BALTIMORE, MD — In July 2008, 52-year-old Cindy McKay entered an Alford plea for murdering her boyfriend two years earlier. Not looking to make a deal, the judge promptly slapped McKay with the maximum sentence — 30 years in prison.
With that, then, came an end to the epic criminal saga of McKay who, for much of her life, seemed to simply be a loving Catholic mother of six — in between relentless con jobs, faking her own suicide, impersonating a nun, and fatally stabbing her boyfriend before lighting his corpse on fire.
In 1999, Baltimore resident Cindy McKay met and married Parks Department worker Clarence “Buddy” Downs. It was her third union and his second. Between the couple, they already had two children apiece.For a while, the freshly blended family seemed to be a picture of happiness. Downs and the boys loved working on their fixer-upper Victorian home while McKay occupied herself by shopping — spending, in hindsight, wildly beyond the couple’s means.
Things took a downturn in 2002. First, McKay got laid off from her office manager job at St. Mary’s Seminary. Then, on Christmas night, a fire blamed on a discarded cigarette burned the family’s house to the ground, killing Buddy in the process.
McKay managed to escape the blaze, and happily accepted a relief fund set up by friends and colleagues. Among the contributors were McKay’s former coworkers at St. Mary’s Seminary — from where, shortly thereafter, an internal investigation revealed that McKay had embezzled more than $200,000.
Once confronted, McKay confessed to the theft. She claimed that Downs had been a drunk who owed gambling debts to Mafia bruisers who once showed up and put a gun in her son’s mouth. Moved by such a (bogus) plight, the seminary asked the authorities to use “kid gloves” on their former employee.
Police, though, took a hard look at the fact that McKay was the sole beneficiary of Downs’ $300,000 life insurance policy. Suddenly, it came to light that McKay had forged her dad’s death certificate and once did six months behind bars for stealing from a business — that curiously caught fire.
When detectives reached out to McKay’s attorney to interview her, they got surprising news: He said Cindy McKay had committed suicide.
On April 15, 2003, McKay’s car turned up near a local beach. Inside was a Wal-Mart receipt for an inflatable raft and two oars, along with a supposed suicide note in which she declared that, rather than go to back to jail, she’d paddle out into the Atlantic Ocean until she drowned. As suicide schemes go, this came off (to put it mildly) suspicious.In reality, McKay had fled to Delaware, where she told a group of women at a church garage sale that she was “Annie Pillar,” a former nun who had fallen in love with a priest and, since that went bad, she desperately needed help.
The church group hooked up McKay as a live-in caretaker to Shirley Bluhm, a well-off 77-year-old widow in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. By all accounts, McKay actually did a great job in the role. Bluhm came to love her, and McKay quickly became fully embraced into her employer’s life and church community.
Such closeness, naturally, proved all the better for McKay to help herself to her boss’s finances. In just six weeks, McKay stole roughly $200,000 from Bluhm and spent it on a car, two motorcycles, and a $50,000 down payment on a beach house.
Once McKay felt the heat coming down in Delaware, she hightailed it to Norfolk, Virginia, where she faked a black eye with makeup, said her (nonexistent) police officer husband had been beating her, and checked into a women’s shelter.
From there, McKay called her second husband and said she’d been in an accident and needed help. He, in turn, called the police.
Responding officers obtained warrants and entered McKay’s room at the shelter. They saw, out in the open, multiple driver’s licenses with different names, piles of cash, and maps with what looked to be an escape route drawn on them. McKay returned during the search and, after trying to talk her way out of it, gave up.
In October 2003, McKay cut a plea deal and got seven years behind bars for robbing St. Mary’s. While locked up, she reportedly worked the system hard and successfully sold herself as being remorseful and reformed. McKay served less than half her sentence, got paroled early for good behavior, and moved back to Baltimore. Then she got worse.
On February 22, 2006, police in Millersville, Maryland, drove out to a roadside fire and saw what they thought was a burning mannequin. It turned out to be the body of 50-year-old UPS worker Tony Fertitta. An autopsy would reveal that Fertitta had been stabbed to death prior to being doused in gasoline and then lit ablaze.
Investigators also discovered that Fertitta’s house had been burglarized. While there, they listened to answering machine messages from Fertitta’s girlfriend, who called several times to ask where he was. That voice belonged to none other than Cindy McKay.
While detectives determined what had been stolen from Fertitta’s home, someone tried to charge $7,000 worth of furniture to his credit card. Police also found a heavily bleached bloodstain on Fertitta’s rug and a hidden stash of his personal items in a bag under a sink.
In addition, investigators noticed blood smeared all over the bumper and interior of Fertitta’s truck. Under the front seat, police uncovered the knife that had been used to stab him. Suspicion quickly fell in the obvious direction.
Any doubt that McKay was guilty met a real challenge after surveillance footage surfaced from a nearby convenience store. The tape was shot shortly before Fertitta died, and it clearly depicts Cindy McKay purchasing a jug of bleach and gallon of gas.
Apparently, that night, Fertitta had come to realize that McKay had been stealing from him. That proved to be the last thing he did.
Even after getting caught with such strong evidence, McKay tried to pin Fertitta’s murder on her sons. At trial, she also claimed she stabbed Fertitta only after he had fatally stabbed himself by accident. None of it flew.
Before sentencing Cindy McKay to 30 years, Judge Pamela L. North told her, “Your life has been like a tornado — wherever it’s touching down, it’s leaving this mass destruction in its path.”
True to form even then, McKay replied, “I am not guilty of murder.” Regardless of that claim, she’s been behind bars ever since.
For more on Cindy McKay, watch the “Weeping Widow” episode of Investigation Discovery’s Diabolical on ID GO now!
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Main photo: Cindy McKay [Anne Arundel County Police]