Anne Arundel County

A fatal romance

Last of three parts

The first Anne Arundel officer on the scene just after 3 a.m. thought what was burning was a mannequin. Then two other cops arrived, and the three of them realized that this was no imitation. A human body was in flames.

They extinguished the fire and huddled over the smoking remains of an adult male.His arms and legs were pulled into his torso, as if in terror or pain. He lay partially wrapped in a blue blanket on Old Mill Road just south of Baltimore. He wore jeans, socks and a shirt stained with what appeared to be blood. Around his neck were three gold chains, and on his back, officers made out the tattoo of a steer's skull. A hairpiece had separated from his scalp.

On the ground, drag marks stretched toward nearby townhouses, where police fanned out to interview neighbors in the morning darkness.

A half-mile away, just after daybreak, a Millersville homeowner stepped outside and noticed a black trash bag at the end of his driveway. It wasn't his. Within minutes, the bag would have been picked up with the trash, but he had seen news reports about a body being found nearby. He decided that police should have a look in the bag.

When they did, they found a coat with a UPS insignia as well as a pay stub, assorted mail and a wallet with credit cards. All bore the name Anthony Fertitta.

The address led detectives to a home in Baltimore Highlands, 12 miles from the burning body. Parked at the curb was a Pontiac Trans Am registered to Fertitta. The house was unoccupied.

Police started working the neighborhood. Two houses away, a young man opened the door.

Yes, he said, he knew Anthony Fertitta. His mother had been dating the man for months.

Her name was Cindy McKay. And, he volunteered, she was no angel.-

That was Feb. 22, 2006. About 2 1/2 years earlier, a Baltimore detective named Richard Gibson had finally tracked Cindy McKay to southeastern Virginia. By then, he had been chasing her for several months and was as familiar as anyone with her criminal record, which included a 20-year string of convictions and incarcerations for thefts and embezzlements, mostly from small businesses where she had worked.

She was captured at a women's shelter in Norfolk and extradited to Maryland to face charges of embezzling more than $200,000 from St. Mary's Seminary & University in Roland Park. In her time on the run, she had assumed an alias and fleeced an elderly woman in Delaware of tens of thousands of dollars.

Convicted of multiple thefts in the St. Mary's case, McKay was sent back to the women's prison in Jessup. Gibson was gratified, though he didn't assume he had heard the last of her.

"I actually said in dialogue with colleagues that if she was able to, God forbid, get out of jail, she's going to hurt somebody else," said Gibson, now a lieutenant.

Joanne Mauck, who ran a prison ministry at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women in Jessup, was surprised to see McKay again. If there had been one prisoner she believed had truly repented her crimes and longed for a second chance, it had been Cindy McKay.

So when McKay reappeared in the makeshift prison chapel - looking quite chipper to Mauck's eye - Mauck couldn't help herself.

"I am very disappointed in you," she said to McKay.

Mauck never forgot McKay's reply. "Get over it," she snapped.

Perhaps, Mauck thought to herself, she had never really understood McKay at all.

Thanks to good behavior credits, McKay served only one year of an eight-year sentence at Jessup. She was then shipped to a Delaware prison to serve 11 months for swindling the elderly woman.

By the summer of 2005, she was a free woman again and on her way back to Baltimore.

She moved in with Christopher Haarhoff, the third youngest of her six children. She wasted no time wearing out her welcome. Christopher, then 19, kicked McKay out after his girlfriend discovered that McKay had obtained a credit card in her name.

McKay was there long enough to meet a neighbor, Tony Fertitta, a 50-year-old muscle car enthusiast. The two started keeping company and continued after she and another son, 17-year-old Matthew Haarhoff, moved to the Old Mill area.

Fertitta worked two jobs, delivering packages for UPS and loading freight for a wholesaler. He had never been married or had children. He wore gold necklaces and enjoyed flashing wads of bills. He was sweet - some said dopey - around women, though he'd had rotten luck with them.

Fertitta didn't know about McKay's criminal past. Neither did her new employer, Cheryl's Chalets, a portable toilet company (and eventual victim of her larcenies) that hired her as an office manager to replace the owner's daughter, who was leaving for a military tour of duty.

Fertitta took McKay to Ravens games, and they shopped for jewelry together. She told co-workers that they were considering moving in together, and she thought Fertitta might even pop the question. His co-workers remembered him showing off pictures of McKay on the cell phone she had given him for Christmas.

But not all was well. During a vacation in South Carolina, he accused McKay of taking $2,500 from his pocket while he showered. Another time, his credit card company called about the purchase of $6,000 worth of furniture he knew nothing about.

Something else he didn't know, police say, was that McKay wasn't faithful. She had tried to seduce a male co-worker and had exchanged sex chatter through the mail with a former cellmate.

