OCEAN CITY – “Murder is rarely pretty or pleasant, and in this case particularly, it was gruesome and grotesque.”
That’s how former Worcester County State’s Attorney Joel Todd described the brutal murder of a Virginia couple in a north-end Ocean City penthouse condominium on Memorial Day weekend 10 years ago in his opening statement in the trial of one of the murderers. The victims were lured to the Rainbow Condominium by a married couple they had met earlier in the evening and later brutally murdered, their bodies dismembered and scattered in several dumpsters across the Delaware shore.
One decade later, the memory of the horrific crime carried out by Benjamin and Erika Sifrit still haunts the resort known more for petty, alcohol-related crime than grisly double homicide. Had the murders occurred in a big metropolitan area like Baltimore or Washington or Philadelphia, for example, the story likely would have been buried deep inside the local newspapers, but in Ocean City, it was the crime of the century and remained front-page news throughout the cruel summer of 2002 and far beyond as the killers were caught, tried and ultimately convicted.
“I’m not aware of any case in the history of Worcester County as heinous as this before and certainly not since,” said Todd this week. “It was just a horrible, horrible case and it lives with many of us still.”
The name Sifrit still elicits shudders from locals and long-time visitors to the resort, while the names of the victims, Joshua Ford and Martha ‘Geney’ Crutchley, evoke sorrow and regret. In either case, the names are forever etched in the resort’s memory as part of the most heinous crime in the history of Ocean City.
While overwhelming physical evidence was collected, including body parts retrieved from the Delaware landfill, the one element of the horrific crime that was never firmly established was motive. During the Sifrits’ trials, the couple was painted as thrill killers and collectors, but to this day, nobody other than maybe the Sifrits themselves can answer one question: why?
“There is never a good reason for murder, but this was a completely senseless crime done only for the enjoyment of those who perpetrated it,” said Todd this week. “To this day, there is still no motive other than the thrill of it ….”
While the memory of the incident has faded for many over the last 10 years, it has still not played itself out in the court system. Erika Sifrit took the biggest hit, being convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Ford and second-degree murder in the death of Crutchley and was sentenced to life plus 20 years in jail. Benjamin Sifrit was convicted of second-degree murder in the death of Crutchley and sentenced to 38 years in jail. Both have attempted numerous appeals and one, Erika, still has an active appeal filed just this March.
Missing Persons Case
The sad saga began as a missing persons case when the victims failed to return to their homes and jobs in northern Virginia after the holiday weekend. Both Crutchley and Ford were diligent workers and rarely missed a day of work, according to friends and co-workers, and both always kept in close contact with their families.
When they failed to return to their homes and jobs after the long weekend, they were reported missing and the OCPD began to distribute fliers with their pictures and started to track their whereabouts. Not much was made of the missing persons reports early on- it’s not unusual for weekenders to extend their vacations in Ocean City- but as the days dragged on and nearly a week had passed, the case began to take a more serious turn.
On the Friday after Crutchley and Ford were last heard from, a bizarre set of circumstances began to unfold that pointed to something far worse than a couple playing hooky.
Burglary Blows Open Case
Erika Sifrit had a penchant for Hooters merchandize and when the couple was arrested for attempting to burglarize the Hooters restaurant on 123rd Street early on a Friday morning nearly a week after the murders, resort police began to unravel the evidence that connected Benjamin and Erika Sifrit to the missing couple from Virginia.
While being taken into custody, Erika Sifrit asked the arresting officers to get her medication out of her purse. While searching for the pills, officers found the missing couple’s identification cards, spent bullet casings, handcuffs and weapons, including the .357 Magnum later discovered to be the murder weapon. Erika Sifrit was later found wearing a ring belonging to Ford on a chain around her neck.
While the OCPD’s top detectives were investigating what appeared to be a missing persons case, it was a pair of relative newcomers first on the scene at the Hooter’s break-in.
“People often complain about or make fun of Ocean City’s seasonal officers, but the thing to remember about this case is that a rookie full-time officer and a seasonal officer helped break it open when they came upon the Hooters burglary,” said Todd.
OCPD Detective Brett Case said this week the Sifrits broke into the Hooters almost as an afterthought after celebrating and partying all week.
“They thought they did such a great job of covering up and cleaning up [the double murder] that they were confident in doing the Hooters burglary,” he said. “I don’t consider myself a very religious person, but there was so much divine intervention in this case. Ninety percent of police work is luck and the other 10 percent is what you do with that luck. Not to downplay that 10 percent, because we worked our butts off, but we got some big breaks.”
Both Todd and Case agreed without the burglary, the Sifrits would likely not have been caught and the murders of Crutchley and Ford might have only been solved if the killers struck again and were connected to the Ocean City crime.
“This could be a case we were still trying to figure out to this day,” said Todd. “Without great police work and a break here and there, we might still be trying to figure out whatever happened to Josh Ford and Geney Crutchley. This might have gone unsolved all these years.”
After the burglary attempt, detectives went to the penthouse condo in the Rainbow where the Sifrits were staying. There they discovered more evidence including blood in the bathroom of the master bedroom and in a dryer. Despite the Sifrits’ thorough attempt to cover up the murders, they inexplicably left evidence of the crimes including spent bullet casings presumably removed from the victims’ bodies on the coffee table in the unit.
