As police tell it, Benjamin Sifrit had a nickname for his wife, Erika, and she had one for him: They called each other Bonnie and Clyde. But unlike those bank-robbing lovebirds of the Depression era, the Sifrits allegedly did their crimes out of public view.
In the western Pennsylvania hills where they once lived, they are suspected of stealing more than $50,000 in beauty supplies and dietary supplements in a string of commercial burglaries, according to police, who have not charged the couple in the thefts.
And, just after midnight May 31, police arrested the Sifrits at a Hooters restaurant in Ocean City, where the two allegedly were loading $5,500 in stolen goods, including cigarettes and Hooters T-shirts, into their Jeep.
That was the least of what police found, according to court records. In searching the suspects, their Jeep and an Ocean City condominium that the couple had rented, investigators said they found three handguns, two knives, traces of blood and other evidence linking Benjamin and Erika Sifrit, both 25, to what was then a well-publicized mystery in the seaside resort.
Several days earlier, on Memorial Day weekend, a Fairfax County couple, mortgage broker Joshua E. Ford, 32, and insurance underwriter Martha M. Crutchley, 51, had disappeared while vacationing in Ocean City.
Police have since alleged that the Fairfax couple befriended the Sifrits in a brief relationship that ended in murder -- with Ford and Crutchley shot, their bodies cut up and tossed in a dumpster. If police know of a motive for the crime, they haven't stated it publicly.
Now, after heavy publicity about the slayings on the Eastern Shore resulted in a change in trial venue, jury selection is set to begin today in Montgomery County Circuit Court for Benjamin Sifrit, who is charged with first-degree murder. Erika Sifrit, charged with the same crimes, is scheduled to go on trial in Frederick County in June. The two are charged in the Hooters burglary in a separate indictment.
Theirs is a story of a man and woman from far different backgrounds, joined in marriage and alleged crime, with each now looking for a way out. Erika Sifrit told authorities that her husband is responsible for the slayings, according to court records. In an interview, Benjamin Sifrit's attorney, William C. Brennan Jr., said he will not dispute in court that his client helped get rid of the victim's bodies, but he will argue that Erika Sifrit committed the killings.
Erika Grace was a small-town girl, an only child who charmed people with her bold smile, bouncy spirit and wild spray of brown curls, according to people who know her.
Though petite, she was a basketball standout at Hollidaysburg Area Senior High School, near Altoona, Pa. Her father, Mitchell Grace, a contractor, rarely if ever missed a game. She graduated from high school with honors in 1996 and studied history at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, graduating cum laude.
Benjamin Sifrit, known to friends as B.J., was an average high school student who sometimes worked as a lifeguard, according to acquaintances.
One of two children, he moved frequently with his family to cities in the South and Midwest as his father, Craig Sifrit, a business executive, was transferred by his employer.
Benjamin Sifrit had a reputation as a thrill-seeker. In a suburb of Houston, he bragged to classmates about shooting holes in stop signs and jumping into a YMCA pool from a skylight. Handsome, confident and moody, he enlisted in the Navy after graduating from high school in 1996 and eventually earned a place in the SEALs, the Navy's elite commando unit.
"It seemed like he had no fear," said Marc R. Fuller, a fellow swim team member at Cy-Fair High School in Cypress, Tex.
But his Navy career ended in four years with a bad conduct discharge.
Vaughan E. Taylor, a civilian lawyer who counseled Sifrit when he got in trouble in the military, said Sifrit was kicked out of the SEALs because of repeated motor vehicle violations cited by civilian authorities in Virginia Beach and other incidents of poor conduct. Military commanders, saying Sifrit needed time to cool off, transferred him in August 2000 to Camp Lejeune, N.C., where he began training to be a medical corpsman, Taylor said.
By then, he and Erika Sifrit were married, apparently having met in Virginia while he was stationed there and she was in college.
