Erika Sifrit is found guilty in Ocean City double-killing

Former honor student could get life sentence in murder of Va. couple

June 11, 2003|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK - Erika Elaine Sifrit, a one-time honor student and college basketball player, was found guilty yesterday of murdering two fellow Ocean City tourists last year - a crime that prosecutors say she committed with her husband "for fun."

The jury deliberated for just over four hours before pronouncing Sifrit, 25, guilty of first-degree murder in the shooting of mortgage banker Joshua Ford, 32, and second-degree murder in the killing of his girlfriend, insurance executive Martha Crutchley, 51, both of Fairfax, Va.

Barring a successful appeal, the verdict ends the prosecution of one of the most notorious cases in Ocean City history. Sifrit's trial this month - and that in April of her husband, Benjamin Sifrit, 25, a former Navy SEAL - attracted national attention because of the grisly nature of the murders, the resort setting, the lack of an obvious motive and because both Sifrits come from well-to-do families. Both trials were moved because of extensive publicity on the Eastern Shore.

Erika Sifrit, gaunt and curly haired, wept frequently during the weeklong trial but displayed little emotion yesterday as the verdict was read by jury foreman John Dempsey, an electrical engineer.

Tears rolled down the cheeks of Sifrit's mother, Cookie Grace.

"I didn't see the evidence that way, but I guess they did," said Sifrit's father, Mitch Grace, owner of a construction company in western Pennsylvania. He said his daughter's attorneys would consider an appeal.

Sentencing was set for Aug. 14. Sifrit faces a possible life sentence for Ford's murder and up to 30 years on the second-degree murder count. Prosecutors had ruled out the death penalty or a sentence of life without possibility of parole as part of an agreement within days of her arrest in Ocean City last year. In exchange for their pledge not to seek those sentences, Sifrit agreed to help authorities locate the bodies, which had been dismembered and disposed of in plastic bags.

For prosecutors and investigators, the convictions yesterday took some of the sting out of a mixed verdict in the trial of Benjamin Sifrit. On April 9, a Montgomery County jury convicted him of second-degree murder in Crutchley's death and acquitted him in Ford's. Benjamin Sifrit is to be sentenced July 7.

The verdict in his case left detectives and the victims' families muttering and cursing. Mark Ford, 47, a Boston painting contractor who bears a dragon tattoo matching one his brother had on his arm, burst out of the Rockville courtroom April 19 and shouted an expletive in the corridor.

After yesterday's verdict, Ford "was euphoric, ecstatic. How many ways can you say happy?" said Vyoletus Candelario, the Worcester County victim witness coordinator, after talking to Ford from his Boston home. Ford and other family members, including Crutchley's mother and sister in Phoenix, opted to hear yesterday's verdict over the phone - largely because of the emotional toll of being in the courtroom, the prosecution team said.

Part of the problem for prosecutors at both trials was that they couldn't say for sure who fired the shots - Benjamin Sifrit, his wife, or both - that killed Ford in an Ocean City condominium over Memorial Day weekend last year. Police never recovered enough of Crutchley's body to determine how she died.

The two couples met on an Ocean City transit bus and discovered they were heading to the same bar. Investigators say the four ended up at the penthouse condominium where the Sifrits were staying. There, prosecutors said, Ford and Crutchley were terrorized and killed as they cowered in a hot tub room.

"One's a match and one is a stick of dynamite, and when you put them together it was a bomb waiting to happen," Ocean City Detective Scott Bernal said of the Sifrits after the verdict.

At Erika Sifrit's trial, Worcester County State's Attorney Joel Todd emphasized - more so than during her husband's case - that a first-degree murder conviction could be returned even if the jury could not say for certain which of them committed the killing.

"It seems clear they found she aided and abetted, and that's what made her guilty of murder," Todd said. "I'm gratified we were effectively able to speak for the victims in this case."

In addition to the murder convictions, Sifrit was also found guilty yesterday on lesser charges related to stealing the victims' property, carrying a dangerous weapon and burglarizing a Hooters restaurant with her husband five days after the murders. She was acquitted of using a handgun to kill Ford.

Defense attorney Arcangelo M. Tuminelli said he would consider an appeal in the murder convictions. He said prosecutors had violated an agreement last year that Sifrit, a former top student and basketball player at Virginia's Mary Washington College, would not face homicide charges if she cooperated with authorities. Prosecutors say the deal was never finalized because she contradicted herself and would have had little value as a witness for the state.

Tuminelli also accused prosecutors of using one theory of the case to try Erika Sifrit and a second, inconsistent theory to prosecute her husband - a violation, he said, of his client's rights.

After the verdict, prosecutor Todd accused Erika Sifrit's attorneys of spitefully refusing to allow a ring belonging to Joshua Ford to be returned to his family. Todd said Sifrit stole the ring after Ford's death and wore it on a chain around her neck as a trophy.

The defense argued that it wasn't clear that the ring seen around Sifrit's neck in photographs was, in fact, Ford's.

Todd asked Circuit Judge G. Edward Dwyer Jr. yesterday to allow the Fords to have the ring, which had been held as evidence. But the defense said the court should hold it in case it is needed during an appeal.

"That was a sham," Todd said. "They didn't want me to have that back. That was the last possession [Ford] had before he died."

Sun staff writer Ivan Penn contributed to this article.

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