Ex-SEAL convicted in resort killing

Sifrit guilty of 2nd-degree murder of woman, but acquitted in man's death

April 10, 2003|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE - A jury convicted former Navy SEAL Benjamin Sifrit last night of second-degree murder in the slaying of an Ocean City tourist, but cleared him of charges in the death of her boyfriend, whose dismembered body was found in a Delaware landfill.

After deliberating more than 13 hours over two days, the jury found Sifrit, 25, guilty of second-degree murder and first-degree assault in the slaying of insurance executive Martha Crutchley, 51, of Fairfax, Va.

Jurors declined to return a finding of first-degree murder. And they acquitted Sifrit of murder and assault charges in the killing of Crutchley's boyfriend, mortgage banker Joshua Ford, 32.

Sifrit was found guilty of one charge of being an accessory after the fact in both deaths. He had admitted during the trial in Montgomery County Circuit Court to chopping up the bodies of Crutchley and Ford, but had contended that their killer was his wife, Erika.

Prosecutors and detectives who investigated the case said there was ample evidence that both Benjamin and Erika Sifrit were involved in the deaths, though authorities did not know who pulled the trigger.

"What they just did is let a killer go after he does some time," Scott Bernal, the lead Ocean City detective on the case, said after hearing the jury's verdict. "All they've done is victimize all these families again."

Jurors reached at home last night declined to comment on how they reached the verdict or on trial evidence. "There's really not more to say. The verdict speaks for itself," said jury foreman Robert A. Cantor, a lawyer from Rockville. "Quite simply, we felt that it hadn't been proved beyond a reasonable doubt as to Mr. Ford."

A date for sentencing has not been set. The second-degree murder, assault and accessory convictions carry maximum sentences of 30 years, 25 years and five years, respectively. But William Brennan, Sifrit's attorney, said he believes his client may face a maximum total sentence of only 35 years because the murder and assault are, in effect, the same crime.

Two first-degree murder convictions could have led to two life terms.

The Sifrits met Crutchley and Ford during the Memorial Day weekend last year when Benjamin Sifrit didn't have exact change for an Ocean City bus and Ford, headed to the same bar, offered to pay the fare.

After drinking together, the four headed to the penthouse condominium where the Sifrits were staying. There, prosecutors said, the Sifrits played a sinister "game" in which they accused Ford and Crutchley of stealing Erika Sifrit's purse.

Lead prosecutor Joel J. Todd said evidence showed the victims were backed into a master bathroom, where Ford was shot three times and Crutchley also was slain. Not enough of her body was recovered to determine the cause of death.

Erika Sifrit, a former top student and basketball player at Virginia's Mary Washington College, also is charged with the killings and is to stand trial June 2 in Frederick. Both cases were moved from Worcester County because of publicity.

Ford's mother, brother and sister were seated in the courtroom when the verdict came in. "It's not good enough for what he did. My brother's gone forever," said Mark Ford, 47.

He said he had to run out of the courtroom "before I did something wrong." Several years ago, his 23-year-old daughter was murdered and dismembered in an unrelated case.

None of Crutchley's relatives was present, though they have told prosecutors they would like to attend the sentencing.

Benjamin Sifrit's parents and sister had watched several days of testimony but flew back to their Wisconsin home while the jury deliberated yesterday, asking their son's attorney to apprise them of the verdict.

A first-degree murder conviction requires premeditation, while second-degree murder does not. Brennan said he believes jurors may have decided that his client was too drunk to have committed a premeditated murder.

As for the jurors' decision to clear Benjamin Sifrit in Ford's death, Brennan noted that the revolver that authorities say killed Ford was found in Erika Sifrit's waistband when she was arrested.

Sifrit had testified to being an accessory after the killings, admitting that he dismembered the bodies to help dispose of them.

In his defense, he said he was tired and drunk on the night of the killings and decided to take a nap in his car while his wife, Crutchley and Ford continued to party. He said he was roused by his panicked wife and led to the bodies in the master bathroom. He testified that, after sitting dazed on a bed for up to an hour, he decided to help her by chopping up the bodies.

But prosecutors said Sifrit's story was flawed. There was so much blood in the bathroom, they said, that he would certainly have tracked it onto the condo's white carpet on the way to the bed.

Todd conceded he didn't know which of the Sifrits pulled the trigger. But either way, prosecutors argued, one member of the couple did the shooting and the other "aided and abetted" - enough for a first-degree murder conviction.

The prosecution's key witness was Melissa Seling of Ocean View, Del., who testified that Benjamin Sifrit admitted the slayings to her in the condo several days later, apparently to scare her. But Sifrit's attorney said Seling had wavered in statements to authorities about precisely what Sifrit had said.

Sifrit was raised in the Midwest and in Houston, where he was a competitive swimmer and a lifeguard during high school. He graduated in 1996, joined the Navy and entered SEAL training.

Sun staff writer Johnathon E. Briggs contributed to this article.

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