Martha McKay was kind to Travis Lewis, who was convicted and released after he killed her mother and cousin in 1996

By KC Baker
May 08, 2020 08:59 AM
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Martha McKay
| Credit: Jack Kenner

Big-hearted, gregarious and always up for an adventure, Martha McKay surrounded herself with friends.

“There was something about her that people really loved,” her sister Katie Hutton tells PEOPLE. “She left an impression on people. She had that gift.”

McKay’s family and friends were devastated when she was killed on March 25, 2020, at Snowden House, the historic antebellum-style home on Horseshoe Lake, Arkansas, she bought from her family in 2004, restored and reopened as a luxury bed-and-breakfast.

Martha McKay

McKay, 63, was found stabbed and bludgeoned to death at the top of the stairs, near a bag filled with her belongings, as well as a utility knife.

Authorities were shocked when they pulled the body of her killer out of the lake (he’d jumped in and drowned during a police chase): it was Travis Lewis, who’d been convicted at 17 for the horrific 1996 murders of her mother, Sally Snowden McKay, 75, and her cousin, Joseph “Lee” Baker, 52, a prominent Memphis blues guitarist.

Travis Lewis
| Credit: Crittenden County Sheriffs Department

Lewis pleaded guilty to the murders but never confessed, maintaining that another man killed the two, say police.

For more on the murder at Horseshoe Lake, pick up a copy of this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

Knowing how forgiving McKay was, family and friends were still shocked when she befriended him after he went to prison (Lewis was sentenced to 28 ½ years after pleading guilty).

Family friend Frank Byrd, who’d driven McKay to the state penitentiary to see Lewis, told her he didn’t think it was a good idea, but “she didn’t answer me,” he says.

Her family also warned her to be careful. “We had said, ‘Just stay away from him. It's a bad juju type of thing.’ But she wouldn't do it," says Hutton.

A longtime Buddhist, McKay wrote Lewis letters in prison and supported his early, paroled release.

“We were contacted every time he came up for parole,” says Hutton. “None of us would OK it except for her.”

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McKay also felt bad that he was so young when the murders took place – and believed his claim that someone else was responsible, says Crittenden County Sheriff Mike Allen.

When Lewis was finally released on parole in 2018, McKay quietly gave him a job doing work on the property, Hutton says.

But before her death, she fired him. Police had heard about a theft at McKay's house before her murder, says Crittenden County Chief Investigator Todd Grooms. After she died, Hutton read in her diary that she'd sold a chandelier for $10,000 cash, which she stashed in the house.

Travis happened to be there that day, says Hutton. “Then the money vanished. She fired him after the money disappeared,” she says.

The family is still reeling from the fact that the same man killed her sister, mother, and cousin – 23 years apart.

“We are all just in disbelief,” says Hutton.