- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

FREDERICK, Md. — The defense rested in Erika E. Sifrit’s double-murder trial yesterday after a reluctant star witness testified that the defendant’s “out of control” husband apparently shot and killed a Virginia couple in an Ocean City penthouse.

But Melissa Seling later testified under cross-examination by Worcester County prosecutors that she wasn’t sure whether a gun-waving Benjamin Sifrit said that he, his wife, or both of them were the killers as he raved about the slayings four days afterward in the same luxury condominium.

The distinction could make all the difference for Mrs. Sifrit, 25, whose attorneys maintain that her husband killed Joshua E. Ford, 32, and Martha M. Crutchley, 51, both of Fairfax City.

Closing arguments are scheduled for Monday.

The Sifrits, of Duncansville, Pa., near Altoona, were both charged in the May 26, 2002, killings. Police say the victims were dismembered in the bathroom of the Ocean City condominium and their body parts placed in a trash bin in Rehoboth Beach, Del. Partial remains were recovered from a Delaware landfill.

Benjamin Sifrit, 25, was convicted April 9 of second-degree murder for Miss Crutchley’s death but acquitted of killing Mr. Ford. Sifrit, a former Navy SEAL, testified at his trial that he was sleeping in a vehicle outside the condominium when the two were killed, implying that his wife did it.

Miss Seling, 24, was a state’s witness at that trial in Montgomery County. She testified yesterday that she was coached by Assistant State’s Attorney E. Scott Collins before taking the stand in Mrs. Sifrit’s defense on the fifth day of the trial.

Miss Seling, a Delaware surf-shop manager, spent 2 hours on the witness stand, mostly sparring, sometimes tearfully, with defense attorney Arcangelo M. Tuminelli as he tried to make her repeat statements she made to police 2 weeks after her ordeal that Benjamin Sifrit had said he was the killer.

Miss Seling testified that she went to the condo with a male friend the night of May 29 after meeting the Sifrits earlier that day. She said she was fairly sober but that the others were drunk.

Shortly after they arrived, she said, Mrs. Sifrit’s red leather Coach purse apparently disappeared and Benjamin Sifrit turned threatening. He started waving a gun and told Miss Seling that “people who are going to go out and rip off other people don’t deserve to walk the Earth,” she said.

She said Sifrit showed her an apparent bullet hole in a door and said, “The same thing was going to happen to us that happened to the other people.”

Mr. Tuminelli asked her what people she thought he meant.

“The people that were murdered,” she said.

“And Ford and Crutchley were two people who what? What did he do to them?” Mr. Tuminelli asked.

“Apparently he shot and killed them,” Miss Seling replied.

She also testified that she never saw Mrs. Sifrit with a gun.

Another witness, a former Navy buddy of Benjamin Sifrit’s, testified that Sifrit had joked in 1999 about killing and dismembering someone.

Michael McInnis, another state’s witness at Benjamin Sifrit’s trial, said his friend also described how he would dispose of a body by covering the floor with plastic, cutting off the arms, legs and head, packaging the pieces in plastic bags and placing them in one or more trash bins.

Earlier yesterday, prosecutors announced they were dropping several charges against Mrs. Sifrit, including being an accessory after the fact. They wouldn’t explain the decision, but they apparently hoped to prevent the defense from introducing a statement her husband made at his trial.

While being questioned about his participation in the dismemberment, he was asked, “You did it all, didn’t you?” He replied, “Yes.” Frederick County Circuit Judge G. Edward Dwyer allowed the defense to introduce the snippet.

The remaining charges are two counts each of first-degree murder, burglary and carrying a deadly weapon; three counts of theft less than $500; a handgun violation; and one count of possessing burglary tools.

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