A 52-year-old career thief and mother of six was convicted yesterday of secretly stealing thousands of dollars from her boyfriend and stabbing him to death before his body was found burning along an Anne Arundel County road.
Two weeks before her trial was to begin, Cynthia J. McKay entered a guilty plea to charges of second-degree murder and felony theft, ducking a possible life sentence in a crime that ensnared two of her sons. She now faces a maximum penalty of 30 years.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys involved in the case said piecing together not just the death of Anthony Fertitta, whose body was found ablaze not far from McKay's Millersville townhouse in February 2006, but McKay's past made the case one of the most complicated they had ever handled.
"It was a complex case, and we had a complex defendant," said prosecutor Virginia Miles.
McKay's previous husband died in a Christmas Day fire in 2002, and she pleaded guilty in 2003 to stealing more than $200,000 from a Catholic seminary in Baltimore. With her plea yesterday, she has been convicted a dozen times, spanning more than 20 years and several counties.
Released from prison in July 2005 after stealing from an elderly Delaware woman, McKay moved to Millersville and began dating Fertitta in the fall. The 50-year-old UPS driver and warehouse worker did not know he was dating a convicted con artist, prosecutors said.
Investigators assembled volumes of evidence linking McKay to the killing: Fertitta's blood was found under a bleach-soaked rug in her dining room, and surveillance tapes showed her purchasing gasoline and bleach from local stores. More blood was found in his loaner truck, along with McKay's cell phone and a knife from her kitchen.
But prosecutors said the evidence did not include proof of premeditation, a required component of first-degree murder.
"We believe we got a conviction for exactly what we could prove beyond a reasonable doubt," said prosecutor Kathleen Rogers.
McKay's two youngest sons -- Christopher Haarhoff, 21, and Matthew Haarhoff, 20 -- were also arrested in connection with the crime. Christopher Haarhoff received five years in prison in January after pleading guilty to accessory after the fact charges. He told prosecutors that he helped his mother dispose of the body and that she said she had killed Fertitta because he threatened to go to police after discovering her thefts.
Matthew Haarhoff, meanwhile, is awaiting an October trial on charges of first-degree murder. McKay's plea yesterday shed no new light on what roles the mother and son might have played in the killing. By entering an Alford plea, McKay acknowledged that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict her of murder and the accompanying charges, but she did not admit guilt.
Matthew Haarhoff's lawyer had been hopeful that she would accept responsibility for the crime and perhaps absolve her son of guilt. McKay's attorneys said she remains concerned about her son and is hopeful that her conviction will lead to his charges being dropped.
McKay, who wore a gray Division of Correction sweat shirt and blue jeans, spoke briefly at the hearing, answering standard questions from Circuit Judge Pamela North with "Yes, ma'am." She fixed her gaze on Assistant State's Attorney Virginia Miles as the prosecutor outlined the state's case:
Fertitta met McKay through Christopher Haarhoff, who lived a few doors down from him in the Baltimore Highlands. They began dating in October 2005, and continued to see each other after she moved to Millersville. Unknown to him, she was using his money to rack up thousands of dollars in purchases, including new furniture and three cars.
In December 2005, when Fertitta won a large payoff playing Keno, McKay gave Christopher Haarhoff a handgun and proposed that he rob Fertitta as he left her house to go to work.
"She was prepared to take a cut of whatever [Christopher] got," Miles said.
The plan was aborted, but she continued to steal from Fertitta, according to the prosecutor. At some point, he received a bill for the furniture and told friends that he planned to confront her.
Just after 3 a.m. Feb. 22, 2006, Fertitta's burning body was found by a patrol officer not far from McKay's home in the 200 block of Nathan Way in Millersville. He had been stabbed twice in the chest, dragged out of her home through a pathway, doused in gasoline and set on fire, Miles said.
A short distance away, a neighbor noticed a trash bag at the end of his driveway. Inside, police found Fertitta's wallet -- which had McKay's blood on it -- and his UPS jacket, she said.
In an interview with police the next day, McKay said Fertitta had come to her home and that they had dinner, watched a movie, and went to bed. He got up at 2:50 a.m. to go to work, she said, and she went back to sleep.
Afterward, defense attorneys told North that they disputed the account.
"Obviously, we don't agree with the allegations, but we agree that the witnesses the state would call would testify in that fashion," said defense attorney Karl H. Gordon.
McKay was also convicted yesterday of the felony theft of about $20,000 from her employer, a portable toilet company called Cheryl's Chalets where she worked as an office manager. Miles said McKay overcharged customers in the company computer, then refunded the money to herself and created phony bank forms to cover up the transactions.