church activities as well. She attended Bible study and spoke at Sunday school, quoting Scripture and discussing her time spent cloistered.

"She would show up for hours and talk a lot and seemed very present," the Rev. Dan Griggs recalled not long ago.

Though people had warmed to her from the start, some wondered about her, particularly about how a woman who had claimed to be broke suddenly had enough money for a car and plastic surgery.

"We tried to figure out if we had enough information to have any proof of anything, and we didn't," Griggs said. "We just had suspicions, and we knew she had been lying about certain things. There was no way we could confront her without more backup than that."

They never got the chance. Merrill Lynch called Limpert to report that more than $80,000 had been withdrawn from Bluhm's account over the previous six weeks. Alarmed, Limpert called her mother, but Pillar answered.

And just like that, Limpert knew who had taken the money.

She asked for her mother.

When Bluhm got on the line, Limpert instructed her to answer only with `yes' and `no.'

"Have you spoken to [Merrill Lynch]?" she asked.


"Do you understand what's going on?"


"You've got to right now get out of the house," Limpert implored. "Go next door."

Limpert's call apparently spooked Pillar. She left Bluhm's house that day and never came back, leaving many of her belongings behind.

After Pillar was gone, Bluhm's family and the bank determined that she had taken far more than $80,000. By assuming Limpert's maiden name, Karen S. Bluhm, she had stolen more than $180,000.

She had made debit card withdrawals and purchases totaling more than $25,000. She had sent away for a copy of Limpert's birth certificate and used it to obtain a Delaware driver's license with her picture on it. She had deposited $9,000 into a Web-based bank account, spent $5,000 on the plastic surgery, $7,200 on the Olds and bought two motorcycles.

And before leaving town, she wrote one big check to herself, in the amount of $50,000, which Limpert believes was intended, at least in part, as a down payment for a beach house in Rehoboth that was scheduled for a June 27 settlement.

"When people say, `I'm a victim of identity theft,' I say, `You have no idea,'" said Limpert, who five years later still receives bills from collection agencies seeking payment for purchases that her mother's houseguest racked up. "Using someone's credit card is one thing. Taking their license, using their birth certificate, telling people she's you - it was scary."

Nobody knew who Pillar really was. When police took the information from Bluhm and Limpert, they had no choice but to file charges against "Karen S. Bluhm." State troopers sent out a press release to local news media, announcing that the unknown "scam artist" was being sought on 27 criminal charges.

Not long after, in southwestern Virginia, a Greyhound bus driver named Robert Kenneth Brown was motoring north on Interstate 81 when he stopped for a meal in Wytheville, a small town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Afterward, a handful of passengers boarded the bus, including a redheaded woman. As he started up the next segment of highway, Brown, 56, and married with a wife in Tennessee, chewed on what he might say to the redhead.

He came up with whether she was single, which is the question he put to her an hour or so later at a stop in Roanoke. She coyly hesitated and said yes. He helped her get her luggage, and they ended up sharing a cab. When he got back to his hotel, he had a message waiting for him that a Ms. Scott had called. A Patricia Ann Scott.

So began their romance, over dinners and intimate telephone conversations that would last for hours. She said she'd been married, too, to an accountant, but he had died of a heart attack. She said she had two sons from that marriage and had sent one of them to Spain as a graduation present.

One day near July 4, 2003, she phoned him, frantic. There had been an accident, she said. Both of her sons were dead.

He wouldn't hear from her again for more than two years.

By that July, Detective Gibson had been on McKay's trail for months with little to show for it.

McKay was elusive but not quite invisible. Her former probation case manager had reported spotting her in Baltimore County at the Friendly Farms restaurant in Upperco, and Gibson had a lead on a cell phone McKay might have been using in Pennsylvania. But then, nothing.

Gibson's big break came on July 18, 2003. McKay's ex-husband David Haarhoff said she had called him asking for money. Speaking from a prepaid cell phone, she said she had been riding a bicycle when she was struck by a car in Roanoke. While in the hospital, she had given the reporting police officer a fake name but had accidentally given her true Social Security number.

Fearing discovery, she said she had sneaked out of the hospital and taken a Greyhound bus to Norfolk, where she had checked into a women's shelter.

The anonymity that is customary in domestic abuse shelters was useful for a woman on the run. But Gibson, now armed with the knowledge that McKay was in a Norfolk area shelter, e-mailed a copy of her arrest warrant, photographs and a newspaper clipping to local authorities.

One of the shelter administrators believed that the woman Gibson was pursuing had checked in a day earlier, on July 17, under the name Erika Lesses. Her story was that she had been abused by a police officer husband in Roanoke, and she sported a black eye to sell the lie.

Norfolk police arrived at the shelter and confronted her in the room where she was staying. She denied that she was McKay. But in her belongings, police would find a Maryland driver's license in the name of Cynthia Jean Downs, her married name, along with numerous photo identification cards, birth certificates, Social Security cards and college transcripts - in other people's names. There were detailed, marked maps of Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio, and bus schedules to those cities.

Gibson finally had his woman. As a bonus, he also had Delaware's missing Annie Pillar.

McKay was extradited to Maryland on Aug. 5 and returned to Baltimore, where she was held on $4 million bail. Gibson formally served her with an arrest warrant that week. Finally face to face, McKay was as nonchalant as could be.

"She said to me, `So you're the Detective Gibson that's been looking for me,'" Gibson recalled. "`You finally got what you wanted, huh?'"