FREDERICK, Md. — The state will prove the bullets that killed Joshua Ford came from a handgun Erika Sifrit carried, a prosecutor told jurors yesterday as the Pennsylvania woman’s double-murder trial began.
The defense countered in its opening statement that there is no evidence Erika Sifrit fired the shots. Her lawyers contend her husband, Benjamin, killed and dismembered Mr. Ford and Mr. Ford’s girlfriend, Martha Crutchley, on the night the vacationing couples met in Ocean City.
The gun, a five-shot, snub-nosed .357 Magnum revolver, is the strongest evidence linking Mrs. Sifrit to the May 26, 2002, murders. Police found it tucked in her waistband five days later when they arrested the Sifrits at a Hooters restaurant in Ocean City.
Mrs. Sifrit, 25, of Altoona, Pa., pleaded not guilty to all charges, but defense attorney Thomas Ceraso didn’t dispute in his opening statement that she participated in the burglary at Hooters and in covering up the slayings.
Benjamin Sifrit was convicted April 9 of second-degree murder for Miss Crutchley’s death but acquitted of killing Mr. Ford. He testified at his trial that he was asleep in the Sifrits’ car outside the Rainbow Condominium penthouse when Mr. Ford, 32, and Miss Crutchley, 51, both of Fairfax, were killed. Parts of their bodies were found later in a landfill in Sussex County, Del.
The trial was moved to Frederick County Circuit Court from Worcester County due to heavy news coverage.
Worcester County State’s Attorney Joel J. Todd used a computer-assisted slide show during his opening statement in the packed courtroom. Against a magenta background, he displayed pictures of the gun and items found in Mrs. Sifrit’s purse, implying they were ghoulish souvenirs of the killings: four shell casings and a live round from the same weapon; a gold ring belonging to Mr. Ford that she had worn as a necklace; and both victims’ driver’s licenses.
“Her hobby was that she liked to collect things,” Mr. Todd said, “anything to help the defendant look back and remember significant events in her life.”
Mr. Todd also showed photographs of Mrs. Sifrit carrying a folding knife clipped to her pants pocket. That knife, with a serrated blade, could have been used to cut up the bodies, he said.
Mr. Ceraso said later, and prosecutors agreed, that Benjamin Sifrit also owned a knife consistent with the type of blade used to dismember Miss Crutchley.
Mr. Ceraso said the defense will prove Benjamin Sifrit, a former Navy SEAL, killed the couple, using as evidence statements he made to others as well as his own trial testimony.
“We have a confession, an absolute confession and concession on the part of Benjamin Sifrit,” Mr. Ceraso told jurors as Mrs. Sifrit watched calmly from her seat. “He killed them. He butchered them.”
Melissa Seling, a state’s witness at Benjamin Sifrit’s trial in Montgomery County, will testify that several nights after the killings, Sifrit threatened her and her boyfriend with the same gun that killed Mr. Ford, saying, “he would kill us the same way he killed those other people,” the defense attorney said.
Mr. Ceraso said the defense will also call another witness who testified against Benjamin Sifrit, former Navy SEAL Michael McInnis, to recount a 1999 conversation in which Sifrit described how he would dispose of a body by dismembering it and placing the parts in different trash bins.
And the defense will cite Benjamin Sifrit’s own trial testimony in which he acknowledged cutting up the bodies, Mr. Ceraso said.
When asked, under cross-examination, “You did it all, didn’t you?” Benjamin Sifrit replied, “Yes,” Mr. Ceraso said, reading aloud from a transcript.
Mr. Ceraso hinted that Mrs. Sifrit will take the stand, although defense attorneys have refused to say so. He told jurors they would hear testimony about how Sifrit directed his wife to do certain things, including “directions which occurred during the burglary.”
Before opening statements, and out of the jury’s presence, the lawyers argued strenuously about how much of Benjamin Sifrit’s trial testimony should be allowed as evidence. The defense wanted to admit only his statements regarding dismemberment, while prosecutors argued that certain other statements — some implying Mrs. Sifrit was the killer — were needed to provide context.
The issue wasn’t fully resolved, but Judge G. Edward Dwyer assured the defense he would allow at least the statements Mr. Ceraso referred to in his opening statement.
Judge Dwyer denied a defense motion to use a statement Sifrit’s former Navy commander gave police after the killings.
The Navy commander said Sifrit had told him 21 months earlier: “All I want is out, and all I want to do is kill people.”
The remark was a factor in Sifrit’s bad-conduct discharge from the service.
The state’s first witness, Dr. Adrianne Sekula-Pearlman, a deputy state medical examiner from Delaware, testified she removed two bullets from Mr. Ford’s torso — one from the neck and one from the right side of the chest. She said the wounds were fatal.
Dr. Sekula-Pearlman said Miss Crutchley’s death also was a homicide, but she couldn’t determine how she died, since the only body part found was her left leg.
Mrs. Sifrit faces a maximum of life in prison with the possibility of parole on the first-degree murder charges. She also is charged with theft, burglary, carrying a concealed handgun and being an accessory after the fact.
The trial is expected to run through June 11.