As the sun rose over the Atlantic in the early hours of April 15, 2003, an Ocean City police officer pulled his squad car into the parking lot near the inlet that separates Assateague Island from the carnival rides of the boardwalk. He had been sent there to investigate a report of a suspicious car, parked facing the water with its lights on.
In the Hyundai Santa Fe, the officer saw a cell phone hooked to a charger, a handbag and an empty bottle of hydrocodone. Next to the purse, the officer wrote in his report, were a set of keys and a letter written in a gentle cursive on lined yellow notebook paper.
Leaving you all in the middle of the night was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. After meeting with my lawyer today its clear that Jessup is waiting for me. I can't and won't go back. Please understand and try to make the kids understand why I can't.
I feel all alone and have decided to die rather than rot in prison. I'm sorry. ... Please love and take care of the children. They'll need you more than ever.
Let them know that I love them VERY much and couldn't put them through years of prison too.
All my love, Cindy
Near the letter were an empty box for an inflatable rubber raft and a receipt for a pair of oars, purchased the day before at a Wal-Mart. Few people choose drowning as a method of suicide, but the evidence in the car suggested that this "Cindy" had rafted out into the sea to kill herself.
Soon enough, though, investigators were doubting that scenario. Was suicide really a conceivable ending for Cindy McKay, a woman who never backed into a corner she felt she couldn't back right out of, a con she couldn't play, a mark she couldn't dupe?
The mother of six, McKay was far closer to Ma Barker than the Madonna when it came to the matriarchal - a brazen, often-convicted thief who pilfered hundreds of thousands of dollars from small businesses, from a Catholic seminary, from a charity, from the aged, from lovers, from many who had trusted her. She outlasted two of the men in her life, both victims of unnatural deaths, and was the instigator - at the least - in a homicide that eventually landed two of her sons as well as herself behind bars.
Through it all, she demonstrated the nerves of a sapper coupled with an indifference to the harm she inflicted on others - employers, good Samaritans or her blood kin. Once she even claimed that her father was dead so that she could swipe title to his home. She was moxie married to malevolence.
So wary of her was one prosecutor that he implored a judge not to require her to pay back those from whom she had stolen. That, the prosecutor said, would only give her incentive to steal again.
Even though she was sitting in a jail cell at the time, the father of one of her children - a retired police officer, no less - refused to discuss McKay for fear she could still find a way to afflict him again. "She could be on the electric chair, and I wouldn't trust her," he said.
In Ocean City, detectives began learning more about the woman who at first seemed to have chosen the bottom of the sea over a jail cell.
And then they started to wonder.
"There is reason to believe that she killed herself," Detective Mike Levy told a local newspaper at the time. "[But] she had enough of a reason to run."
Audacious, not ingenious
It was strange. First, one of Fred Wuest Jr.'s customers then another and then another began complaining. They were still getting billed for windows he had sold them, even though each was certain payment had been made.
That was in the summer of 1985, and Wuest and his wife, owners of Mid-Lantic Window Co. on West Street in downtown Annapolis, were concerned enough to begin an audit.
But before they got far, Wuest received a frantic call while on a fishing trip with his sons: A two-alarm blaze had broken out in his records office, with flames shooting from the top of the two-story concrete building. Shortly before explosions shattered the plate glass windows, witnesses saw a woman leaving the business. Later, accelerant was discovered in the wreckage. Investigators believed it was arson, perhaps connected to other suspicious fires in the city that summer.
But eventually, they returned to those missing payments. When police followed the trail, it led to a dummy account where checks had been deposited. And the person who had set up the account: Mid-Lantic's new office manager.
Cindy McKay had started working at the company only a few months earlier. She was a beguiling, 29-year-old single mother with a soft, sweet smile, deep blue eyes and a knack for putting people at their ease. Pleasant, calming, unassuming.
Her scheme wasn't clever: simple embezzling that netted her $20,000, and once cracked, led directly back to her. She was an audacious criminal, just not an ingenious one, and even at this stage she displayed all the moves that would characterize her through more than two decades of crime. Ingratiating and seductive, she had a gift for inching her way into positions of trust with those who made the mistake of regarding her as warm, well-meaning and dutiful. Inevitably, she made people pay for opening their hearts and bank accounts to her.
Those who knew her talk about her wit, her warmth, her generosity. She was someone who would treat half a dozen people to dinner to celebrate the birthday of a friend or go overboard in gift-giving for a baby shower. Yet, a former husband came to believe such gestures were meant only to impress, to deceive. "I believe she feels she is far superior to anybody else in the human race, and that's why she did the [expletive] she did," David Haarhoff said not long ago. "I think she just thought that she was smarter than everybody."
