For police detective, an intriguing suspect

Cindy McKay is elusive but not quite invisible during chase

Sun Special Report / A Trail Of Deception

April 28, 2008|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

If he were honest with himself, Detective Richard Gibson had to admit that he was eager to meet Miss Cindy McKay.

It wasn't always that way with crooks. Most struck Gibson, a blunt Baltimore cop and former Navy petty officer, as barely sentient and uninteresting in the extreme. Experience had shown that most were far from criminal masterminds. And it was true, McKay was no genius. But, man, she had brass. She was fearless. He had to give her that.

St. Mary's Seminary & University in Roland Park was already far along in its investigation of a suspected embezzlement when it brought its findings to Gibson. The oldest Catholic seminary in America had apparently been swindled out of tens of thousands of dollars, and all indications pointed to an inside job.

The chief suspect, Gibson soon learned, was a 46-year-old woman named Cindy McKay, who, unknown to the seminary, was an ex-con with a habit of stealing large sums from those who employed and trusted her.

Intriguingly, Gibson also discovered that despite her criminal bent, three of McKay's most serious romantic partners - and the fathers of four of her six children - had been police officers.

As the detective went over his notes, he marked the more curious details. None seized his attention more than the death of McKay's husband, Clarence "Buddy" Downs III, in a Christmas Day fire a few months earlier. As a result of that death, McKay stood to collect $300,000 in insurance and pension benefits.

According to police reports and interviews, some in Downs' family hadn't been convinced by the explanation that fire investigators had pinned on the case: "careless smoking."

Neither was Gibson.

Now, Gibson was finally going to get a chance to meet her. She had agreed to come in first thing in the morning to make a full confession. It was a chance for Gibson to match the woman he had envisioned from a distance, through the steady accretion of facts and deductions, with the flesh-and-blood reality. For a detective, short of arrests and convictions, this was the payoff.

He arrived early at Baltimore police headquarters that April day in 2003. He wore his trademark navy blue suit, red power tie and white shirt. He waited in an interrogation room, his notebook on the table in front of him.

Nine a.m. came and went with no sign of McKay.

By 10 o'clock, he knew she wasn't coming.

Suspicions arise

When money turned up missing at St. Mary's Seminary, it didn't take much time before suspicion fell on the recently departed office manager.

Hired in 1999, she was laid off four years later due to downsizing. Soon after, seminary employees began to notice large gaps between revenues and actual deposits.

As it turned out, the problems that had necessitated her layoff had been her own doing: Checks written as payment for using the facility had instead been deposited into McKay's bank account. More than $200,000 worth.

The seminary's dean, Christa Klein, then double-checked McKay's gleaming job references, and she couldn't find any contact information for her previous employer, a group called End the Cycle Inc., or her old boss, Joan Haarhoff.

Eventually, it would be discovered that End the Cycle was a nonprofit corporation set up by McKay while in prison, ostensibly to help female inmates to rehabilitate. And Joan Haarhoff was a fiction; the name was apparently an invention that combined McKay's mother's first name with an ex-husband's surname.

Another of her references - a self-identified insurance broker who testified to McKay's "wisdom and good humor" - turned out to be a former cellmate.

On March 27, 2003, McKay sat for an interview with Raymond Peroutka, a forensic accountant hired by the seminary. She calmly owned up to the scheme, he said. Yes, she had taken money. She had even kept a meticulous log of her thefts, she said.

But McKay insisted to Peroutka that her motives had been unselfish, the result of unsavory behavior on the part of her late husband, Buddy Downs - behavior that has never been corroborated and seems wholly at odds with the man everyone else remembers.

She claimed that he was a drug user, a gambling addict and a money launderer who had pushed her to steal the money to pay his debts. She had done so, she told Peroutka, because she was terrified of the "unsavory" characters to whom Downs owed money. One of them, she said, was a "Mafia-looking person" who had come to her home and jammed the barrel of a revolver in her son's mouth.

McKay signed documents pledging to cooperate with Peroutka's inquiries and offering to pay back what she had stolen.

After that meeting, McKay's lawyer advised her of the near-certainty that she was headed back to prison.

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