Why a three-strikes felon — on bail twice over — was on the streets, where he gunned down a deputy

Riverside, CA - January 06: Ontario police officers at the funeral services of Riverside county deputy Isaiah Cordero, killed last month during a traffic stop, at Harvest Christian Fellowship Church on Friday, Jan. 6, 2023 in Riverside, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Officers attend the funeral of Riverside County Sheriff's Deputy Isaiah Cordero on Friday. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

William Shae McKay could have been in custody Dec. 29 — in more than one case. Instead, the "three strikes" felon, already facing a life sentence, gunned down a Riverside County deputy before dying alongside a freeway in a hail of bullets.

How was it that the 44-year-old violent criminal was free?

By the time McKay encountered Deputy Isaiah Cordero in the traffic stop that would end Cordero's life, he had been issued $500,000 bail in a third-strike case involving several felonies.

Earlier, on Oct. 15, he was detained by Fontana police during a traffic stop. Police arrested him on suspicion of transporting narcotics and possessing ammunition as a felon. But the following day — despite being out on bail in the third-strike case — McKay was released again, on $50,000 bond, according to the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

It would be the last opportunity to keep him behind bars.

On the afternoon of Dec. 29, Cordero pulled over McKay's truck in a residential area of Jurupa Valley. McKay shot the 32-year-old motorcycle deputy as he approached the car, police say.

Pursued by more than two dozen police cruisers, McKay died that day in an exchange of gunfire with at least 10 deputies who had tracked his truck, which was spewing smoke and had its tires stripped to nothing, to the shoulder of the 15 Freeway in Norco.

McKay had been out on $500,000 bail since early 2022. San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Cara D. Hutson had reduced his bail from $950,000 over the objection of a San Bernardino County prosecutor, who asked that McKay be remanded into custody after being convicted of several felonies that made him eligible for a life sentence under California's "three strikes" law.

Hutson in November 2021 found McKay guilty of falsely imprisoning and threatening a woman, receiving stolen property and leading police on a high-speed chase. She acquitted him of more serious kidnapping charges.

The judge delayed sentencing as McKay's lawyer challenged the verdict and sought a new trial over revelations that the alleged victim — the prosecution's key witness — was herself facing federal charges of smuggling drugs into the U.S. from Mexico.

Six days after he was arrested in Fontana in October 2022 and then released, McKay was supposed to come to court for a hearing on that request for a new trial. He did not show up. His $500,000 bond was forfeited and a warrant issued for his arrest, court records show.

Records also show that, two months later, his $50,000 bail for the Fontana narcotics arrest was exonerated because the San Bernardino district attorney's office had not filed charges. The reason? Lab results were pending.

When an individual is already out of custody, said Fontana Police Sgt. Chris Surgent, the "D.A.’s office will not consider the case for filing until the lab results for the narcotics are conducted, confirmed and sent over with the entire case. ... This is their policy, not ours."

Jacquelyn Rodriguez, public affairs officer for the San Bernardino district attorney's office, said in a statement, "Currently, there is no legislation that states that a post-convicted three-strikes felon out on bond cannot post bond on a subsequent offense."

The failure occurred, Rodriguez said, "when McKay was allowed out of custody early last year on reduced $500,000 bail as a three-strike felon awaiting sentence."

Under the penal code, "after any verdict, a defendant should be remanded and no bail be set unless the court weighs the seriousness of the offense, the risk to public safety and the likelihood of the defendant returning to court for sentencing," Rodriguez continued. "In this case, unfortunately, those findings were not made."

Former L.A. County prosecutor Dmitry Gorin said he had never before seen a criminal history such as McKay's.

"In my 30 years or so as a defense attorney and prosecutor," Gorin said, "I have never heard of a third-strike felon awaiting sentencing getting out on bail and then being arrested while out on bail and being released again."

Hutson did not respond to questions submitted through a Superior Court spokeswoman, who directed reporters to McKay's case file.

Within hours of Cordero's death at a hospital, Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco blamed the judge.

"We would not be here today if the judge had done her job," Bianco said, without naming Hutson.

The deputy’s mother called for Hutson's resignation during his funeral Friday. The comments by Rebecca Cordero received lengthy applause from the massive gathering of Southern California law enforcement officers.

"Judge Cara Hutson," Cordero said, "my family is devastated. My son was a good man. My family, Isaiah's brothers and sisters, demand your resignation."

After Cordero's killing, San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Jason Anderson said in a statement that his prosecutor had objected to the $500,000 reduced bail after McKay's conviction and, in July, to delaying sentencing in the third-strike offense.

