Thursday, August 14, 2003

FREDERICK, Md. — Erika E. Sifrit was sentenced yesterday to life in prison plus 20 years for murdering a Fairfax City couple she and her husband met during a night of bar-hopping in Ocean City.

Sifrit, 25, wept as she apologized repeatedly to the victims’ families near the end of a four-hour hearing in Frederick County Circuit Court.

“I’m so sorry,” she said between sobs. “I don’t even feel worthy to stand here and ask them to forgive me.”

Sifrit, of suburban Altoona, Pa., was convicted June 10 of first-degree murder for the death of Joshua E. Ford, 32, and second-degree murder for the death of his girlfriend, Martha M. “Genie” Crutchley, 51. Parts of the dismembered bodies of the couple were found in a Delaware landfill nine days after the May 26, 2002, slayings.

Sifrit faced a maximum penalty of life plus 69 years for her crimes, which also included theft of the victims’ property and burglary of a Hooters restaurant with her husband, Benjamin, five days after the killings.

Judge G. Edward Dwyer said the contrast between Erika Sifrit’s actions and the sweet-natured small-town girl her friends and family described reminded him of the fictional characters Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

“This is one of the more vicious and incomprehensible crimes this court has witnessed — and I’ve heard a lot,” Judge Dwyer said.

Six family members of the victims, many dressed in purple, a color Sifrit reportedly hates, vented their pain and anger as they addressed her in turn from the witness stand.

“I have such hatred in my heart for you. You stole so much from my family, you don’t deserve anyone’s mercy or forgiveness,” said Melisa Ford, Mr. Ford’s older sister.

Her brother, Mark, loudly told Erika Sifrit to “look at me, please,” when she averted her eyes during his often sarcastic remarks.

“You’re going to have lots of quality cell time,” he told her.

Miss Crutchley’s sister, Anita Flickinger, barely spoke above a whisper as she told Sifrit, “It was not just the bodies of Genie and Josh you threw away, it was the last shred of your humanity.”

Sifrit’s parents and family friends recalled her apparently happy childhood, academic success and stellar high school basketball career. They said she changed after meeting Benjamin Sifrit while attending Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va. The couple married before telling her parents, and Erika soon began suffering panic attacks that led to psychiatric treatment and antidepressants.

“Her whole personality just completely changed,” said her father, Mitchell Grace, a construction company owner.

The probation officer who prepared a pre-sentencing report on Erika Sifrit wrote of “complete mind control by her husband, coupled with severe abuse of drugs and alcohol.”

Judge Dwyer refused to recommend that Erika Sifrit receive a psychiatric evaluation and possible treatment at the Patuxent Institution, a state center for mentally ill inmates. A finding by Dr. Robert Katz, a psychiatrist who examined her before sentencing, said she had an “emotional imbalance” of the type Patuxent treats.

Judge Dwyer said Dr. Katz’ conclusion wasn’t strong enough to recommend treatment.

Benjamin Sifrit, 25, was convicted by a Montgomery County jury April 9 of second-degree murder for Miss Crutchley’s death but was acquitted of killing Mr. Ford. He was sentenced July 7 to 38 years in prison for Miss Crutchley’s murder and the Hooters burglary.

Both cases were moved out of Worcester County, where the crimes occurred, because of heavy publicity there.

Erika Sifrit avoided the death penalty as a result of a deal her attorneys, Arcangelo M. Tuminelli and Thomas R. Ceraso, made with prosecutors.

Mr. Tuminelli argued that Benjamin Sifrit was the killer. He told jurors his client was a “fragile, psychologically weak young woman” who aided her husband only because she craved his affection.

The defense attorneys said in June they likely would appeal the murder verdicts, citing a separate agreement Erika Sifrit made with prosecutors early on to cooperate in exchange for avoiding homicide charges. That agreement was thrown out after prosecutors said she had lied to them about some details of the crimes.

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