Then there was Robert Kenneth Brown, the married bus driver from Tennessee whom she had met in 2003 while on the run. They had lost touch for two years, which, unknown to Brown, coincided with her recent imprisonments. Now they were again meeting regularly.

For Christmas, she had also bought him a cell phone.

In December 2005, Fertitta scored a $20,000 payday on Keno. McKay wanted to get her hands on that money, but this time, knowing Fertitta's penchant for carrying large amounts of cash, she had in mind a different kind of operation than her normal manipulations of bank accounts and credit cards.

This would be a flat-out armed robbery.

That was the story that William Neal Hart, an acquaintance of Christopher's, would later tell police. Hart said that McKay presented Christopher and him with a simple plan: She would signal Christopher when Fertitta left for work. Christopher and Hart, waiting outside in ski masks, would then rob him with a gun McKay supplied them.

The plot unfolded as planned, Hart told the police, until Matthew unexpectedly pulled up with friends. Christopher and Hart scrapped the robbery.

McKay was enraged, Hart reported. Now, she said, she might just have to marry Fertitta to get at his money.

In the meantime, though, life could go on as usual, which, for McKay, meant continuing to secretly milk Fertitta's credit cards and bank account.

On Feb. 21, she also signed papers to move into a new rental home. The next morning, police discovered Fertitta's burning remains.

In Fertitta's home the next day, detectives found love notes from McKay and an answering machine message from her recorded that morning, hours after Fertitta's body was found.

"I haven't heard from you," she said. "I thought you were coming over. ... Call me. Love you, baby."

Next stop for the police was McKay's home in Old Mill. There, Richard Alban, the lead homicide detective, smelled bleach and followed the scent to a discolored, still wet carpet in the dining room. Under the carpet was a large stain that looked like blood.

A street away, police located a 2000 Chevrolet Silverado, which they had learned Fertitta was using as a loaner. Blood smeared the rear passenger area, and in the center console was McKay's cell phone. The police also recovered a long-blade kitchen knife - the same brand as other knives found in McKay's kitchen.

McKay and Matthew arrived as technicians combed the house for clues. They agreed to be questioned and that night sat down with detectives in different interrogation rooms at the homicide unit in Crownsville.

Matthew was ready to talk. He had witnessed everything, he said. He claimed that Fertitta and McKay had started fighting violently and that he had phoned Christopher to come help. Matthew said his brother burst in 15 minutes later, attacked Fertitta with brass knuckles, pulled out a chrome revolver and shot him.

Meanwhile in another room, McKay offered a conflicting account: She and Fertitta had spent an amicable night together until he left for work at 2:50 a.m., and then she never saw him again. As to who might have killed him, she speculated that his "gambling problem" had gotten him in trouble with dangerous people.

When detectives pressed her about the incriminating evidence in her house, she covered her face and wept. That's when one of the detectives noticed small cuts on her hands.

Detectives watched in the lobby as mother and son left the station. "What did you tell them?" they overheard McKay quizzing Matthew, according to police documents. "They think Tony was killed in my house. ... All you had to do, Matthew, is tell them you wanted to leave. That's all you had to say."

Matthew's story was incriminating, but it had one big flaw. Fertitta had not been shot. He died from stab wounds to his heart, lung, liver and stomach.

The next day, police decided they had enough to get an arrest warrant for McKay. When they arrived at her home just after midnight, she greeted them calmly. "I was expecting you," she said. "Is anyone else going to get arrested?"

A few days later, Matthew had a new story to try on detectives. In this version, he hadn't been present for the murder at all. That business about Christopher killing Fertitta, that's what his mother had put Matthew up to telling the police, he said. The brass knuckles, the chrome revolver - all of it had been untrue.

"She said if it had anything to do with Tony, lie on your brother," he said, according to a transcript of the conversation. "She said she has been in jail long enough and doesn't want it to fall on her."

Now he claimed that he had briefly stopped by the house that night and that nothing had seemed unusual.

"Who do you think killed Tony?" Alban asked him.

Matthew answered without hesitation.

"My mother."

But that wasn't all Matthew had to unload.

To the surprise of the detectives, he now claimed that his mother had confessed to stabbing her last husband, Clarence "Buddy" Downs III, three years earlier and then setting the house on fire.

"Three months after it happened, she told me she did it," Matthew said. "She told me ... she wanted to get it off her chest."

This would turn out not to be the only time Matthew had made this accusation. Police later learned that he also told other adults close to him that his mother had confessed to killing Downs.

Baltimore County authorities had determined that Downs' death in 2002 had resulted from a fire caused by careless smoking. They said they uncovered no evidence of arson and had not been able to substantiate a theory that Downs had been stabbed. But the county says now that it has reopened the Downs investigation because of the presence of fire in both his death and Fertitta's. Through her attorneys, McKay has called the accusation baseless.

Ultimately, prosecutors indicted McKay as well as Christopher and Matthew on first-degree murder charges in Fertitta's killing.

