A brazen con artist received the maximum sentence of 30 years in prison yesterday for the 2006 murder of her boyfriend, after adding another bizarre chapter to a life of crime with a court appearance that included a last-ditch attempt to take back her guilty plea.
Cynthia J. McKay, a 52-year-old mother of six, said a prison "epiphany" had convinced her to try to fight the charges - even though her son's release from jail was tied to her following through with her plea. When the judge turned down the request for a trial, McKay then said that she had stabbed her boyfriend during a fight.
But only, she insisted, after he had accidentally stabbed himself.
McKay, a prosecutor told the judge, is "without rival, the most devious defendant this court will come across" and "devoid of redeeming qualities."
Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Pamela L. North, in remarks that were a mix of awe and disgust, said McKay had an "amazing history of dishonesty that seems unparalleled" and called her a bad parent who had "poisoned" the two sons who were implicated in the crime.
"Your life has been like a tornado - wherever it's touching down, it's leaving this mass destruction in its path," North said.
Against the advice of her attorneys, McKay asked at the beginning of the hearing to withdraw her plea to second-degree murder and felony theft charges, citing specific legal codes and saying she had not participated in her defense or received key documents.
"I have always wanted a trial," she said. "I am not guilty of murder."
Cindy McKay, a former Prince George's County police cadet, was accused of killing Anthony Fertitta in February 2006 in their Millersville home and setting his body on fire, a crime for which she and her two sons were charged with first-degree murder. In April, McKay entered an Alford plea, in which a defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges that prosecutors have enough evidence to win a conviction.
Prosecutor Kathleen Rogers said Fertitta, a 50-year-old who liked to show off his cash, was an easy mark for McKay. "She gained his trust, and more importantly for her, she gained his Social Security number."
Rogers said McKay secretly stole thousands from Fertitta, buying cars and leather furniture while carrying out a "mind-bogglingly complex" theft scheme at her job, a portable toilet company in Glen Burnie that had hired her as an office manager. McKay went to work the day after his death and acted as if nothing had happened.
She was arrested a few days later, after Fertitta's blood was found under a bleach-soaked carpet in the house, and surveillance footage showed McKay purchasing gasoline that would be used to burn his body in the early-morning darkness.
A glum-faced McKay sat with her chin resting on her hand as one of her attorneys, Shane McMahon, offered a new account of the crime in hopes of mitigating her sentence. People from McKay's past - two former fellow inmates, a stepdaughter, a former landlord and a prison counselor - sat riveted in the courtroom gallery as the defense team offered up the legal equivalent of a "Hail Mary" pass in football.
"It was like theater," said one of the former inmates.
She told North that she and Fertitta had connected as two single 50-year-olds who had common interests: Baltimore Ravens football games, NASCAR, movies. She claimed that Fertitta had allowed her to use his credit cards, though she said she abused that trust.
A fight erupted on Feb. 21 after Fertitta learned that McKay would be moving into a new home without him, she said. Fertitta, who has been described as a mild-mannered and kind-hearted man who would hug strangers, allegedly slammed her against a mirror, which shattered. She grabbed a shard and stabbed him in the leg.
High on Oxycontin, she said, he tripped over her Italian greyhound, Vinnie, and stabbed himself. Out of fear, she then stabbed him as well.
"She wanted to demonstrate that, in fact, his knife was first, hers came second, and that his knife would've killed him anyway," McMahon said.
McMahon said the "crazy" explanation would make sense because McKay's criminal history did not suggest violence and because she was too smart to botch the cover-up so badly.
"It's clear from the cover-up afterward that she hadn't been planning this," he said.
"Naturally, I regret very deeply that Tony died," she said, sniffling but never looking at Fertitta's sister, who was seated in the courtroom. "... There's nothing I could do to prevent him from dying."
Rogers said after the hearing that McKay's explanation was nothing more than the work of a clever defendant who had pieced together key parts of the voluminous police report.
McKay's past convictions include the embezzlement of more than $200,000 from St. Mary's Seminary in Roland Park. After surviving a house fire in Lansdowne that killed her third husband, McKay faked her own death in 2003 to avoid capture on the embezzlement charges, according to police records. While on the lam, she disguised her appearance and took on a new identity as a former nun, stealing at least $80,000 from an elderly woman in Delaware.
"She has stolen, she has swindled, she has deceived and she has never looked back," said Rogers.
Had North allowed McKay to take back her plea, it would have had a potentially devastating impact on her 20-year-old son, Matthew Haarhoff. He is to enter an Alford plea today, his lawyer said, to one count of being an accessory after the fact, receiving an 18-month suspended sentence that will free him from jail after more than two years awaiting trial.
His plea, however, was contingent on his mother's sticking to her plea agreement. McKay acknowledged the potentially detrimental effect her actions would have on her son, who she said was innocent, but said she should be able to fight her charges without taking into account the effect on others.
"If I'm coming in here before the court, I don't feel I should have to worry about everything else and not have what I need," she said.
Another son, Christopher Haarhoff, pleaded guilty last fall to one count of being an accessory after the fact, telling prosecutors that his mother called him to the home to help dispose of the body and telling him that she killed Fertitta because he discovered she was stealing from him. The 22-year-old received five years in prison.
"If it was a crime to be a bad parent, this would be a classic case," North said. "It's just unbelievable that you would involve a child of yours in this sordid mess that you have created."
"I don't understand how a person so evil can do all of this and show or feel no remorse," said Fertitta's sister, Rose Acton, in a victim impact statement that was read by prosecutors. "I feel as if this woman should never walk the streets of freedom again. However, it upsets me to think that will not happen."
Rogers defended McKay's plea, which North several times described as "very favorable." McKay could have faced 45 years in prison, but prosecutors agreed to let the second-degree murder and theft sentences run concurrently. Rogers said prosecutors believed they could only prove second-degree murder.
McMahon said McKay plans to ask the judge to reconsider the sentence.
WORDS FROM THE COURTROOM
"The court has to be about the truth - you told me I had a right to a trial by jury of my peers. ... It's taken a little longer than many of us have hoped or imagined to get to this point, but the truth is always worth waiting for."
On the time after Fertitta was killed: "At that point, it seemed like all the life out of the whole house left. You don't hear the normal noises. And I was freezing cold - my house wasn't cold but I was freezing cold - and I went and sat on the steps leading up to the bedroom, right on the foyer where Tony was for five hours. I didn't know what to do. I couldn't believe he was dead."
"It doesn't make sense why I did the things that I did afterward. I can't explain them. I don't know why I did it."
Prosecutor Kathleen Rogers, to the judge
"The woman who stands before you today is without rival, the most devious defendant this court will ever come across. One only has to look at the defendant's prior record in the pre-sentence investigation to know the treachery she has reaped over this county and this state. For almost the last 25 years ... she has stolen, she has swindled, she has deceived, and she has never looked back. She has repeatedly gotten in people's good graces to then rob them blind."
"These actions are evidence of a person who is devoid of any redeeming qualities, who is in fact devoid of a conscience."
Judge Pamela L. North, to McKay
"You have this amazing history of dishonesty which seems almost unparalleled when you compare it with other criminal defendants who come into this court. I'm really very impressed by your intelligence - you appear to be very intelligent to me, and that sort of makes all of this even sadder."
"If it was a crime to be a bad parent, this would be a classic case where you would be prosecuted for being a bad parent. It's just unbelievable that you would involve a child of yours in this sordid mess that you have created."
"Frankly, based on your history I have no hope or expectation that you would ever be rehabilitated. I think that regardless of whether you spend years in prison or out on the street, you will be the same person you are now and continue to commit the same types of crimes."