- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2003

FREDERICK, Md. — A jury yesterday convicted Erika Sifrit, a former honor student, of murdering a Fairfax City couple she and her young husband met during a night of bar-hopping in Ocean City last year.

Jurors deliberated four hours before finding the Duncansville, Pa., woman guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Joshua E. Ford, 32, and second-degree murder in the death of his girlfriend, Martha M. Crutchley, 51. Parts of the dismembered bodies of the couple were found in a Delaware landfill nine days after their May 26, 2002, slayings.

The Frederick County Circuit Court jury of seven women and five men also found Erika Sifrit, 25, guilty of theft, burglary and related charges but acquitted her of using a handgun in Mr. Ford’s murder.

Judge G. Edward Dwyer Jr. set sentencing for Aug. 14. Erika Sifrit faces maximum penalties of life in prison with a possibility of parole for the first-degree murder, 30 years for second-degree murder and a combined 39 years for the other counts.

She stared blankly at jury foreman John M. Dempsey as he read the verdicts. As the murder convictions were announced, her mother began sobbing on her husband’s shoulder. The defendant did not look at her parents, Mitch and Cookie Grace, before being led back to jail.

The Graces left the courthouse without speaking to reporters.

Worcester County State’s Attorney Joel J. Todd said he was pleased with the verdicts, especially considering those a Montgomery County jury delivered two months earlier at the trial of Erika Sifrit’s husband, Benjamin. He was convicted of second-degree murder in Miss Crutchley’s death but acquitted of killing Mr. Ford.

“We felt it was our role to speak out for the victims in this case,” Mr. Todd said. “It is just very gratifying to know that we spoke loudly enough.”

Both trials were moved out of Worcester County because of extensive publicity about the case in the Ocean City area.

The victims’ families were not in court yesterday. Vyoletus Candelario, Worcester County victims’ coordinator, said she spoke with them by telephone and that they were “ecstatic.”

“They feel justice prevailed,” she said.

Defense attorneys Arcangelo M. Tuminelli and Thomas R. Ceraso said an appeal is likely, with the strongest grounds being Erika Sifrit’s agreement with prosecutors early on to cooperate in exchange for avoiding homicide charges. The agreement was thrown out after prosecutors said she had lied to them about some details of the crimes.

“We believe she complied with that agreement,” Mr. Tuminelli said.

Mr. Todd acknowledged that Erika Sifrit provided information that led police to the remains, but said the prosecution was sound.

“I feel confident we put on a good case and there was no reversible error committed in this case,” Mr. Todd said.

Mr. Tuminelli said the defense also might appeal on the grounds the state used two different theories of the crime, both derived from the same evidence, to prosecute the defendants.

In his closing argument Monday after four days of testimony, Mr. Todd told the jury he believed Erika Sifrit fired one of the shots that killed Mr. Ford and also shot at Miss Crutchley but missed. He theorized that Miss Crutchley was finished off with a knife.

At the earlier trial, Mr. Todd told the jury he believed Benjamin Sifrit shot three times at Mr. Ford, then turned on Miss Crutchley.

He acknowledged at both trials that no one knows how Miss Crutchley died, because the only part of her recovered was her left leg. Mr. Ford died of gunshot wounds. Two bullets were found in his torso.

Erika Sifrit was linked to the murder weapon, a .357 Magnum revolver police found tucked in her waistband when they came upon the couple burglarizing an Ocean City Hooters restaurant five days later. In her purse, they found four spent shell casings from the gun and Mr. Ford’s distinctive silver ring, stained with both victims’ blood.

Juror Doug Dailey said he considered the prosecution evidence overwhelming, and that there was little or no agonizing in the jury room about the verdict.

Mr. Dailey said it didn’t matter that prosecutors couldn’t determine whether Erika Sifrit or her husband pulled the trigger. He said Erika Sifrit was convicted on a legal argument of aiding and abetting, and that the jury was convinced that the Sifrits acted as a team throughout the crimes.

Mr. Todd referred to Erika Sifrit in his closing argument Monday as “Little Miss Scrapbook,” a depraved killer who kept souvenirs of her crimes. He said she controlled her husband and took the lead in inviting the victims back to their penthouse condominium after the bars closed.

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

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