Convicted embezzler a victim in check case

July 15, 2008|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun Reporter

It's the kind of theft that Cindy McKay knows well. Except this time, investigators say, she is the victim.

An employee in the state prison system's finance department is set to go to trial next month in Howard County for allegedly forging the endorsement on a check made out to McKay, a serial swindler who will be sentenced tomorrow after pleading guilty to murder.

CherRon Nichole Johnson, 36, was charged last month with cashing a $426 state income tax refund check intended for McKay, a 52-year-old inmate at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women who has been convicted more than a dozen times for theft and embezzlement and was the focus of a three-part series in The Sun this year.

Johnson of Catonsville was served with a summons June 26 and charged in Howard County District Court with theft under $500, theft less than $100, forgery of private documents and issuing false documents after internal investigators in the Department of Corrections linked her to the theft of McKay's check.

McKay inquired with the Comptroller's Office after she had not received the check, and the office said it had been cashed. She then requested a copy of the check, which revealed the forged signature, court records show.

Johnson allegedly admitted that she received the check, signed the back and deposited it in her account at a Bank of America ATM machine in Jessup, records show. Her trial is set for Aug. 12.

In an interview yesterday, Johnson said that she cashed the check, but that she had done it for somebody else, whom she declined to identify but said was not a state employee. Johnson said she does not have access to inmate accounts.

"They said, 'I don't have my ID,'" Johnson said. "It was one of those things where they needed to hurry up and cash it. It was after bank hours, so I deposited it into my account, and gave them the cash.

"It's not like I know her and took her check. That's how they're making this sound."

Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the public safety and correctional services agency, confirmed that Johnson was fired from her position as a clerk supervisor at the Patuxent Institution Fiscal Department, which handles employee payroll and inmate finances for the Patuxent Institution and Maryland Correctional Institute for Women. He called the incident "highly isolated" and an "irregular occurrence."

It was not clear how McKay, who has been incarcerated for more than two years, was owed more than $400 in tax refunds. Joseph Shapiro, a spokesman for the Comptroller's Office, said the agency could not discuss her case, citing tax confidentiality laws.

A search on the agency's unclaimed property database - which includes stocks, bonds, savings accounts, security deposits, contents of safe deposit boxes, insurance proceeds and other valuables that have gone unclaimed for three years - shows that McKay has two unclaimed accounts. Inmates can earn money in prison, though the payments are minimal.

Check fraud is a tactic McKay is very familiar with. She embezzled more than $200,000 from St. Mary's Seminary in Roland Park by rerouting payments, then McKay faked her own death in 2003 to avoid capture, according to police records. While on the lam, she assumed a new identity and bilked an elderly woman out of at least $80,000 by writing herself checks.

Other convictions include stealing from businesses in Annapolis and on the Eastern Shore, and an insurance company accused her in a lawsuit of falsifying her father's death to swipe the title to his home. She escaped a house fire that killed her third husband.

She has been incarcerated since February 2006, when the body of McKay's boyfriend, Tony Fertitta, was found ablaze on a roadside in Millersville. The mother of six was eventually linked to the killing, as were two of her sons.

McKay entered an Alford plea in April to second-degree murder and felony theft, allowing her to maintain her innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence for a conviction. She faces a maximum sentence of 30 years at her scheduled sentencing tomorrow.

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