Despite repeated requests, McKay refused to be interviewed for this series.
Perhaps there are explanations for people like Cindy McKay. She once offered the wholly uncorroborated rationale that she was abused as a child. Whether it was pathology, resentment or compulsion that drove her - speculations suggested by friends, family, or therapists over her lifetime - what is clear is that neither reprobation nor familial obligation nor even prison stopped Cindy McKay for long.
Charm and crimes
By most accounts, McKay did not have a troubled upbringing. Born in Washington and raised in suburban Prince George's County, she was the oldest of three children born to a utility company foreman and a Capitol Hill aide. The family spent frequent weekends at a vacation cottage in St. Mary's County, where they went crabbing and the children caught fireflies.
McKay attended a private Catholic girls' high school in Suitland, and was popular - a cheerleader who in her school newspaper expressed an eagerness to organize the five-year reunion after graduation. Friends from that time recall her as outgoing and mischievous; the "fun one," who was first to make weekend plans and daring enough to suggest cutting class.
After graduating in 1974, she seemed more interested in upholding the law than breaking it. Instead of college, she signed on with the Prince George's County Police Department as a cadet.
Her time there, however, ended abruptly when internal affairs began looking into allegations that she was making threatening phone calls to a boyfriend's former girlfriend. McKay left the agency at age 20.
In 1978, she enrolled at the University of Maryland, College Park as an elementary education major and took up menial jobs to pay the bills. She was a waitress, a secretary at a law firm, an office manager at a construction company. The jobs weren't special, but McKay made an impression.
"Cindy was very bright. I mean, extremely bright," recalls Barbara Wetzell, an emergency room nurse at Physicians Memorial Hospital in La Plata, where McKay worked the busy front desk as a receptionist. "She knew exactly what was going on at all times," and was adept at picking up on "things that other people wouldn't even notice." Wetzell said she couldn't help feeling that her friend tried too hard to impress others, like the time she lavished a pregnant co-worker with one baby gift after another. "I never saw a mean streak," Wetzell recalled, "but I would say that Cindy was devilishly clever."
Even more striking than McKay's work ethic was her winsomeness. "She could charm a rattlesnake," said family friend Jean Harmon.
The fall after she left the Police Department, in 1976, McKay married a Prince George's County police officer named Alan Creveling. The couple were together less than a year when McKay met a security guard, Robert Padgett, at the hospital. He was married, too, but, according to court documents, that didn't stop them from launching an affair. It would last five years. According to those court filings, they talked of marriage and looked into purchasing real estate together.
But the relationship ended when McKay got pregnant in 1983. Padgett, who retired from the La Plata Police Department in 2005, denied that he was the father, but paternity tests came back positive. He was ordered by a court to pay child support but didn't want anything more to do with her. She would raise their son herself.
Not surprisingly, McKay's marriage to Creveling unraveled and he filed for divorce. In a drawn-out custody fight over their two boys, she presented herself as a model of motherhood. "I provide a good Christian home and schooling for the children," she said in a deposition. "It is in their interest that they be with their mother."
But Creveling, who is now the public safety coordinator for the city of Bowie, claimed in court filings that she had "serious emotional, moral and financial difficulties." He was eventually awarded custody.
Creveling's characterization seemed borne out in 1985 when McKay committed or was accused of committing a string of crimes. In February, she was given three years' probation in Charles County for stealing at least $10,000 from a construction company where she had worked as a secretary and treasurer. She claimed her bills pertaining to the custody battle impelled her to steal, but a portion of that money also found its way to the installation of a hot tub at her Waldorf home, records would show.
Prison and romance
Two months later, police arrested her for stealing from Fred Wuest's window company in Annapolis, the business that had burned down. She was also initially charged with arson, but the charge was dropped and has since been expunged from her record. She was found guilty of the theft, however, and sentenced to six months in prison.
Her son from the affair with Padgett was left in the care of a middle-aged babysitter, Donna Ruzza, who grew close to the boy and would later try unsuccessfully to retain custody after she concluded that McKay was not likely to reform.
"If they were the most important thing, you would've done better for your kids, and she never did," Ruzza said in a recent interview.
Before McKay reported to prison in 1985, she got pregnant once more - again by a police officer who did not want a relationship - and she carried the baby while incarcerated. A judge released her so she could give birth, on the condition that she return when the child was two months old.
Being in the Anne Arundel County Detention Center didn't hamper her romantic pursuits. But while at least three of her previous relationships were with police officers, she finally linked up with a man more compatible with her criminal leanings - David Haarhoff, an addict who was being held on a burglary charge.
