OCEAN CITY – A little more than seven years after convicted killers Benjamin and Erika Sifrit brutally murdered and dismembered a Virginia couple vacationing in the resort on Memorial Day weekend in 2002, a new book detailing perhaps the most heinous crime in Ocean City history was released this week.
On Saturday of Memorial Day weekend in 2002, the Sifrits lured their eventual victims, Joshua Ford and Martha Crutchley, back to their resort condominium after spending the evening with them in a nightclub before brutally murdering them in a bathroom and dismembering their bodies, parts of which were found in a Delaware landfill nine days later. The Sifrits were caught during a botched attempt at a burglary nearly a week later and the trail of evidence led investigators to the scene of the murders.
In April 2003, Benjamin Sifrit was convicted of second-degree murder, first-degree assault and accessory after the fact for his part in the killing of Crutchley and was sentenced to 38 years in jail. Erika Sifrit was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Ford and second-degree murder in the death of Crutchley in a separate trial that same year and was sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years. Each has filed numerous appeals at different levels and for different reasons, none of which has come to fruition.
Seven years later, well-known crime expert, lecturer, investigative journalist and best-selling author M. William Phelps this week released his latest work, “Cruel Death,” which meticulously documents the days leading up to the horrific murders in Ocean City and the days that followed. The non-fiction work provides vivid details not before made public as well as an insight into the psychology of the crimes following years of research by the author.
“Cruel Death” was released on Tuesday and has already made its way up the charts. On the day the book was officially released, The Dispatch interviewed Phelps about the book, how he became interested in the story and what he found out along the way.
Q. How did you come across the story?
A. A friend of mine at Jupiter Productions, Donna Dudek, a producer on the Snap series on Oxygen, brought it to my attention. They were doing some interviews for the story. She alerts me to stories she thinks I’ll be interested in some times and while they were filming, she told me about it. I started to look into it and started to make some calls. First of all, I need to find out who’s going to talk to me, you know. Without enough people, I usually just pass on the story.
I generally don’t get mixed up in stories as gruesome as this. It’s not usually my thing. My thing is usually female serial killers, or female murderers. It’s kind of bizarre to put an index, a 1-10 on violence, but I tend to be at the lower end of the scale. It fascinated me because you have two people from such strong backgrounds. How do you go from the All-American basketball player and business owner and daughter of a wealthy construction guy, and an honor man and Navy SEAL? How do you go from there to dismembering two people? And later, what I found out they do to these people after death? How do you go from one to the other? There has to be something in between, so that started to pique my interest.
Q. I read somewhere you tend to stay away from the more gruesome stories. What drove you to write about this case?
A. My goal is to try to- I’m not interested in the trial. The trial is obviously part of the story, but if you watch a Lifetime movie about a crime, the trial is always the five minutes at the end. I try not to focus on the trial. I try to focus on what happened leading up to that point.
I like to write about fascinating police detectives and investigators who I think are above and beyond. In this case, you had two detectives who went above and beyond and one in particular who really ruined his entire career over it, I mean, who was just devastated by it, and that’s Scott Bernal.
He had never spoken to anybody and when I approached him, when I approached people around him, I got the same thing. He’s not going to talk to you. Then one day, I got a call from him, saying, ‘Hey, come down to Ocean City and I’ll be glad to talk to you. We ended up talking for about eight hours and it changed my entire career as a writer. The stuff that’s not in the book is stuff that’s not ever going to be known. This is a horror show that no one ever – I do outline some of it in the book – but it’s just beyond belief. It really is.
Q. What new details might readers already familiar with the story find in the book?
A. The dismemberment is the beginning of the horror. That alone is enough to send chills down anybody’s spine. Recently, it’s been reported that there was cannibalism involved. That’s true too, but still that’s only the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more to it than that.
The main theme, so to speak, in the book is disputing Erika Sifrit’s argument that she was the lonely, abused woman, that she was the puppet and he was the puppeteer. I think she’s got that backwards. The book argues that she was the driving force basically behind this stuff.
The other thing is, it was premeditated. There’s a simple piece of evidence to show it was premeditated. There’s no blood found anywhere else in the condominium besides the bathroom. How can that be? How can you do something like that on the spur of the moment and not track any blood anywhere else? You can’t. It’s impossible. At one time, there had to be a half an inch of blood in that bathroom covering the entire floor.
If you didn’t plan on dismembering these people, you’d be coming in and out of the bathroom saying ‘oh my God. What are we going to do?’ You would have tracked blood everywhere, but there wasn’t any, which meant what? Which meant they drove to Ocean City with a plan.
Q. Maybe they didn’t plan on those victims, but they had a plan in place when they got here?
A. They were the first people they came in contact with. So, boom, there it was. There was a certain randomness to it, and they were going to do it again, except BJ [Benjamin Sifrit] decided there wasn’t enough time to clean up that bathroom again. There’s another couple coming into this condo on Saturday and here it is Wednesday. How are we going to do this again?
Q. One thing that is still talked about around here is the fact they hung around for a week after the murders and kind of celebrated the whole thing. Is that consistent with what you found?
A. They did celebrate, not kind of, they did. They went out and played golf, they went out and ate crabs, they drank beer, they smoked grass, they drank themselves into oblivion and they were laughing and they were joking and having a grand old time. If that’s not celebrating, I don’t know what is. Erika makes the argument that he made her do all these things, but I have pictures in my hard drive of her smiling while playing miniature golf and laughing.
