Sifrit says he aided cover-up but did not commit killings

Ex-Navy SEAL on trial in Ocean City deaths of 2

April 08, 2003|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE - Former Navy SEAL Benjamin Sifrit, on trial in a double-murder case, testified yesterday that he was in his car sleeping off a night of drinking while the killings were committed - apparently by his wife - and that he helped her cover up the crime by dismembering the bodies.

Taking the stand in his defense, Sifrit, 25, admitted to being an accessory - but nothing more - to the Ocean City killings during Memorial Day weekend last year.

He said his wife, Erika, also 25, roused him from his car in the middle of the night and led him into the condominium penthouse where they were staying. There, he said, he came upon the "horrific" sight of two people - Martha Gene Crutchley, 51, and her boyfriend, Joshua Ford, 32, both of Fairfax, Va. - lying dead and bloodied in the master bathroom.

Sifrit said he decided against surrendering his wife to police, an action he said would have been tantamount to "abandoning" her. "I could do basically two things. I could either help my wife or not help her," he said. "I decided to help her cover up the murders."

He said he regrets the decision now. "I shouldn't have helped her," he said.

Erika Sifrit has told investigators a different story. She said it was her husband who killed Crutchley and Ford. She said he forced the couple - with whom the Sifrits had been partying - into the bathroom at gunpoint and shot them, then dismembered the bodies and placed them in a half-dozen plastic bags.

Erika Sifrit is in jail awaiting a separate double-murder trial, scheduled to begin June 2 in Frederick. Both trials were moved from Worcester County because of pretrial publicity.

She was not in the courtroom as her husband, dressed in a dark suit and tie, took the stand yesterday - the final witness in his weeklong trial. The prosecution did not use her as a witness, though she had offered information implicating her husband in the killings last year.

As part of a planned plea bargain, she had described how her husband had told her he might "waste" Ford and Crutchley and that she should keep the location of the bodies quiet.

The plea negotiations fell apart, however, when prosecutors alleged Erika Sifrit broke the deal by telling them "absolute lies" about critical details such as the bodies' locations. (The remains were found in a Delaware landfill.) Authorities said she seemed torn between wanting to tell the truth and not betraying her husband.

Benjamin Sifrit's testimony yesterday contradicted not only his wife's statements from last year but also those of a witness who told the jury last week that Benjamin all but confessed to the killings several days after they were committed.

Melissa Seling testified that she and a friend were invited to the condo by the Sifrits May 29, and that Benjamin threatened "to kill me in the same way he killed those two people." Seling said he put his hands near her face and showed her a gun.

Sifrit suggested Seling's testimony was flawed. He said he did show her a gun that he had in his waistband but only to explain how it worked.

"Did you confess that you had killed two people?" Sifrit's attorney, William Brennan, asked.

"No, I didn't," Sifrit replied.

After the murders, Sifrit said he drank a lot. But Worcester County prosecutor E. Scott Collins, during cross-examination, directed his attention to photographs - seized from the Sifrits - of what seemed to be a vacation in the week after the killings, including trips to crab houses, a miniature golf course and nightclubs.

There were several trips to a Hooters restaurant, at which a smiling Benjamin Sifrit posed with waitresses. Collins said that Sifrit looked happy. The defendant acknowledged that he was at a crab house hours after finishing the dismemberment and dumping the parts in a trash bin.

Sifrit said, "I wasn't having a good time."

One photo was taken in front of a Home Depot where he had gone to buy a door to replace one at the condo with a bullet hole. He denied to Collins that he had the photo taken to commemorate the killings.

Sifrit's parents watched much of the proceedings yesterday. Before her son testified, Elizabeth "Buffy" Sifrit told the jury she was surprised to hear in a 1999 telephone call that Benjamin had eloped with Erika after dating her for three weeks.

He was a Navy SEAL stationed in Virginia at the time, and Erika was student at Virginia's Mary Washington College, where she was a standout on the women's basketball team.

Benjamin testified that Erika was overly dependent on him, and suffered "panic attacks" when he left town. "I had tried my hardest for about three years to make things work. There was no way I was going to stay married to Erika," he said.

Sun staff writer Michael Ollove contributed to this article.

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