With good behavior, Sifrit eventually might have been allowed to rejoin the SEALs, Taylor said. But he said Sifrit was determined to get out of the Navy fast, largely to please his wife. Taylor described Erika Sifrit as a needy woman, ill-suited to be the wife of a SEAL. She was not patient or self-sufficient enough to abide her husband's long absences for training exercises, he said.
"I've never seen anything like it -- that a woman is that dependent but is able to get him to destroy his life to be with her," Taylor said. "Whatever she wanted, he was going to do."
At Camp Lejeune, Sifrit was reprimanded for wearing the SEAL insignia despite no longer being authorized to do so. At an October 2000 court-martial, he admitted to cursing at officers, shoving one of them, leaving the base without permission and failing to report for duty the next day, according to a transcript.
"He's indicated that he just wants to get out of the Navy, and that appears to be the primary reason for his actions today," his attorney at the proceeding, Marine Corps Capt. Elizabeth F. Crail, told the military judge.
Out of the Navy, Sifrit settled with his wife in an apartment in Duncansville, Pa., a small village near Erika Sifrit's hometown.
Pam Knisely, a neighbor, said the couple kept a small pet alligator and several pet snakes, including an albino cobra named Hitler. Knisely said Erika Sifrit enjoyed showing off her collection of Hooters T-shirts from across the country. The couple ran Memory Laine, a shop in Altoona that sold supplies for making scrapbooks.
Like many thousands of others last Memorial Day weekend, the Sifrits headed to Ocean City.
And so did Ford and Crutchley, who had been living together in Fairfax City for about a year.
Each had been married once, and each had a child. Ford, who grew up in Boston, attended Norfolk State University. Then he served a stint in the Army, according to a relative, Deborah Ford. Later, while he was working and attending school in Boston, he met Crutchley at a Christmas party.
A native of tiny Cunningham, Kan., Crutchley, known to friends as "Geney," was working for an insurance company in Chantilly and was in Boston on business.
The two fell in love, and Ford moved to Fairfax City to be with her, relatives said.
In Ocean City, Crutchley and Ford struck up a friendship with the Sifrits, whom they met on a bus, police said. They said the couples went to a nightclub, then to the Sifrits' rented penthouse at the Rainbow Condominium complex.
Erika Sifrit initially told police that her husband killed the couple on the beach, according to court documents. In a later statement, she said they were in the condominium when Ford started flirting with her. She said she also noticed that her purse was missing.
She said her husband confronted Ford and Crutchley, and the couple fled into the bathroom and locked the door. Her husband then fired a shot through the door, kicked it down, and killed the couple, Erika Sifrit said.
Their bodies were dismembered, stuffed in trash bags and tossed in a dumpster in Rehoboth Beach, Del. Days later, investigators found the remains at a landfill in Hardscrabble, Del.
Erika Sifrit initially agreed to a plea deal. Prosecutors agreed to drop the murder charges against her if she passed a polygraph test and testified against her husband, and if no new evidence emerged contradicting her story that she was merely a bystander during the killings.
But during a pretest interview with the polygraph examiner, prosecutors said in court, Erika Sifrit implicated herself in the slayings. Over the objection of her attorney, prosecutors withdrew the plea deal.
Police said that when they confronted the couple at the Hooters, Erika Sifrit was carrying a .357-caliber snub-nosed revolver that was later identified as the weapon that killed Ford.
Benjamin Sifrit was carrying a 9mm handgun, police said, and a .45-caliber pistol was on the Jeep's dashboard. In Erika Sifrit's purse, police said, they found Ford's and Crutchley's driver's licenses.
"My mother kept saying: 'Why? Why? Why did they do that?' " Crutchley's sister, Anita Flickinger, said.
"I kept saying, 'Because they could, Mother. They're not like us.' "
Staff writer Nelson Hernandez contributed to this report.
Erika and Benjamin Sifrit are charged in the slayings of Crutchley and Ford. She will go on trial in Frederick County, he in Montgomery.Erika Sifrit, left, is led into the Worcester County Courthouse on Sept. 30 in Snow Hill, Md. She will go on trial in June.