Murder Mystery: Murder at Horseshoe Lake, Part 1
The murder of Martha McKay at Horseshoe Lake in March 2020 was like a tragic case of déjà vu. Her mother and cousin had been slain there in 1996, and the same person killed all three victims. The unusual circumstances drew national attention despite the other pressing news of the day: the COVID-19 pandemic. The history of this lethal legacy is the history of a family, blessed and cursed — a family Tennessee Williams might have conjured up.
The McKays are descendants of Robert Bogardus Snowden, who was a colonel in the Civil War. After the war ended, Snowden returned to his home in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was a successful landowner and businessman. He married Anne Brinkley, whose father established the Memphis-to-Little Rock railroad, which went through what is now Brinkley in eastern Arkansas. The town was named after him in 1872. Robert Bogardus and Anne lived in an elegant mansion, known as Annesdale. On the National Register of Historic Places since 1980, Annesdale is in the Italian Villa architectural style. It is now used as a venue for weddings and other events. Coincidentally, a crew doing repair work at Annesdale in 2016 found some old bones inside a boarded-up fireplace grate. Due to the age of the bones, the discovery was considered a curiosity instead of a crime.
The pair had five children, including Robert Brinkley Snowden, who followed in his father’s footsteps and became a land developer. Then came Robert Bogardus Snowden II. Upon his return from serving in World War l, Snowden II bought 1,000 acres of land and established a cotton plantation at Horseshoe Lake near Hughes in Crittenden County. He and his wife, Grace, built a lovely but modest house with a screened-in porch that looked out over the lake. In 1949, the structure was transformed into a 6,000-square-foot, three-story showplace with a grand staircase, marble floors and crystal chandelier. Grace patterned it after a Louisiana antebellum home she had admired. Snowden II and Grace had a son, also named Robert, and three daughters: Sara (better known as Sally), Edith and Dorothy, who was nicknamed “Happy.” All had blissful memories of Snowden House to take with them when they grew up and moved away. By 1982, Sally was divorced from her second husband, actor David McKay, and her children were out of the nest, so when her father died, it was Sally who returned to Horseshoe Lake. She was a certified public accountant and well-suited for the job of overseeing the family business that included, among other things, 30 lake-front cabins. Her own home was near Snowden House, which was leased to a couple who turned it into a bed and breakfast. McKay also had an antique shop.
Joseph Lee Baker was Sally’s nephew. He taught English at Hughes High School but was better known as a primo blues musician and vocalist. Baker lived on Horseshoe Lake with his wife and three sons, and had been a fixture on the Memphis music scene since his big debut at the June 1969 Memphis Country Blues Festival with a group called Moloch. His psychedelic guitar solos were legendary. After Moloch broke up, he played in Mud Boy and the Neutrons, a band that defied labeling with their eclectic discography. He also had his own band, Lee Baker and the Agitators. On Aug. 12, 1996, a fire swept through the Baker home while the family was away. Investigators determined the cause to be arson and suspected the motive was to cover up a burglary. The Crittenden County Sheriff said a rash of burglaries had been reported in the upscale community, and Baker had accumulated and kept in the house a considerable amount of cash to use for printing and pressing his band’s new record. Besides the money, he lost an extensive memorabilia collection, including an irreplaceable guitar once owned by Furry Lewis, an early influential blues musician.
Whether it was to be their permanent new home or just temporary, the Bakers moved into a cabin about 100 yards from Sally’s. On a Tuesday morning, Baker went over to discuss business matters with her. It was one month later, almost to the day, of the fire that had destroyed his home. While he was at Sally’s, someone entered her house and set it ablaze, only this time the results were deadly. Firemen found the bodies of Sally, 75, and Baker, 53, near each other in the smoke and rubble. Autopsies revealed the victims were shot to death before the fire occurred, between 10:30 and 11 a.m. After inspection of the crime scene, officials thought burglary was the motive again. A neighbor found McKay’s red Toyota Camry, wrecked and turned over, a mile or so west of the house. The car had hit a tree and rolled into a ditch. It appeared that the driver hit his or her head on the windshield.
The killings had an unnerving effect on residents of the area. Who was the murderer, and was this person still in their midst? Everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief with the arrest of a boy named Travis Lewis on Nov. 5, 1996. Only 15 at the time of the murders, he had just turned 16 at the time of his arrest. Lewis knew both victims. His grandparents rented their home from McKay, and his mother, Gladys, was a housekeeper at Snowden House. Lewis attended Hughes High School where he was in the English class taught by Baker. When he appeared in court on a probable-cause hearing, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Lindsey Fairley told Judge Samuel Turner the police “had evidence tying [Lewis] to the scene. He was subsequently interviewed and has made a statement and confirms his presence at the scene.” Turner ordered Lewis to be held without bond. Fairley mentioned “possible additional defendants and the possibility of additional charges” but didn’t want to elaborate at the time. The Shelby County (Tennessee) Sheriff’s Office sent a dive team to assist Arkansas officials in searching for a gun in the lake near a boat dock behind McKay’s home.
Lewis had a juvenile record, including a conviction for assault. Though he was originally charged with capital murder, the McKay family did not seek vengeance but rather showed mercy toward the youth. They asked that the death penalty be taken off the table. Lewis’ lawyer convinced him to plead guilty to two counts of first-degree murder. The circuit judge was David Burnett, the same judge who blocked appeals by Damien Echols and the West Memphis Three. Burnett sentenced Lewis to 28 and a half years for the slayings and five years for burglary and theft. The additional time was to run concurrently. Lewis tried to recant his confession by saying he was not alone at the crime scene. He admitted he had been there when the murders occurred but said it was an adult who committed the killings. Officials dismissed his claim about an accomplice when he named an individual who had an airtight alibi, and no one else was ever charged.
The McKays hoped Lewis would turn his life around. Martha McKay, especially, concerned herself with Lewis’ rehabilitation and befriended him while he was in prison. Little did she know that the darkness in his heart would betray her — and he would kill again.
TO BE CONTINUED …
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