Probe of death renewed

Widow of man killed in fire convicted in separate case

Sun follow-up

July 31, 2008|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun Reporter

Baltimore County police said yesterday that homicide detectives are investigating the death of a man whose body was found in a 2002 fire, launching a fresh inquiry into the case after the recent sentencing of the man's widow in the killing of her boyfriend more than three years later.

Clarence "Buddy" Downs III's body was found in a house fire that was ruled to have been accidentally caused by careless smoking, but investigators said there was revived interest in the case after the body of a boyfriend of con artist Cynthia J. McKay was found on fire in February 2006 in Anne Arundel County. McKay was married to Downs when he died.

Now that the Anne Arundel County case has been resolved, with McKay convicted July 16 of murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison, Baltimore County detectives are moving forward in the 2002 case, said Bill Toohey, a spokesman for that agency.

The fire has previously been reviewed by arson investigators.

"It's always been an active case, but now it's in the homicide file, which antes things up a bit," Toohey said.

McKay, a 52-year-old mother of six, has not been charged in the 2002 fire, nor has Downs' death been ruled a homicide, police said. In recent court filings, McKay's lawyers said any suggestions that she was involved in Downs' death were "baseless" and that there "is no new evidence to indicate Ms. McKay is somehow at fault."

Downs'children from a previous marriage, as well as two of McKay's sons, have for years said that they were not convinced by the explanation that the fire was an accident.

"They said the case was never going to be closed, that they would keep all this stuff together, and I thought it was just talk," said Downs' son, Clarence "B.J." Downs IV, who along with his sister, Belinda, urged greater scrutiny of their father's death.

"It's not going to change anything, but it would be nice" if investigators can close the case, he said.

McKay escaped the house fire with Matthew Haarhoff, one of her sons, and then pulled off a crime spree that involved faking suicide and stealing thousands from an elderly woman as she eluded authorities through three states.

Haarhoff has told authorities that his mother told him she stabbed Downs and then set the house on fire, according to interviews and police investigative files. He and another brother had privately made similar comments to others before their arrests in the death of their mother's boyfriend, Anthony Fertitta, according to police files.

"I would be more than happy to testify," Haarhoff, 20, told The Sun in an interview this year while in jail.

Anne Arundel prosecutors have said that Haarhoff tried to mislead investigators in the Fertitta case. His defense lawyer told a judge that the 20-year-old was willing to say anything to extricate himself from the crime.

Haarhoff has since been released, receiving an 18-month suspended sentence after entering an Alford plea - in which a defendant acknowledges the state has enough evidence for a conviction but does not admit guilt - to one count of accessory after the fact in Fertitta's death.

Downs, a supervisor in Baltimore's forestry division, met McKay as she neared a release from prison in the late 1990s. The divorced father of two married her upon her release.

In the months leading up to the fire, McKay and Downs' marriage had become strained. He confided to those close to him that he was planning to leave her at the turn of the year. On Dec. 25, 2002, McKay said she was upstairs with Haarhoff when they heard a crash and discovered the flames.

McKay told a TV station the next day that until the fire, it had been the "best Christmas ever."

Fire officials said Downs, who was under doctor's orders not to smoke, had placed a lit cigarette in a makeshift aluminum foil ashtray.

Police documents show that McKay came into about $300,000 in insurance money after the fire, and family members say she receives Downs' city pension.

According to the Anne Arundel County investigative files, Baltimore County Fire Investigation Division Capt. Chris Gauss told detectives that Downs had a hole in his throat consistent with a ballpoint pen being stuck in it. Downs' children said that officials inquired as to whether he ever had a tracheotomy.

But his autopsy lists no such injury, and in an April interview Gauss said there was only a "mark" on Downs' throat. "There was an inquiry about a mark, and that's it. There's no evidence [that he was stabbed], and there's really nothing to support it," Gauss told The Sun.

Baltimore Police Lt. Richard Gibson, who investigated the seminary theft and had questioned whether the fire at the Downs home was an accident, said the new investigation was long overdue.

"It's fabulous news. They just have to give it a fair look," he said yesterday.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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