OC's Most Brutal Crime Remembered Five Years Later
OCEAN CITY - 'Murder is rarely pretty or pleasant, and in this case particularly, it was gruesome and grotesque.'
That's how Worcester County State's Attorney Joel Todd described the brutal murder of a Virginia couple in a north-end Ocean City penthouse condominium on Memorial Day weekend in 2002, five years ago today, in his opening statement in the trial of one of the murderers. The victims were lured to the Rainbow Condominium by a married couple they had met earlier in the evening and later brutally murdered, their bodies dismembered and scattered in several dumpsters across the Delaware shore.
Five years later, the memory of the horrific crime carried out by Benjamin and Erika Sifrit still haunts the resort known more for petty, alcohol-related crime than grisly double homicide. Had the murders occurred in a big metropolitan area like Baltimore or Washington or Philadelphia, for example, the story likely would have been buried deep inside the local newspapers, but in Ocean City it was the crime of the century and remained front-page news throughout the cruel summer of 2002 and far beyond as the killers were caught, tried and ultimately convicted.
The name Sifrit still elicits shudders from locals and long-time visitors to the resort, while the names of the victims, Joshua Ford and Martha 'Geney' Crutchley, evoke sorrow and regret. In either case, the names are forever etched in the resort's memory as part of the most heinous crime in the history of Ocean City.
'It's certainly one of the most notorious cases in my career, and probably one of the most notorious of all time in this area,' Todd said this week on the eve of the five year anniversary of the murders.
While overwhelming physical evidence was collected, including body parts retrieved from the Delaware landfill in a place called Hardscrabble, the one element of the horrific crime that was never firmly established was motive. During the Sifrits' trials, the couple was painted as thrill killers and collectors, but to this day, nobody other than maybe the Sifrits themselves can answer one question: why?
'The question I continue to ask myself whenever I think about this case to this day is: why?' said Todd this week. 'It's probably the one question that has never been answered. There was never any motive, other than the thrill of it, and the question of why still lingers over this case.'
While the memory of the incident has faded for many over the last five years, it has still not played itself out in the court system. Erika Sifrit took the biggest hit, being convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Ford and second-degree murder in the death of Crutchley and was sentenced to life plus 20 years in jail.
Benjamin Sifrit was convicted of second-degree murder in the death of Crutchley and sentenced to 38 years in jail, but has gained an appeal after claiming his legal counsel was ineffective. Benjamin Sifrit had a post-conviction hearing set for yesterday in Montgomery County almost five years to the day of the murders, but it was postponed.
'Here we are five years later and we're still dealing with this case,' said Todd. 'There was a post-conviction hearing scheduled in Montgomery County for tomorrow [Thursday] for Benjamin Sifrit that was postponed, so we're still involved with this case.'
Incident Began As
Missing Persons Case
The sad saga began as a missing persons case when the victims failed to return to their homes and jobs in northern Virginia after the holiday weekend. Both Crutchley and Ford were diligent workers and rarely missed a day of work, according to friends and co-workers, and both always kept in close contact with their families.
When they failed to return to their homes and jobs after the long weekend, they were reported missing and the OCPD began to distribute fliers with their pictures and started to track their whereabouts. Not much was made of the missing persons reports early on- it's not unusual for weekenders to extend their vacations in Ocean City- but as the days dragged on and nearly a week had passed, the case began to take a more serious turn. On the Friday after Crutchley and Ford were last heard from, a bizarre set of circumstances began to unfold that pointed to something far worse than a couple playing hooky for a few days.
Blows Open Case
Erika Sifrit had a penchant for Hooter's merchandize and when the couple was arrested for attempting to burglarize the Hooter's restaurant on 123rd Street in Ocean City early on a Friday morning nearly a week after the murders, resort police began to unravel the evidence that connected Benjamin and Erika Sifrit to the missing couple from Virginia.
While being taken into custody, Erika Sifrit asked the arresting officers to get her medication out of her purse. While searching for the pills, the OCPD officers found the missing couple's identification cards, spent bullet casings, handcuffs, and weapons, including the .357 Magnum later discovered to be the murder weapon. Erika Sifrit was later found wearing a ring belonging to Ford on a chain around her neck. The Sifrits were held on burglary charges while resort detectives attempted to put the pieces together.
Detectives went to the penthouse condo in the Rainbow where the Sifrits were staying. There they discovered more evidence the missing persons case was becoming a double homicide investigation including blood evidence in the bathroom of the master bedroom and in a clothes dryer. Despite the Sifrits' apparent attempt to cover up the murders, they inexplicably left evidence of the crimes including spent bullet casings presumably removed from the victims' bodies on the coffee table in the unit.
Todd said this week the Sifrits' brash burglary attempt a week not far from where they had committed a gruesome double murder just days before, coupled with the diligent work of the Ocean City Police Department, helped unravel a case that might have gone unsolved otherwise.