Also discovered in the condominium was a scrapbook Erika Sifrit had prepared outlining many of the details of the double homicide.
“She documented everything,” said Case. “That’s what led us to believe it was a thrill kill and that they had probably done this before.”
Grand Jury Indicts Sifrits
With the evidence piling up against the Sifrits, a Worcester County Grand Jury was convened to prepare indictments for the couple for the first-degree murders of Crutchley and Ford.
Erika Sifrit was the most verbal of the two and although she was found with the .357 Magnum and a large knife with blood and hair believed to be used to dismember the victims on her person, she told detectives it was her husband that pulled the trigger and killed the Virginia couple. For a brief time before the grand jury indicted the Sifrits, Erika Sifrit had a tentative preliminary deal for a lesser sentence if she agreed to testify against her husband, but the deal fell through when it became evident she had played as much of a role in the killings or more as Benjamin Sifrit.
In June 2002, the grand jury handed down a 13-count indictment against both Benjamin and Erika Sifrit including two counts each of first-degree murder. After considerable legal posturing by both sides, the trials for the Sifrits were moved out of Worcester County, where pre-trial publicity for the case was off the charts. Erika Sifrit was ultimately tried in Frederick County, while Benjamin Sifrit was tried in Montgomery County.
“One of our intents from the beginning was to be completely thorough,” Case said. “Never in my life, even now, did I feel more compelled to put somebody behind bars. These people were so evil, if they were to get out, it would have been devastating. It was craziness. It was Manson crazy.”
Chance Meeting Dooms Victims
The Sifrits first met Joshua Ford and Geney Crutchley when they boarded a resort bus at 143rd Street in Ocean City hours before the horrific crime. The Sifrits did not have exact change when they boarded the bus and Ford agreed to cover their fare. The two couples struck up a conversation and later went to a resort nightclub together where they shared drinks, danced and became fast friends. Another couple had joined the pair at some point, but parted ways when the Sifrits unnerved them with their forwardness.
The Sifrits and Ford and Crutchley later went back to the latter’s condo at the Atlantis for a nightcap and when the Sifrits invited them to come over to the Rainbow to see the posh penthouse they were staying in, the couple obliged.
The Sifrits later engaged Ford and Crutchley in a game of sorts that led to the brutal murders. Erika Sifrit claimed her purse was missing and suspected Ford and Crutchley had taken it. When Benjamin Sifrit, a former Navy SEAL, became enraged and brandished a gun, Ford and Crutchley retreated to the bathroom in the master bedroom and barricaded the door.
Exactly what happened next is known only to Benjamin and Erika Sifrit, but what is known is that Ford was shot first through the bathroom door and shot several more times after Benjamin presumably kicked down the door. It remains uncertain if Crutchley was also shot to death.
Conflicting Stories At Trials
Early on, Erika Sifrit claimed her husband had killed both Ford and Crutchley, but Benjamin Sifrit claimed during his trial he had passed out in the couple’s Jeep while Erika killed Ford and Crutchley upstairs in the penthouse.
In either case, Benjamin Sifrit did admit to dismembering the bodies in an effort to cover for his wife, and the pair packed the victim’s body parts in plastic trash bags and dispersed them in dumpsters across Sussex County.
After weeks of compelling and gruesome testimony in both trials, the juries in the separate cases returned with guilty verdicts, ensuring both Sifrits would spend a long time behind bars, and in Erika’s case, likely for life. However, there was little joy in the outcome for the prosecution team.
“We had an unbelievable fear that if something went wrong and these people went free, we couldn’t live with ourselves,” said Case. “When it’s over and the verdict comes back guilty, there is no celebration. It’s not like winning a big game. Whenever you go through this, you thank God we got it right and thank God the jury got it right and these people will no longer be out breathing the same air the rest of us are breathing. It’s more relief than celebration.”
Brazen Activity After Murder
With their victims presumably safely ditched in the landfill, the Sifrits went about doing normal things couples do on vacation in Ocean City. They went out to dinner and went to various bars and restaurants throughout the resort area in days after the brutal murders.
At one point, they decided to replace the bathroom door they had shot the victims through and went to the Home Depot on Route 50 to buy a replacement. In one chilling photograph later found, Benjamin Sifrit is shown in the parking lot of the store holding the new door over his head like a trophy.
On the Wednesday after the murders, the Sifrits partied with another couple they had just met and invited them back to their condo at the Rainbow. At one point, Erika Sifrit said “my purse is missing again,” which appeared to be part of the same game that led to the murders of Crutchley and Ford. According to the couple’s testimony at trial, Benjamin Sifrit became enraged and grabbed the woman, led her to the old bathroom door that they had not discarded and pointed to the bullet holes in it.
“See that, we had a couple in here just a few nights ago who tried to rip us off,” said Benjamin Sifrit, according to the testimony. “I killed them. I shot them right through that door.”
The couple was able to get away after a frantic search turned up the missing purse.
“I truly believe the second couple survived because they realized they didn’t have the time to clean up a second double murder before they had to check out,” said Case this week.