After both were released from prison in 1987, they married in a civil ceremony and then had two more children, making a grand total of six kids for her, plus two of Haarhoff's children. In his custody case, Creveling insisted that McKay and Haarhoff lived beyond their means, with trips to Disney World, expensive gifts and gymnastics and ice-skating lessons. Of course, McKay wasn't one to allow legal constraints to prevent her from getting what she wanted.
They moved to the Eastern Shore, where she worked at successive jobs at a kitchen supplier, a gift store and a cable company. At each one, she soon faced allegations of stealing merchandise or embezzlement and was fired. At the cable company, she stole gift certificates intended as Christmas bonues.
She would be convicted on more than a dozen counts of theft and related charges. Though restitution is commonly ordered in such cases, the prosecutor was so worried about McKay's criminal tendencies that he argued against it.
She received 15 years.
Unknown to authorities then was another sleight-of-hand on her part. Just after she was charged in the gift store thefts, McKay assembled a phony death certificate stating that her father had died of "acute coronary thrombosis" on June 6, 1991. She then used it to convey the deed to a family vacation home in St. Mary's County to herself so she could use it as collateral for a $25,000 home improvement loan, according to a copy of a lawsuit filed in civil court by the loan company.
Around the same time, McKay posted $25,000 bond to be released from jail while awaiting her trial.
Three years later, the loan on the vacation house went into default while McKay was serving her sentence. In the process of foreclosing on William McKay's home, the insurance company discovered that he was very much alive.
But only for another year. In 1995, William McKay, who for years had helped his daughter by paying off debts or giving her a place to stay, died at age 65.
As an inmate in the maximum-security wing of the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women in Jessup, McKay missed her father's funeral. In a letter to Judge D. William Simpson, who had sentenced her, she claimed that she mostly stayed in her cell, with her HIV-positive, drug-trafficking cellmate.
"It is difficult to understand, but the majority of women appear to 'like' it here," she wrote Simpson in 1991. "They have family and friends here. This is also evidenced by their continual return to Jessup.
"My life holds so much more for me."
She wrote letter after letter to Simpson in the hope that he would reduce her sentence - authority he did not have. She cited studies and news clippings about how a parent's incarceration hurt children; she researched educational opportunities and proposed alternative sentences. At the end of one letter, she quoted Albert Camus, the French philosopher: "Freedom is nothing else but a chance to do better."
She vigorously played up her role as a mother. "My children need a supportive mother and someone they can rely on in times ahead. I really feel that parents are the single most important influence on their children," she wrote. "I may have failed them in the past but I don't want them to fail in the future.
"They are my ultimate canvas, aren't they?"
She pressed her campaign for early release on others besides Simpson. She convinced William C. Newman, a bishop in the Baltimore Archdiocese, of her worthiness. He wrote multiple letters on her behalf, including one to then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
Her 11-year-old son, Ryan, also appealed to the parole board: "If I promise to get better grades," he wrote, "will you let her come home soon? I will."
None of it worked.
Nevertheless, McKay was building up quite a prison resume: She sat on multiple panels and advisory boards, and she had taken a number of college courses. She was an active member of a prison congregation called the Community of St. Dysmas.
"She was on her way to turning herself around," said JoAnne Mauck, a volunteer who attends the prison services and recalled McKay's prominent role. "I thought, 'she's really making a nice life for herself.'"
In the prison laundry room where she spent Sundays washing clothes, McKay and a fellow inmate came up with ideas for a series of public-service announcements that would show other female offenders how to avoid falling into the same traps again.
They drew up scripts, and with the blessing of Jessup administrators and the House of Ruth, the spots eventually aired on local TV stations.
"There had to be something positive about being away," McKay told The Sun in 1995 for a profile about her efforts. "I really just want my future to be much better than my past."
With her release date nearing, she had also been corresponding with a man on the outside - a fellow inmate's brother.
A second husband
Clarence Downs III had never done jail time. He worked for the City of Baltimore in the forestry division, where he supervised a staff of about 40 and oversaw care of the city's 400,000 trees. The Hampden native, a divorced father of two, rarely dated but longed for companionship. In McKay's letters to him, Downs, known as "Buddy" by his friends, felt he had gotten to know her and regarded her as a good person. He believed in second chances.
She divorced Haarhoff, her second husband, and married Downs one month after her parole in 1999. Eventually, she would bring four of her children to live with her and Downs in a rowhouse in Morrell Park in Southwest Baltimore that had belonged to his father.
It wasn't long before she got a job at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Roland Park, the nation's oldest Roman Catholic seminary. She became an office manager in its Center for Continuing Formation, where she helped book the private guest rooms and suites.