“Our Office upheld our oath of pursuing justice by prosecuting convicted felon McKay in November of 2021, however, a failure in the process to separate McKay from society and hold him accountable for his crimes has resulted in the tragic loss of a law enforcement deputy."

A mug shot of a man with facial hair and neck tattoos.
William Shae McKay, 44, had a long and violent criminal history. (California Department of Corrections)

McKay had a long criminal history and a pattern of fleeing from police that led to violent confrontations, court records show. His first strike came in 1999, when he pleaded guilty to assault with a firearm and spent three years in prison. The second came in 2005, when he and an accomplice attacked a sleeping couple in their apartment, choking the man and smothering the woman with a pillow before stealing $3,700 from a safe. McKay was sentenced to 13 years in prison after pleading guilty to first-degree robbery and two counts of assault likely to produce great bodily injury.

In 2021, a woman alleged that she had been held prisoner by McKay and two others from March 23 to 27. Lisa Little said she'd been house-sitting for McKay while he was in custody in another case. When she left the house for a few hours, she said, it was burglarized.

According to court records, she said McKay "lured" her back to the house; once there, he punched her several times in the face, told her he was going to kill her and her mother and duct-taped her wrists and ankles. He held her at the house until she escaped and fled to a nearby home, where she alerted San Bernardino sheriff's deputies, according to her statements in court records.

Two days later, deputies tried to pull over McKay and an accomplice, Abrianna Valerie Gonzalez, who were near Hesperia in a stolen truck. McKay fled and drove for 20 miles, leading deputies into the desert. With their vehicle disabled, the pair ran until they were surrounded, and Gonzalez stabbed a police canine. She was sent to prison for 3½ years.

For McKay, a conviction in the holding of Little against her will would have been a third strike that carried a sentence of 25 years to life.

McKay acted as his own attorney when the trial began Oct. 25. The critical witness, Little, testified for three days. Rather than a jury trial, McKay chose to have a bench trial, with Hutson hearing the evidence and issuing a verdict.

On Nov. 8, 2021, Hutson found him guilty of false imprisonment, evading a peace officer, making criminal threats likely to result in death or great bodily injury and receiving stolen property. Hutson also found that McKay had two prior strikes and that this crime was his third.

But after the nine-day trial, she found him not guilty of kidnapping. She also agreed to reduce his bail from $950,000 to $500,000, despite an objection by Deputy Dist. Atty. Tess Ponce.

The same day, the judge learned that federal prosecutors had charged Little with smuggling nearly 48 pounds of methamphetamine and 6.17 pounds of fentanyl across the U.S.-Mexico border in Calexico.

In July 2020, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer discovered the drugs hidden in a concealed compartment of Little's silver 2009 Toyota RAV4, court records show. She admitted that a smuggler paid her $3,000 for the job and said she'd done another run four or five days earlier, according to the federal complaint.

Little's federal public defender said she was consumed by a methamphetamine addiction at the time of her arrest and was not aware that she had to appear for an arraignment on Nov. 6, 2020. When she missed that court date in El Centro, a judge issued a federal arrest warrant.

When Little allegedly escaped from McKay in March 2021, the warrant was still out for her arrest. The prosecutor in McKay's case was unaware of the warrant, and Little remained free until police in Seattle arrested her on Nov. 3, 2021 — two days after she finished testifying in McKay's trial.

Her lawyer said in court papers that, after being held by McKay, Little moved to Oregon to be with her daughter, kicked a 20-year addiction to drugs and was unaware that she had to appear in court following her November 2020 indictment. He said she had agreed to appear during a drug-hazed jailhouse discussion without a lawyer.

"Ms. Little nor [Deputy Dist. Atty. Tess] Ponce knew about the warrant, even though DDA Ponce ran Ms. Little’s record before Ms. Little was called to testify," according to the federal court filing by her lawyer. Little subsequently entered a guilty plea to the federal charges and is serving 20 months in federal prison. Ponce later acknowledged that she was unaware of the federal charges until after the arrest in Seattle.

McKay walked out of a San Bernardino County jail on March 23 after posting the $500,000 surety bond. His new attorney, David M. Goldstein, sought to remove the prior strikes, saying his client had "waged a lifelong battle with drugs." The attorney argued that, as "a young man," McKay made mistakes and associated with the wrong people.

In July, Goldstein requested a new trial on McKay's behalf, arguing that the judge had not adequately advised McKay about his right to a jury trial rather than a bench trial.

On Oct. 18, the prosecutor asked to continue a hearing on that motion until December, when she would be returning from a medical leave.

A few days later, McKay skipped a court appearance, and a judge issued the warrant for his arrest.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.