FREDERICK - The prosecution and lawyers for a Pennsylvania woman on trial in the killing of two Ocean City tourists agree on a host of details, they told the jury during opening statements yesterday.
They agree that Martha Crutchley, 51, and Joshua Ford, 32, were lured to an oceanfront penthouse condominium over Memorial Day weekend last year, that they were killed inside, that their dead bodies were dismembered and that their remains ended up in a Delaware landfill.
The disagreement is over who committed the murders. Two months ago, former Navy SEAL Benjamin Sifrit was convicted of lesser charges in a trial in which he blamed the killings on his wife. Now lawyers for 25-year-old Erika Sifrit are painting Benjamin Sifrit as the coldblooded killer.
But Worcester County State's Attorney Joel J. Todd told jurors not to be sidetracked.
"Erika Sifrit is on trial in this case, and no one else," he said.
Todd's opening presentation, told through photographs projected onto a large screen in the courtroom, told the story of a grisly murder discovered soon after Erika Sifrit and her husband were arrested while allegedly stealing merchandise from a Hooters restaurant in Ocean City five days after the killings.
The prosecutor said police found a knife in the front pocket of Erika Sifrit's jeans and a .357 Magnum revolver - later determined to be the murder weapon - tucked into her waistband.
He said police found the Virginia driver's licenses of Ford and Crutchley in her purse as well as four spent shell casings from the gun and a ring with a dragon engraved in it that belonged to Ford. As Todd spoke, he showed pictures of Erika Sifrit wearing Ford's ring around her neck while she sat on the beach some time after the murders. Police obtained a search warrant for the Sifrits' condominium and found blood and other evidence inside, Todd said.
Erika Sifrit is charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Ford and Crutchley, as well as theft, burglary, carrying a concealed handgun and being an accessory after the fact.
Her husband was convicted in April of second-degree murder in the slaying of Crutchley but was cleared of charges in the death of Ford. He was found guilty of being an accessory after the fact in both deaths, having testified that he chopped up their bodies after his wife killed them.
Both trials were moved from Worcester County on the Eastern Shore because of publicity surrounding the killings.
Defense attorney Thomas R. Ceraso told jurors that evidence would show Benjamin Sifrit committed the murders.
"We're here because the state of Maryland has said Erika Sifrit murdered two people," Ceraso said. "She didn't. The state knows it. We're going to prove to you who murdered these people."
Meeting on a bus
The Sifrits met Ford and Crutchley on a transit bus on the way to a Coastal Highway bar. Benjamin Sifrit didn't have money for the fare, and Ford offered to pay for him if Sifrit bought him a drink when they got to the nightclub.
He agreed, and the foursome spent the rest of the evening together before heading to the Sifrits' condo.
Only parts of the bodies were ever recovered. A year ago yesterday, investigators found Ford's bullet-riddled torso and two arms in a Delaware landfill. They found Crutchley's left leg. The cause of Crutchley's death is unknown.
Prosecutors will be permitted to use some of Benjamin Sifrit's testimony from his trial, but only the sections pertaining to the dismemberment of the bodies, which he admitted to. The passages of testimony in which he blames the murders on his wife and claims he was asleep in a Jeep outside while the killings took place will not be permitted, Circuit Judge G. Edward Dwyer has ruled.
Witnesses called by the state against Benjamin Sifrit are expected to be used in his wife's defense in this trial. Several times in his opening argument, Ceraso said Benjamin Sifrit had essentially confessed to the killings a few nights after they occurred, after luring another couple to the condo. The defense attorney indicated that the jury would hear from the woman in that couple.
Ceraso also spoke of a Navy buddy of Sifrit's who recalled that Sifrit once described explicitly how he would dispose of a body if he committed a murder - by chopping it apart, putting the pieces in garbage bags and depositing them in the same trash bin over time or in various trash bins around the city on the same day. A "prophecy," Ceraso called it.
Witnesses for state
The state called a series of witnesses to the stand yesterday afternoon as prosecutors began laying out their case, including a woman who rode the Ocean City bus with the foursome, the bus driver, several police officers involved in the Sifrits' arrest and Mark Ford, the older brother of Joshua Ford.
The trial is expected to last more than a week.