The pay wasn't anything special, but this job was a far cry from the drudgery of past work answering phones: She started each day passing through iron gates, up a winding, tree-lined drive to a palatial limestone building with Palladian windows overlooking a grand lawn. To get to her office, she passed by a fountain and a courtyard, then through an entrance that read "Rekindle the Gift of God Within You."
McKay had come highly recommended - she had references from a grant-writing program, a group called End the Cycle, and an insurance broker who had known her for 15 years. In one letter of recommendation, an associate "spoke warmly and effusively about the good humor, great capacity for friendship, and her wisdom on many subjects."
She did not reveal to her new employers that she was an ex-con.
Downs' new family soon outgrew his Morrell Park rowhouse, forcing a move into a much bigger Victorian house atop a hill in Baltimore Highlands, in Baltimore County just south of the city. It had a distant view of the Inner Harbor and was said to be the former home of a harbormaster who had kept lookout there for incoming boats and ships. At $130,000, it was a fixer-upper, the perfect project for Buddy, who enjoyed working with his hands.
The couple decided to embark on a family enterprise. Just down the street, they took over a small restaurant called "On the Go Deli." Downs purchased the food, McKay kept the books, and the children delivered pizzas and helped serve customers.
The family had nice things; Downs told his son from a previous marriage, Clarence Downs IV - known as B.J. for "Buddy Junior" - that McKay was a "bargain hunter" who found much of their higher-end possessions at discount stores. They kept two pets - a yellow lab and a pit-bull mix - and the boys had a video game room and dirt bikes they rode around the neighborhood.
After preaching about the dangers of recidivism while at Jessup, McKay appeared to be a role model. It didn't last.
In 2001, Downs filed for personal bankruptcy, and the deli was shuttered. Downs started having serious health problems, eventually missing stretches of work for heart trouble.
Downs also could no longer tolerate McKay's youngest boys, 14-year-old Matthew and 16-year-old Christopher, whom he found impossible to manage. He confided to those close to him that he was going to leave McKay at the turn of the year.
A week before Christmas 2002, McKay was laid off from her job at the St. Mary's Seminary, which was downsizing amid financial troubles.
At about 8 p.m. on Christmas Day, B.J. received a call on his cell phone from McKay, who said his father had been drinking and had fallen down. When B.J. arrived he didn't see any marks on his father or anything else to be concerned about. He returned to his home in the city, about 10 minutes away.
Within the hour, McKay called again, this time screaming that the house was on fire, and that Downs was still inside.
Responding firefighters were unable to get inside because of the intense fire and heat, and the blaze grew to a second alarm. Pieces of the home were caving in, sending embers into the night air as family and friends watched from a snowy embankment.
Downs' body was found on a couch in the living room. McKay told police that she and Matthew had placed him there after Downs, heavily intoxicated, had fallen in the second-floor bathroom and cut his forehead. Once on the sofa, McKay said, he asked for a cigarette. He wasn't supposed to smoke, but she gave him one anyway, along with an aluminum foil ash tray.
McKay told police that she and Matthew were on the second floor playing video games when they heard a loud noise. Downstairs they encountered a wall of flames. They couldn't get to Buddy.
The death was ruled accidental, caused by "careless smoking."
In a television interview the next day, McKay said until the fire, it had been the "best Christmas ever."
"My husband's gone. This is gone," she said, motioning toward the home, "and everything we know, our history, is gone. It's gone. ...
"The kids lost a wonderful father, and I lost a wonderful and caring husband. And it just, it just was a tragedy. Totally."
Loss and a fresh start
McKay had lost just about everything from her rebuilt life. But she also had come into a large amount of money: an estimated $300,000 as the sole beneficiary of Downs' life insurance policy, according to police records.
Before long, the new widow reunited with an old partner, David Haarhoff - against his better judgment, he would say years later. Soon after, the two began scouting new houses to buy in the Salisbury area.
At the St. Mary's Seminary, former co-workers were devastated to hear about McKay's tragedy. But they were also trying to piece together the wide discrepancies between the checks received for facility rentals and money deposited in St. Mary's account. Kathleen Mignini, an office manager, traced one check and found that it had been deposited into an account at Provident Bank, which was not affiliated with the seminary.
But Mignini would learn that a certain former center manager with access to the seminary's checks did have a Provident Bank account.
"We have every reason to suspect," Mignini wrote in a memo, "that Ms. Downs was responsible for taking this money."
Eventually, the seminary would confront her over its suspicions. This time, however, Cindy McKay had no intention of returning to prison.
About the series
Tomorrow: A Baltimore detective picks up McKay's trail.
Tuesday: McKay's career takes a deadly turn.