In a split verdict that stunned the prosecution and outraged one victim's family, Benjamin A. Sifrit was found guilty yesterday of second-degree murder of a Fairfax County woman in Ocean City last Memorial Day weekend, but was cleared of all charges in the killing of the woman's companion.
The jury, deliberating nearly 14 hours over two days, did convict Sifrit of covering up both killings, returning guilty verdicts of accessory to a crime after the fact for his role in dismembering and disposing of the bodies of Martha M. Crutchley, 51, and Joshua E. Ford, 32. But that crime had been conceded by the defense from the beginning of the trial.
Prosecutors had argued that Sifrit and his wife, Erika, had killed Crutchley and Ford as part of a perverse game in a penthouse at the Rainbow Condominium on May 26.
But Sifrit blamed his wife, saying she had killed both victims in a drug- and alcohol-fueled rage while he was passed out in their Jeep. Their bodies were dismembered, placed in plastic garbage bags and disposed of in a grocery store trash bin in Rehoboth Beach. Only some of their remains were recovered from a Delaware landfill.
Though prosecutors had sought first-degree murder convictions that would carry a maximum prison sentence of life without parole, Sifrit, 25, now faces a maximum of 35 years and possible parole. No sentencing date was set. Two minor theft charges against him, for allegedly taking items from the victims, were dismissed by the judge partway through the trial for lack of evidence.
The former Navy SEAL's face remained blank as the jury announced its verdict last evening in Montgomery County Circuit Court, where the trial had been moved because of heavy publicity.
Joshua Ford's brother and sister appeared stunned as the verdict was read. As Sifrit was led away, Mark Ford stormed out of the courtroom, cursed and began pacing as he waited for his sister to emerge. Later, he told reporters that he was "totally disgusted" with the verdict. He said he wanted Sifrit to die in prison and was furious that Sifrit could someday walk free.
"He's walking over my brother now," said Ford, who added that this was his second wrenching encounter with the justice system since his daughter was abducted and murdered in Boston. "We've had to live through that, and now this. There's no justice."
Crutchley's sister, Anita Flickinger, said the verdict was confusing.
"It's a small bit of justice for my Geney," Flickinger said, referring to her sister by her nickname. "My heart goes out to Josh's family."
But William C. Brennan Jr., one of Sifrit's two attorneys, praised the jury for returning a verdict that closely tracked the state's demonstrable evidence.
Because evidence recovered from the Sifrits suggested that four shots had been fired in the condominium, Brennan suggested that jurors based their split decision on three bullets taken from Ford's body that were linked to a .357 magnum revolver found in Erika Sifrit's waistband at the time of her arrest. Her purse also contained four empty shell casings and a live round linked to the same weapon, as well as the ID cards of both victims.
Prosecutors argued that the .357 magnum was actually purchased and registered to Benjamin Sifrit and that the couple used three handguns interchangeably, so Benjamin Sifrit could have shot Ford with the .357 magnum. Prosecutors had conceded that they could not prove how Crutchley died, because only her leg was recovered. Prosecutors implied that she might have been slashed or cut by a knife used to hack up the bodies.
"We were very pleased that the jury very conscientiously sifted through the evidence of this case, and we were gratified with their verdict," Brennan said. "It was a tragic case for all the families.''
Worcester County prosecutor Joel Todd declined to comment. In closing arguments, Todd gave his most detailed explanation for the sequence of events leading up to the murder, suggesting that the Sifrits falsely accused Ford and Crutchley of stealing Erika Sifrit's purse, and drew weapons to see how their guests would react.
Joshua Ford, a black belt in karate, probably stood up to Sifrit, however, and a struggle ensued, Todd argued. When Ford and Crutchley locked themselves in the bathroom, with Ford bracing himself against the door, Sifrit fired through the bathroom door, killing him. Crutchley likely had been killed with a knife or other similar means that soaked the room in blood, he said.
Ocean City police detective Scott Bernal, the lead officer on the case, also expressed anger at the jury's verdict.
"They obviously were not in the same courtroom I was in," he said.
Juror Michael Chmar, 31, a chef who works in the District, declined to discuss the facts or the logic the jury relied on in arriving at its decision. But he also defended the verdict of the seven-woman, five-man panel.
"I understand how Mark Ford feels," Chmar said last night. "I mean, he lost a brother. But I know that his view of what happened is based on a lot more emotion than what our decision was."
Benjamin Sifrit's mother, Elizabeth Sifrit, reached at her home in Wisconsin last night, declined to comment.
Erika Sifrit's murder trial is scheduled for June 2 in Frederick County, where it also was moved because of publicity.