Inside the Bizarre Case of a Killer Striking Twice 23 Years Apart, Murdering a Mother and Daughter
In March, Martha McKay was found murdered inside her family's mansion on Horseshoe Lake, Ark., by the same man who killed her mother and cousin
Known as "The Lady of the Lake," Martha McKay loved playing hostess at Snowden House, the grand 1919 family estate on Horseshoe Lake, Arkansas, that she’d restored and reopened as an upscale bed-and-breakfast more than a decade ago.
After living on the West Coast, Martha, 63, returned to the land her influential family had owned for generations: 1,000 acres of lakefront property with Snowden House, a white, columned mansion, as its centerpiece.
“She loved that house,” her longtime friend and neighbor Frank Byrd tells PEOPLE.
The parties, reunions and weddings held at Snowden House brought laughter to a place haunted by the 1996 murders of Martha's mother, Sally Snowden McKay, and cousin, Joseph “Lee” Baker, on the property.
When the two were fatally shot inside Sally's home, “Martha was devastated, like we all were,” her sister, Katie Hutton, tells PEOPLE.
In the years to come, everyone thought they'd left the darkness behind them -- until the morning of March 25, 2020, when Martha's bloodied body was found wrapped in blankets at the top of the stairs.
The woman known for her larger-than-life "presence" and good heart had been stabbed and bludgeoned by an intruder.
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While being chased by police, the man jumped out of the window and into his car. But when the vehicle got stuck on the property, he scurried out of the side door, jumped into the frigid lake – and drowned.
Hours later, authorities who pulled the man's body out of the lake were shocked to realize it was Travis Lewis, the 39-year-old man who’d gone to prison at age 17 after pleading guilty to killing Martha’s mother and cousin years ago.
Lewis, who’d grown up at Horseshoe Lake, had cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana in his system, autopsy results show, Crittenden County Chief Investigator Todd Grooms says in a statement about the case.
When police discovered Martha’s body at the top of the stairs, they also found a cloth bag on top of a nearby chair containing several valuables and a bloody kitchen knife, says Grooms.
“It was determined that he intended to steal these items,” he says. “However, it was not determined whether his intentions were to burglarize McKay’s home and she was killed in the process or if his intention was to murder McKay then opted to steal the items."
Whatever his motive, he had found a benefactor in Martha.
As a longtime Buddhist, Martha believed in forgiveness, says Crittenden County Sheriff Mike Allen, and she had reached out to Lewis in prison.
Her support continued when Lewis was released on parole in 2018, and she quietly gave him a job working on the property alongside his mother, Gladys, who’d been a housekeeper at Snowden House for years.
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The arrangement seemed to work, until the day Gladys told Martha, "Just stay away from Travis, because he's going back to his old ways,” says Hutton.
Before her death, she had severed her ties with Lewis.
It wasn’t until after Martha’s death that her family learned a secret from her diary.
Before Martha's murder, Hutton says, her sister sold a chandelier for $10,000 cash, stashing the money in Snowden House.
Travis was at the house the day she came home with the money, which then vanished, says Hutton, noting that Martha quickly fired him.
Hutton still has so many questions, but knows one thing for certain: “Martha didn’t deserve to be killed. She didn't deserve anything that happened to her.”