Murder charges maintained in case against Pa. woman

Agreement had offered immunity for cooperation

October 01, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

SNOW HILL -- A Worcester County judge refused to drop murder charges yesterday against a Pennsylvania woman accused in the killing of a Virginia couple in Ocean City during Memorial Day weekend.

Erika E. Sifrit and her husband, Benjamin A. Sifrit, both 24 and of Altoona, are accused of luring Joshua Ford, 32, and Martha Crutchley, 51, to a luxury waterfront penthouse, shooting them, dismembering their bodies and disposing of them in trash bins near Rehoboth Beach, Del.

Defense lawyer Arcangelo M. Tuminelli and Worcester prosecutor Joel Todd were called to testify yesterday during a hearing to interpret a June 2 agreement in which murder charges against Erika Sifrit were to have been dropped in exchange for helping authorities locate the victims' bodies, and for her testimony against her husband.

During frequently contentious exchanges with Assistant State's Attorney Kathleen E. Smith, Tuminelli insisted that prosecutors violated the plea arrangement. The breach, he said, occurred when they refused to allow Sifrit to carry through with a polygraph examination, terminating a pre-test interview after Sifrit incriminated herself.

During a brief recess, defense attorneys told reporters that prosecutors accepted the deal because they were desperate for help in locating the bodies, found in a Delaware landfill, and because they have a weak case against Benjamin Sifrit without his wife's testimony.

Todd, said defense attorney Fred Warren Bennett, had agreed not to charge Sifrit with murder if she took a polygraph, truthfully answering questions posed by two Secret Service agents who were brought in to administer the test.

"All she had to do was agree to take the polygraph and not to lie," Bennett said. "I think Joel Todd just doesn't like the deal he struck."

But prosecutors called revelations in Sifrit's 5 1/2 -hour interview with the agents "a bombshell," resulting in their refusal to go through with a polygraph and entitling them to charge her with two counts of murder. Under terms of the agreement, Todd said, he will not seek the death penalty or a sentence of life without parole.

"She maintained that [Benjamin Sifrit] was the murderer and she was the obedient spouse," Todd testified. "She contradicted herself so many times, I wasn't sure she had any value as a witness. She was not the innocent, and therefore needed to be prosecuted for murder."

Her lawyers described Sifrit as distraught at the prospect of not being allowed to testify against her husband. When asked whether she remains willing to take a polygraph and to testify against Benjamin Sifrit, who is scheduled for trial Dec. 9, she said, "Most definitely yes."

In rejecting a motion to enforce the plea deal, Circuit Court Judge Theodore R. Eschenburg Sr. said that in early interviews, Sifrit told authorities that she had been on the first floor of the two-story Ocean City condominium and heard shots as her husband killed Crutchley and Ford in an upstairs bathroom. Her statements July 23, however, show otherwise, the judge said.

Erika Sifrit's trial is scheduled for Dec. 2, but her lawyers said yesterday that because of extensive publicity they will ask that the trial be moved outside Worcester County.

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