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.