Man on trial in resort slayings

Sifrit, wife accused of killing Va. couple in Ocean City

Motive remains elusive

March 31, 2003|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE -- In one of the most notorious -- and puzzling -- cases in the history of Ocean City, former Navy SEAL Benjamin Adam Sifrit goes on trial here today in the slayings of a Virginia couple whose dismembered bodies were found in June in a Hardscrabble, Del., landfill.

His wife, Erika Sifrit, is scheduled to be tried starting June 2 in Frederick for her alleged role in the killings.

Left unanswered in the voluminous pretrial records is how two people with seemingly bright futures ended up charged in a pair of grisly slayings that shook the seaside resort.

It was only five years ago that Benjamin Sifrit completed his training for the SEALS, a rugged special-operations unit. He was 20 years old.

That same year, Erika Grace was a student at Virginia's Mary Washington College and a three-point specialist on the women's basketball team.

Today, they are accused of a double murder that prosecutors call "gruesome."

Prosecutors say that the Sifrits, who had been living in Altoona, Pa., met insurance executive Martha Gene Crutchley, 51, and her boyfriend, investment banker Joshua Ford, 32, on an Ocean City bus during the Memorial Day weekend. Evidence suggests the four ended up at a high-rise condominium where the Sifrits were staying.

There, in a two-story penthouse, is where prosecutors believe Crutchley and Ford were fatally shot. A search uncovered suspected cocaine, snapshots of Crutchley and Ford, and blood splattered around the master bedroom, according to court records. Erika Sifrit told authorities that after the shooting, her husband dismembered the bodies, putting them in five or six black plastic garbage bags that were stashed in a Jeep Cherokee and later thrown in dumpsters.

Court documents don't offer a definitive motive. Erika Sifrit did say that Ford and Crutchley had tried to steal her purse, which had a $10,000 ring in it that her grandmother had given her.

"[The crime] is so evil," says Carolyn Murray of suburban Boston, whose daughter had a child with Ford 12 years ago. "Josh was a very nice person who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people."

Asked about a motive, Joel J. Todd, state's attorney for Worcester County, said he won't comment until after the jury renders its verdict. The trial is expected to last about a week and a half.

William Brennan, attorney for Benjamin Sifrit, refused comment on whether his client would be summoned to the stand to speak in his own defense.

Security is expected to be tight. Sifrit, being held in Montgomery County, picked a lock on his cell while at the Worcester County jail but did not escape the building, according to Scott Bernal, an Ocean City police detective.

The case, which was moved away from the Eastern Shore because of pretrial publicity, has become fodder for tabloids and Internet gossip. One reason is that the defendants both had successful backgrounds. Another is that Benjamin Sifrit had a swastika tattooed on his chest. According to court records, Erika Sifrit has suggested her husband was obsessed with power and "agreed with Hitler's beliefs."

To the Navy, Benjamin Sifrit's behavior was a mystery long before he and Erika were arrested May 31 and charged with the double homicide.

After enduring rigorous training that included underwater demolition and a stint at Basic Airborne School in Fort Benning, Ga., Sifrit saw his military career collapse when he was convicted at a 2000 court-martial at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune.

The Navy said Sifrit left an assignment one day and sped off in a car, failing to stop at the main gate when directed and cursing at a superior. He was going 50 mph in a 15 mph zone, according to records of the court-martial.

Even his defense counsel seemed mystified. "You've got to -- almost have to -- ask oneself, sir, what happened," Capt. E.F. Crail told the military judge.

"This is a sailor who was showing good qualities and got his SEAL qualification and everything. Apparently something happened in his last command where he lost that designation. He seems from that to have completely lost motivation for the Navy," Crail said at the time.

Sifrit received a bad-conduct discharge, which became final last year.

It's not clear when he met Erika, who told authorities she was with some girlfriends in Virginia Beach when they met. They eloped three weeks later and "she told me that his family was very upset with him for marrying her and has nothing to do with him," said Bernal, the detective, in a court statement.

After Erika Sifrit graduated in 2000, the couple lived in Western Pennsylvania and worked for a scrapbook photo business near her parents' home.

The Sifrits' arrest at a Hooter's restaurant in Ocean City came after colleagues reported Crutchley and Ford missing from their jobs in Northern Virginia after their scheduled Memorial Day vacation.

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