It was a conclusion that was in some ways foretold many years ago. In anticipation of one of McKay's parole hearings more than a dozen years before, therapists had worried that of all of McKay's children, Christopher and Matthew seemed most vulnerable, most likely to suffer damage from her incarcerations.

Certainly their mother's absences weighed heavily on them. In third grade, Christopher wrote to her warden begging for her release. "I will keep her from doing anything wrong, I promise you," he wrote.

It may not have been McKay's absences that had a deleterious effect on the boys but her presence. Her other four children, who remained more distant from her, emerged most unscathed. The two sons from her first marriage have clean records. Another son, who cut off all connection to McKay, was, at last report, a manager at a moving company. Her youngest, a daughter raised by her father, lives in Florida and attends college.

For Christopher and Matthew, the path was not so trouble-free. Christopher was arrested for assault, resisting arrest and drug possession. Matthew once hit a teacher and spent time at Sheppard Pratt, the psychiatric hospital, and the Woodburne Center, a facility for behavioral problems, according to family members. All of that was before McKay reunited with them after getting out of prison in Delaware. Most of the time since then, the three have been behind bars, charged with Fertitta's murder.

Because of their conflicting accounts, delineating each of their roles - if any - in the killing has been elusive.

Matthew didn't do himself any favors with his different versions of events, particularly when he added one more. He allegedly told friends that he himself had fatally shot Fertitta (still getting the cause of death wrong). When police found his DNA - from sweat - in Fertitta's loaner car after he said he had never been in it, they became convinced of his involvement.

If the state can be said to have a theory of the crime, it started to emerge in October 2007 when Christopher pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of accessory after the fact.

According to the statement of facts assembled by Anne Arundel County prosecutors, McKay called Christopher during an argument with Fertitta, but when he arrived, he found McKay's boyfriend already dead, and his mother sitting on the stairs covered in blood. "I [messed] up," he told authorities she said to him. "I had to do it. He found out about the credit cards."

In the prosecution's narrative to the judge, Fertitta had realized that McKay had been stealing from him, and he had told friends that he intended to confront her with a choice: Pay him back or he'd go to the police.

Prosecutors suggest that she settled on a third option: killing Fertitta.

Christopher told authorities that his mother said she had considered burning the house down but rejected that course because it was too similar to the events surrounding Downs' death. "That would be too much of a coincidence," Christopher quoted his mother saying, "two house fires, two bodies." Instead, Christopher said, he helped his mother move the body out to Old Mill Road, where they doused him with gasoline and set him on fire.

As a result of his guilty plea, Christopher was sentenced to five years in prison. What his plea didn't settle was Matthew's role. No evidence surfaced in Christopher's plea that put Matthew at the murder scene, and Christopher's lawyer later said that Christopher never saw his younger brother that night.

Still, prosecutors did not drop their case against Matthew.

In letters that Matthew said he received from his mother, she assured him that he would be freed. Recently, she wrote to him that she would plead guilty to the crime and he would be released, or, as she said, "out the gates in '08."

During an interview at the Anne Arundel County Detention Center this year, Matthew was noticeably thinner than when first arrested; his face clear of the acne visible in his mug shot. His arms were tattooed, and he used the teeth of combs as piercings in his lip and ear.

Since his arrest two years earlier, he had spent much of his time in segregation on suicide watch or for tussling with correctional officers. He cursed his mother at times, but he also fondly described her mischievous giggle and how she cocked an eyebrow at him on the rare occasions when she was angry with him.

"She's a real intelligent person," he said. "Down to earth, most of the time. Affectionate."

He paused and then added one characteristic that is undeniable: "She's ... unique."

If Matthew thought McKay would get him out of this mess, it didn't turn out that way.

Earlier this month, while he sat in his cell, his 52-year-old mother was led into a courtroom in Annapolis wearing jeans and a Division of Correction sweat shirt nearly the same shade of gray as her shoulder-length hair. The courtroom was full, in part because of observing students, but McKay never glanced toward the gallery. She sat at the defense table, staring intently as the prosecutor, Virginia Miles, detailed the evidence against her, which included a security video showing McKay purchasing $5 of gasoline just minutes before Fertitta's body was discovered.

McKay listened to all this, resting her chin in her hand, with an index finger slipped into her mouth. If she was surprised or angered or disturbed, nothing in her expression gave any indication.

The purpose of the proceeding was for McKay to enter an Alford plea to second-degree murder in Fertitta's death. That plea, a legal paradox, enabled McKay to maintain her innocence while accepting that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict her. She could be sentenced to 30 years.

For Matthew, the distinction couldn't be more momentous. His mother's court appearance did nothing to clear him of suspicion.

Nevertheless, after McKay was escorted from the courtroom, her attorney, Karl H. Gordon, assured reporters: "She remains very concerned about her son."

Matthew is scheduled to go on trial in Fertitta's murder in October.