Matthew Haarhoff left jail in Anne Arundel County and headed straight for a playground in Dundalk, where he executed a perfect back-flip dismount from a swing and chased his 10-year-old nephew around the jungle gym.
A 20-year-old who grew up in foster homes and institutions, he was free to act like a child after more than two years in an adult hell as prosecutors tried to figure out who stabbed his mother's boyfriend to death: Haarhoff, his brother or his mother.
Haarhoff had been convicted earlier Thursday for what prosecutors said was his role in the crime - helping career con artist Cynthia J. McKay dispose of the body - in a plea agreement that allowed his release on probation but banned him from having contact with his mother for a year.
He has found it difficult to break those ties. And as he sets off on a new life, his relationship with his mother looms over him.
"I think she could manipulate him to do whatever she wants," said his half-sister, Mandy Bafitis. "He would do whatever it takes to show her he loves her,"
Haarhoff said he loves his mother, and that's not going to change. "But the only thing she can do right now is bring me down."
He was only 3 years old when he first saw his mother arrested. In 1991, with police seeking her on charges that she stole thousands from a Salisbury gift store, family members said they were instructed to lie and say she was at the library if officers came to the home. But when officers knocked on the door, Matthew, her youngest of six children, answered, and said she was upstairs.
The family fell apart, and Haarhoff spent much of his life shuffling between foster homes and institutions. As he grew older, he carried immense guilt, family members say. No matter how much they tried to convince him that her incarceration wasn't his fault, he felt responsible.
How far might he go, investigators later wondered, to prevent her from going back to prison?
Upon McKay's release from prison in 1998, she pulled Haarhoff out of a school for emotionally disturbed children to live with him and a Baltimore City forestry employee named Clarence "Buddy" Downs whom she had met through another inmate and later married.
Haarhoff said he had a stable life in Lansdowne: a reliable stepfather in Downs, who looked out for him and took him fishing; a nice home and plenty of gifts from Mom, such as dirt bikes and video games, to make up for all that lost time.
The gifts, it turned out, were being bought with stolen money. And their new life was shattered in a Christmas Day 2002 fire that tore through the home and killed Downs. McKay and Haarhoff escaped.
When police discovered the thefts, McKay abandoned the family, faking her suicide and fleeing to Delaware. Haarhoff said that before leaving, she told him that she "had to go away for a while."
"I told her not to go. I begged her," he said. "I wanted to stay with her and be with her, like it used to be."
Haarhoff, at age 15, was handed off to one of his estranged father's co-workers. He later described Matt to police as "goofy," making funny faces and always trying to entertain others.
According to police records, social workers saw something else: They said Haarhoff was a troubled boy, whose various emotional and behavioral issues presented a threat to the man's family. They instructed his wife and child to leave; he went with them.
Haarhoff waited at the family's home - alone - until social services could arrange a place for him with a cot.
McKay, who was captured after a few months on the run, was released in the summer of 2005. She tracked down Haarhoff, who was living at the Woodbourne Center, a state-funded private school in North Baltimore that temporarily houses and counsels troubled youths, and moved him into her rental home in the Old Mill area of Anne Arundel County.
Again, Haarhoff was showered with gifts, including new furniture and cool cars that he tricked out. According to police, McKay was funding these shopping sprees by stealing from an unsuspecting boyfriend named Tony Fertitta.
Fertitta was found dead Feb 22, his body dumped just steps from McKay's townhouse and set ablaze.
Haarhoff - 17 years old, pudgy, buzz-cut and tongue-tied - sat miserably in a police interrogation room in Crownsville. After offering up a phony account of the crime two days earlier, he now swore that he didn't know anything about a murder that, so far as detectives could tell, he should know plenty about.
"Your mother used you your whole life," Richard Alban, then a homicide detective, told him, according to police records. "Put you in bad positions where you were abused, and spent time in prison away from you. Don't go down with your mom."
Within days, he was charged with first-degree murder. But his erratic behavior and alleged confessions to friends, at first blush crucial evidence to the case, proved to be bogus and only complicated matters for detectives. They believe he was trying to throw them off her trail.