- The Washington Times - Friday, December 27, 2002

The Eastern Shore judge who moved the trial of a former Navy SEAL accused of fatally shooting and dismembering two Ocean City tourists said yesterday he picked Montgomery County because its large jury pool promised an impartial trial.

The brutal slayings in an oceanfront condominium over the Memorial Day weekend and the discovery of the body parts in a Delaware landfill garnered headlines this past summer throughout the East Coast. But news coverage was particularly intense in Ocean City, where murder is rare and a double homicide is inconceivable to most residents.

"The goal is to acquire 12 persons who can try the case impartially, and we believe that can happen in Montgomery County," said Circuit Administrative Judge Daniel M. Long, who approved transferring Benjamin Adam Sifrit's trial to avoid pretrial publicity.

Mr. Sifrit, 25, and his wife, Erika Sifrit, 24, are accused of murdering a Fairfax couple vacationing in Ocean City. The dismembered remains of the couple, Martha M. Crutchley and Joshua E. Ford, were discovered a week later in black plastic bags at the landfill.

Defense attorneys for Mr. and Mrs. Sifrit, who will be tried separately, asked for the change of venue because of the news coverage that captivated area residents with every new plot twist and minor detail of the crime.

"This is not the norm this kind of crime in Ocean City. It has captured everybody's attention," said Ocean City Mayor James N. Mathias Jr. "You would be hard-pressed to find a jury that has not read or heard about it in some form."

Though the small resort town hosts about 8 million visitors every summer, Mr. Mathias said, the town rarely has a murder. He could recall only a couple of murders during the past decade.

John Resh, a sales associate with Ocean City Health & Racquet Club, said the news accounts of the murder linger with residents.

"People are still talking about it and they are still concerned about whether we can keep this type of situation from happening again," said Mr. Resh, 25. He also said the town prides itself on being friendly, but he recalled that the Sifrits and the victims met through a friendly encounter on a bus.

"As friendly as people can be, you still have to keep in the back of your mind that you have to be on your toes," he said.

The newspapers and TV reported almost every move the Altoona, Pa., couple made from dinner at Grotto's Pizza to drinks at Seacrets nightclub to the Home Depot for items to whitewash the crime scene. However, they never could explain what brought the victims to the Sifrits' rented penthouse in the Rainbow Condominiums or what led to the shootings.

The murder trial of Mrs. Sifrit, a honors graduate from Mary Washington College and a former college basketball star, was moved to Frederick, also to escape the pretrial publicity.

Mrs. Sifrit, who has cooperated with police and incriminated her husband in the murders, faces life in prison with the possibility of parole. Mr. Sifrit faces life without parole.

The change of venue for Mr. Sifrit, a former Navy corpsmen, was agreed to by his attorneys and the prosecution, Judge Long said.

The location was selected because it was far enough away from Ocean City to supply impartial jurors, but not so far away as to inconvenience witnesses and others who may testify, he said.

Judge Long said he was not concerned about the trial taking place in the Washington suburbs, which has a greater saturation of news outlets than the Eastern Shore. He was more concerned about pretrial publicity than coverage of the trial, he said.

Just days after Mr. Ford and Miss Crutchley were reported missing, Ocean City police arrested the Sifrits for stealing T-shirts and other memorabilia from a Hooter's restaurant. Both reportedly were carrying handguns. Police said they found the IDs of the missing persons in Mrs. Sifrit's purse.

While Mrs. Sifrit was in custody, police said, she told authorities that her husband shot and killed Mr. Ford and Miss Crutchley, and that she helped him discard their remains in a trash bin in Rehoboth Beach, Del. The information led police to the dismembered bodies in the landfill.

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