Woman gets life for killing tourists in O.C.

Va. couple were lured to penthouse, slain and dismembered in 2002

August 15, 2003|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK - Comparing her to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a judge sentenced a sobbing, apologetic Erika Sifrit yesterday to life in prison plus 20 years for the grisly "thrill killings" of two Ocean City tourists during the 2002 Memorial Day weekend.

Circuit Judge G. Edward Dwyer Jr. denied a request from Sifrit's attorneys to suspend part of the sentence. Instead, he said he agreed with the jury's finding in June that while Erika Sifrit's husband, Benjamin, might have pulled the trigger, she was guilty of aiding and abetting him in the "senseless, horrible murders."

Her life sentence means Sifrit cannot be paroled unless the governor grants it. Prosecutors and the defense disagreed over when she would be eligible, but both sides said she would have to serve at least 20 years.

The judge said yesterday that he couldn't understand this violent side of Erika Sifrit, 25, a one-time honor student and college basketball player who was recently described by one of her former professors at Virginia's Mary Washington College as "a gentle, bright girl" who once possessed "a limitless future."

The professor's comments were contained in a letter to the court on the defendant's behalf.

Dressed in a dark business suit, Sifrit rose from her seat just before sentencing and, between sobs, delivered a rambling apology to relatives of the victims - mortgage banker Joshua Ford, 32, and his girlfriend, insurance executive Martha Crutchley, 51, both of Fairfax, Va.

The Sifrits met the couple on a bus on the way to a bar and later lured them back to the condominium where they were staying. They killed them "for fun," prosecutors said. Their dismembered body parts were found in a landfill.

Before the sentencing yesterday, six of Ford's and Crutchley's relatives took the witness stand and described their pain and anger over the murders.

"Erika, look at me! It's judgment day," said Ford's brother, Mark, a Boston painting contractor who bears a dragon tattoo that matched one on Joshua Ford's arm.

Sifrit, who lived outside Altoona, Pa., began her statement by quietly asking her attorney, Thomas Ceraso, "Can I apologize?" He told her to proceed.

"Everything they said to me, I deserve that and so much more," said Sifrit, her thin frame shaking. "I don't even feel worthy to stand here and ask them to forgive me."

She said she was haunted by photos of body parts that her attorney showed her. Looking at the autopsy shots "was the most disgusting, repulsive reality," she said. "I am so sorry. I don't even expect them to ever forgive me or ever not hate me as much as they do."

Benjamin Sifrit, 25, a former Navy SEAL who eloped with the former Erika Grace four years ago, was sentenced July 7 to 38 years in prison. The Montgomery County judge, Paul H. Weinstein, suggested he was eager to give him a longer sentence but was limited because the defendant was convicted only of second-degree murder in Crutchley's death and was cleared of killing Ford.

Erika Sifrit, though, was convicted June 10 of the first-degree murder of Ford and the second-degree murder of Crutchley, as well as lesser weapons and burglary charges that Dwyer called "minimal."

A problem for Worcester County State's Attorney Joel Todd at both trials was that he couldn't say for sure who had fired the shots that killed Ford. Police never recovered enough of Crutchley's body to determine how she died.

Prosecutors said Ford and Crutchley were terrorized and killed as they cowered in a hot-tub room in the penthouse where the Sifrits were staying.

Benjamin Sifrit killed Ford first, saying "see you later" accompanied by an expletive and then shooting him in the head, Erika Sifrit told prosecutors in June 2002, according to documents unsealed by the court yesterday. She told them Crutchley "curled up in a ball" in fear before being also shot by Benjamin Sifrit.

Erika Sifrit's statements, which had been sealed to prevent pre-trial publicity, came during a period when she was cooperating with authorities. Prosecutors 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 exchange for their pledge not to seek those sentences, Sifrit agreed to help authorities find the bodies

The talks with Sifrit later broke down. Prosecutors alleged she made inconsistent statements and would have had little value as a state witness. But defense attorney Arcangelo M. Tuminelli, who is appealing her convictions, says prosecutors reneged on a pledge not to try her for murder if she cooperated.

Tuminelli and Ceraso depicted Sifrit yesterday as depressed and suffering from low self-esteem. They said she lived to please her parents, who were seated in the courtroom yesterday, and her husband.

Based on her medical evaluations, the attorneys asked Dwyer to recommend that she be sent to the Patuxent Institution, which offers treatment for mentally ill inmates.

But Dwyer rejected the request, saying he was not convinced of the need.

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