'I can't help, whenever I think about this case, but remember the diligent work of the Ocean City Police Department,' he said. 'Because of the circumstances, this was a case that could have gone unsolved for a long time and maybe forever.'
Grand Jury Indicts Sifrits
With the evidence against them piling up against the Sifrits, a Worcester County Grand Jury was convened to prepare indictments for the couple for the first-degree murders of Crutchley and Ford.
Erika Sifrit was the most verbal of the two and although she was found with the .357 Magnum and a large knife with blood and hair believed to be used to dismember the victims on her person, she told detectives it was her husband that pulled the trigger and killed the Virginia couple. For a brief time before the grand jury indicted the Sifrits, Erika Sifrit had a tentative preliminary deal for a lesser sentence if she agreed to testify against her husband, but the deal fell through when it became evident she had played as much of a role in the killings or more as Benjamin Sifrit.
In June 2002, the grand jury handed down a 13-count indictment against both Benjamin and Erika Sifrit including two counts each of first-degree murder. Although they were certainly eligible for the death penalty in any definition, Todd said early on he would not seek the death penalty for the pair after consulting with the victims' families.
'With the death penalty, you get a little injection and you go to sleep. It's not like the electric chair. There's no pain and there's no suffering. It's too simple as far as I'm concerned,' said Deborah Ford, sister-in-law of Joshua Ford, of the decision not to seek the death penalty against the Sifrits.
After considerable legal posturing by both sides, the trials for the Sifrits were moved out of Worcester County, where pre-trial publicity for the case was off the charts. Erika Sifrit was ultimately tried in Frederick County, while Benjamin Sifrit was tried in Montgomery County.
Chance Meeting Dooms Victims
The Sifrits first met Joshua Ford and Geney Crutchley when they boarded a resort bus at 143rd Street in Ocean City hours before the horrific crime. The Sifrits did not have exact change when they boarded the bus and Ford agreed to cover their fare. The two couples struck up a conversation during the bus ride south and later went to a resort nightclub together where they shared drinks, danced and became fast friends. Another couple had joined the pair at some point, but parted ways when the Sifrits unnerved them with their forwardness.
The Sifrits and Ford and Crutchley later went back to the latter's condo at the Atlantis for a nightcap and when the Sifrits invited them to come over to the Rainbow to see the posh penthouse they were staying in, the couple obliged. They would never be seen again. The Sifrits later engaged Ford and Crutchley in a game of sorts that led to the brutal murders. Erika Sifrit claimed her purse was missing and suspected Ford and Crutchley had taken it. When Benjamin Sifrit, a former Navy SEAL became enraged by the phony theft and brandished a gun, Ford and Crutchley retreated to the bathroom in the master bedroom and barricaded the door.
Exactly what happened next is known only to Benjamin and Erika Sifrit, but what is known is that Ford was shot first through the bathroom door and shot several more times after Benjamin presumably kicked down the door. It remains uncertain if Crutchley was also shot to death. One of Crutchley's legs was the only body part identified as her discovered later in the Delaware landfill and did not indicate she had been shot.
Conflicting Stories At Trials
Early on, Erika Sifrit claimed her husband had killed both Ford and Crutchley, but Benjamin Sifrit claimed during his trial he had passed out in the couple's Jeep while Erika killed Ford and Crutchley upstairs in the penthouse.
In either case, Benjamin Sifrit did admit to dismembering the bodies in an effort to cover for his wife, and the pair packed the victim's body parts in plastic trash bags and dispersed them in dumpsters across Sussex County. The body parts were discovered by resort police nearly a week after the fateful night.
Brazen Activity In Week
Between Murders, Arrests
With their victims presumably safely ditched in the landfill, the Sifrits went about doing normal things couples do on vacation in Ocean City. They went out to dinner and went to various bars and restaurants throughout the resort area in days after the brutal murders. They played miniature golf and enjoyed other attractions, all the while recording their fun with countless photographs. At one point, they decided to replace the bathroom door they had shot the victims through and went to the Home Depot on Route 50 to buy a replacement. In one chilling photograph later found, Benjamin Sifrit is shown in the parking lot of the store holding the new door over his head like a trophy.
On the Wednesday after the murders, the Sifrits partied with another couple they had just met and invited them back to their condo at the Rainbow. At one point, Erika Sifrit said 'my purse is missing again,' which appeared to be part of the same game that led to the murders of Crutchley and Ford. According to the couple's testimony at trial, Benjamin Sifrit became enraged and grabbed the woman, led her to the old bathroom door that they had not discarded and pointed to the bullet holes in it.
'See that, we had a couple in here just a few nights ago who tried to rip us off,' said Benjamin Sifrit, according to the testimony. 'I killed them. I shot them right through that door.' The couple was able to get away after a frantic search turned up the missing purse, but the close call could have led to the commemoration of the anniversary of a second double-homicide in the resort this week.