The one who looks like if there is any sort of shadow of darkness over one of them, it’s him. He has this kind of hunched over look to him in most of the photos. But her, she stands erect, her head is straight, she’s smiling and laughing. She gets a tattoo right where she made that first cut on Geney Crutchley to remember where she put it. For her to make this argument is ludicrous. She can keep appealing all she wants, she’s done.
You should read the letters she writes in prison that I had access to and that I wrote about in the back of the book. If you read those letters, you’ll understand the type of person she really and truly is. She talks about a dream she had of Joshua and they were in love and riding off into the sunset with his arms around her. BJ wasn’t around, and Martha wasn’t around. It was just her and Joshua together. It’s all very bizarre.
Q. How did the research go? Was there ever a time when you tried to gain access to the Sifrits?
A. Of course, I wrote to both of them. I wrote to Benjamin. He gave me a two-word response – “not interested” – and that was it. She dabbled in the idea of talking to me and then not talking to me. We worked it through her father, Mitch. I spoke to Mitch. His quotes are in the book. There was a time when she was going to, then she wasn’t going to, she was never going to talk to me.
Believe me, I didn’t need her to talk to me. She had said plenty. That woman had said plenty after she was arrested. Believe me. I had a 300-page interview she gave where she said plenty.
Q. Everybody has their own theory, and you obviously have yours. One theory is that she was the wilting flower in this and he was the aggressor, but you seem to think the opposite is true?
A. According to the evidence, and according to her own words, in the letters that she writes from prison, and there’s hundreds and hundreds of these letters, she never once mentioned any of this stuff about being the wilting flower. She only begins to argue this when she realizes BJ turned on her. Before that, she believes they’re together, they’re together, they’re together, but when realizes he turned on her, that’s it, she tries to turn it around on him.
Believe me, and I need to make this clear, I’m not saying he was an innocent party. This guy is a freakin’ lunatic. He is as criminally insane as they come and any killer that I’ve ever studied. Where that wiring in him went wrong I don’t know.
But her, she’s full of rage, full of vengeance and full of hate. She’s full of jealousy and you’ll see that in the book. There’s a scene in the book that’s very compelling. Benjamin is going out, he’s going to the doctor right down the street and she’s all in a rage. She calls him like 15 or 20 times to see who he’s going to be with. Is that a woman who is being controlled by him? No, that’s a woman who is insecure, a woman who is trying to control him.
Q. What’s the turnaround time on a book like this? How do you get from concept to release?
A. I write two books at a time. I work on collecting research and interviewing people for one, while I’m writing another one and I already have that material and I’m already involved. So my mornings are consumed with writing and my afternoons are consumed with research. It was a year turnaround on this for me and another 6-8 months for the publication. I’ve been working on this for a while. In fact, I just added some updates right before it went to press.
Q. There’s always another story. How do you go from something like this to the next thing? Does the next thing seem mundane after a story like this?
A. It’s all different. My editor is reading a book I’ve just completed and she thinks it the best thing I’ve ever written. It’s an incredible crime story. There’s no dismemberment in it or anything like that. It’s more of a family saga of ex-wife and ex-husband with kids and a couple of murders take place in there.
These stories here, this “Cruel Death” story, just stays with you. You see those pictures of the arm- all they found was an arm, a leg and a torso- actually two arms. One of the arms is almost surgically removed, but the second is ripped off like you’d rip a chicken bone off. So that tells you what? The knife got dull during the process?
You see those types of things, and you know what happened inside that bathroom and it just stays with you. There’s no way to explain it. I had to put this book aside a few times. It was just too much. I remember reading the galleys for it and I just couldn’t do it. My wife asked me what’s wrong and I said I just can’t read this anymore. It’s too devastating. It’s a difficult thing. I just write it, read it and delete it and move on with my life and my job, which is telling these stories.
I get these crazy emails from people who just got out of prison saying ‘how dare you write about this woman, she’s such a nice, kind, caring person?’ Well you know what? She very well may be all those things in prison, but she’s also a freakin’ double murderer who dismembered two people. You have to keep that in mind too.
I thought I was desensitized to it. I had written nine books up to this one, a few history books, but mostly about murder, and I thought I was, but I ran into certain sections of this story and there just is no answer. It will be my best-selling book. In fact, it is already. Barnes and Noble reported just yesterday [Monday] it’s their number-one selling crime book in the country right now and 22nd overall in the non-fiction category. It’s the number one true crime title for Barnes and Noble as week speak. Of course, the more gruesome they are, the better they sell. That’s just how the genre is.
Q. Is this just story-telling, or is there a message in this book?
A. There’s something I say in the beginning of the book. You’re on vacation, or you’re down at the beach. You’re mixing it up with another couple you just met and the next thing you know, you’re out to dinner with them and it’s a nice couple. We’ve all done that. Well, this proves that you shouldn’t do that. Here these people met a Navy SEAL and an All American basketball player from a nice family, and here’s what happened.
There’s a lot of rumors going around about why he got kicked out of the Navy. I got access to his complete military record and all of those stories about what he actually did to get kicked out of the military and it was all very telling. I came to find out who got him kicked out. It was her. There’s all sort of stuff in there. I got a letter a few weeks ago that they were responsible for a murder in Altoona. There’s a guy in prison in Pennsylvania for a murder I know that they did. I know they did it.
Murderers like Erika and BJ leave a signature, and I’m not talking about dismemberment here. There’s other things. That signature can’t be duplicated by anybody else. If you study serial murderers, you get into the psychology of it that can’t be duplicated by anyone else. I’m just glad she where she’s at and he’s where he’s at, for now anyway.