06/09/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT
06/09/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT
It looked almost like a college prank. Police officers responding to a silent alarm late at night at a Hooters restaurant in Ocean City, Md., last year came upon a man and a woman packing their Jeep Cherokee with armloads of merchandise—baseball hats, golf shirts and a stack of "Follow Me to Hooters" license-plate holders. Except it turned out that the man, Benjamin Sifrit, now 25, and his wife, Erika, also 25, had three handguns. And when Erika started having a panic attack and police searched her purse for her antianxiety medication, they found something even more unsettling: the IDs of two vacationers who had recently been reported missing in the area—plus some spent shell casings.
There's no telling what might have happened if the Sifrits hadn't been nabbed that night. As police began to question the couple, they soon saw links between the Sifrits and the murders of Joshua Ford, 32, and his girlfriend, Martha "Geney" Crutchley, 51, who had last been seen six days before, on May 25 of last year. What's more, Benjamin, a former Navy SEAL, and Erika, who comes from a wealthy Pennsylvania family, allegedly committed the crime not for financial gain or passion but for the sheer excitement of doing it. "It was about the thrill and the success of not getting caught," says lead detective Scott Bernal, referring to Benjamin, whose trial began on March 31. "Everything about it was a game."
The night the Sifrits were apprehended, on May 31, 2002, police went back to the couple's penthouse condo in the resort of Ocean City. Investigators were hoping they would find Ford and Crutchley, who had themselves been staying at a nearby condo. Eventually they uncovered traces of blood in the bathroom and some plastic garbage bags. Ford, a mortgage broker, and Crutchley, an insurance executive, had been living together for a year in Fairfax, Va. They were using the weekend in Ocean City to kick back for a few days. Says Ford's sister Melisa: "She was crazy about Josh, and he was crazy about her."
As police later reconstructed it, Ford and Crutchley were on a local bus heading to the Seacrets nightclub on the evening of May 25, when they encountered the Sifrits, who didn't have exact change for the fare. Ford graciously offered to pay for their tickets, and the two couples soon ended up at the club together, drinking until late that night. In initial statements to police, Erika described what allegedly happened next. She said that an incident had taken place in the condo and that Ford and Crutchley had taken refuge in the bathroom, but that Benjamin had kicked in the door and shot both of them. He had then dismembered the bodies, which the couple threw in a Dumpster in nearby Rehobeth Beach, Del. As for the supposed motive, Erika spoke cryptically about Ford and Crutchley's having tried to steal her purse containing her grandmother's $10,000 ring.
That reference—and the enormity of what had happened—became clearer two weeks later when, through a tip, police located a Delaware clothing-store owner named Melissa Seling. At Benjamin's trial, Seling, 22, testified that she and a male friend had met up with the Sifrits in Ocean City three days after the murders and had also been invited up to the couple's penthouse. There Erika had suddenly announced that her purse and the ring were missing. The deadly game had begun. Seling said she had felt a rising sense of alarm, especially after Benjamin pulled out a gun, put his face right up to hers and said how "very, very important [it was] that I find this purse."
Apprehensive, Seling intensified her search, but when Benjamin soon found the purse tucked behind a cushion where she had already looked, she realized that the whole exercise had been nothing but a bizarre mind game. Detective Bernal is convinced that Ford, who was a strapping 6'2" and a black belt in karate, and Crutchley were subjected to the same ritual but weren't sufficiently submissive. "Melissa didn't ask any questions—she just knew that if she did she was going to get hurt," says Bernal. "It didn't go that way with Josh and Geney."
The families of both Benjamin and Erika have tried to portray them as unlikely candidates to commit such a crime. Raised in Minnesota, Benjamin was a poor student in high school. But after enlisting in the Navy, he seemed to find his calling in life. He finished first in his elite SEALs training course in 1997. Two years later he married Erika Grace, then a student at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va. According to Benjamin's mother, Elizabeth, 47, her son changed after getting involved with Erika. Once close with the rest of his family, he stopped calling and visiting. "I just wanted to make [Erika] happy," he explained at his trial. "It was extreme." The relationship also seemed to affect his Navy career. Sifrit became unruly and was court-martialed for a variety of offenses including absence without leave and insubordination. One Navy prosecutor said Sifrit seemed to have developed "utter disregard for authority." Ultimately he was drummed out of the service on a bad-conduct discharge.
Erika's parents, Mitch, 57, a successful contractor, and Cookie, 55, a former nurse, of Hollidaysburg, Pa., say there were not overjoyed when she wed Sifrit. Throughout high school and college Erika had been an outstanding student and athlete, graduating cum laude from Mary Washington and playing for two years on the women's basketball team there. What's more, she had always been known as a normal, levelheaded person. "She was all about life—active and outgoing," says her high school adviser Jeanne Puskar. "She didn't seem to have a dark side." Mitch Grace says he and his wife were dismayed about their daughter's marriage because she had wanted to go on to law school. "But you have to accept things, and this is what she wanted to do," he says. "You accept it and go on. Benjamin was part of our family."
Even so, both Erika and Benjamin, who had been running a scrapbook store in Altoona, Pa., since 2000, had other sides to their personalities. For one thing, Erika was obsessed with Hooters and had a collection of the skimpy tank tops worn by the chain's waitresses. For another, she was prone to anxiety attacks, for which she took drugs such as Xanax and Paxil. The couple also kept numerous exotic snakes; Benjamin has a large swastika tattooed on his chest. "He is a thrill seeker," says Bernal. "He was looking for different ways to continue to get that rush, that living on the edge."
At his trial Benjamin tried to put almost all the blame on Erika. He maintained that he was sleeping in the car when the murders took place and that upon seeing the "horrific" scene, he only agreed to help cover up the crime. "I dismembered them," he admitted in his testimony. "That was my idea." In the end his strategy worked, up to a point. In a verdict that police and the victims' families found astonishing, Benjamin was convicted of second-degree murder in Geney Crutchley's death—but acquitted of all charges involving Ford. "I really don't know how the jury went home and slept that night," says Ford's sister Melisa. Jury foreman Robert Cantor explains that the panel could not determine beyond a reasonable doubt that Benjamin Sifrit had actually been the one who killed Ford.
Erika is scheduled to go on trial on the same charges in early June. It seems likely that she will attempt to return the favor and show that her husband was the killer. (Some of her earlier statements to police will not be admissible.) Prosecutors are hopeful that they will be able to nail her for both murders, which would make her eligible for life without parole. In any case, Detective Bernal has vowed to make sure that Benjamin serves every last day of what could be a 35-year term. "I'll be at every parole hearing, even if I'm retired," he says. "And I'll make sure to bring the autopsy pictures to remind them of what he's done."
Joanna Blonska in Rockville, Md.