OCEAN CITY - A decade ago, Benjamin and Erika Sifrit, both 24, shot and killed a vacationing couple, then dismembered their bodies and dumped the remains into various trash receptacles along the Delaware coast.
It was, by most accounts, one of the most gruesome and senseless crimes ever committed in Ocean City.
If Ocean City police hadn't caught the Sifrits at a Hooters a few days later in the midst of a burglary attempt, it's possible the search for Joshua Ford and Martha Gene Crutchley - along with their murderers - could still be ongoing today.
"I hate to say this, but thank goodness they committed that other crime," said David Massey, who at the time was entering his final summer as Ocean City's police chief.
On May 25, 2002, Ford, 32, and Crutchley, 51, both of Fairfax, Va., met the Sifrits, a married couple from Altoona, on an Ocean City bus. They began talking after Ford offered to pay their fare, because Benjamin Sifrit didn't have exact change as required.
The four drank together at Seacrets and later returned to the Rainbow Condominium complex, where the Sifrits were staying in a penthouse suite.
Where are they now?
Benjamin Sifrit, now 34, was denied a request for a further hearing on Aug. 1, 2011, when the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a decision by U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett denying further appeals after the judge rejected his request for a new trial.
Sifrit contended that the prosecution had told jurors in separate trials for he and ex-wife Erika Sifrit that the respective individual on trial had pulled the trigger on the gun that killed victim Joshua Ford.
The Maryland Court of Appeals dismissed the idea that the prosecution presented inconsistent theories of the murders, something that would have violated his right to a fair trial.
He is currently serving a 38-year sentence for second-degree murder, first-degree assault and second-degree burglary at the Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, Md.
The Sifrits divorced in 2010.
In March, Erika Sifrit, 34, filed a petition seeking a new trial, citing a perceived failure by her defense.
Her petition asks for an overturn of her prior convictions and sentences. She maintains her attorneys failed to highlight her mental instability and the dominance of her husband at the time of the murders.
A Maryland District Court Judge has until July to make a decision on whether or not to proceed with a new trial.
Sifrit is serving a life sentence plus 20 years at the Patuxent Institution in Jessup, Md.
Source:?The Daily Times
It's unclear what happened there during the early hours of May 26, because neither of the Sifrits has ever admitted to killing Crutchley or Ford.
Erika Sifrit claimed her husband pulled a gun on the couple after she told him her purse and gun were missing, and that Crutchley and Ford had run into the master bedroom, locking the door behind them.
Benjamin Sifrit, an ex-Navy SEAL, then kicked open the door and shot them both, according to statements made to police by Erika Sifrit.
Benjamin Sifrit testified during his trial that at the time of the murders, he was asleep outside in his car, and that his only involvement was to help his wife cut up the bodies.
Anita Ferguson, a former Worcester County Times reporter who covered the case and subsequent trials, said she believes Benjamin Sifrit shot one, if not both victims, and that Erika Sifrit was involved as well.
During a Secret Service interview following her arrest, Erika Sifrit stated she had given her husband the green light to kill Ford and Crutchley.
"Whether she shot someone or not, we might never know," Ferguson said.
Many have speculated the motive to be a sadistic thrill, that the Sifrits had planned the sequence of events.
Then-Worcester County state's attorney Joel Todd maintains the Sifrits were playing a "game" with the victims revolving around Erika Sifrit's lost purse.
He said three days after the murders, the couple tried the same tactic with a 22-year-old Delaware woman, but she played along and was allowed to leave.
Scott Bernal, who was lead detective on the case, said it was about the thrill and success of not getting caught.
At Benjamin Sifrit's eventual sentencing, Maryland Circuit Court Judge Paul Weinstein called him a "butcher" who killed for no reason.
"One of the mistakes you make when you go into investigations sometimes is you're thinking rationally, and we had to stop doing that," said Richard Moreck, who at the time was in charge of OCPD's Criminal Investigations Division. "Everything these two did, it wasn't rational. As an investigator, you're like, 'What were they thinking?' It was a horrific crime."
On May 30, 2002, Crutchley and Ford were reported missing after Crutchley uncharacteristically failed to show up for work in Virginia after the holiday weekend.
Police searched their room at the Atlantis Condominium complex and began to suspect something was amiss. Crutchley's car was still in the parking lot, and conditions in the room indicated the couple had left without their belongings.
"When you walked in, it was like you expected someone to come walking out of the bathroom in five minutes," Moreck said. "It looked like someone was still staying there."
Early in the investigation, it hit him that something wasn't quite right; police say once you've been an officer for a while, you start to develop an extra sense that points out the peculiar.
"The circumstances were just so unusual and atypical that I knew foul play was involved," Massey said.
He recalled being on the beach during part of the search for the missing couple and saying to a fellow officer, "I have a feeling these people are dead, and whoever did it, they moved the bodies."
On May 31, 2002, police responded to a burglary call at Hooters on 123rd Street. Two officers - a rookie and a seasonal officer - encountered the Sifrits exiting with merchandise; Erika Sifrit had a noted interest, bordering on obsession, with Hooters gear, investigators later learned.
The Sifrits were both carrying guns, but the young officers were able to take them into custody without incident.
In Erika Sifrit's purse, police found identification belonging to the missing couple along with spent bullet casings.
"Would you ever expect to find something like that?" Moreck said of the IDs and recently snapped photographs of Crutchley and Ford that were later found during a search of the Sifrits' penthouse.
After telling police her husband had killed the victims and dumped them in Delaware trash containers, Erika Sifrit also told them where the bodies were. She did this in exchange for an agreement the state's attorney would not seek a life sentence without a chance for parole - an agreement that was eventually disregarded in the courtroom.
On June 2 and 3, 2002, police found the remains of Crutchley and Ford in a Hardscrabble, Del., landfill.
On June 14, 2002, the Sifrits were indicted on first-degree murder charges.
Todd said the quality of police work throughout the case, particularly during the Hooters incident, cannot be understated.
Had the officers not quickly apprehended the armed suspects, more terrible crimes could have been committed, he said. And had the department not done such an apt job of circulating information about the missing persons, police may not have known immediately they were dealing with something more than a burglary.
A Frederick County jury convicted Erika Sifrit of the first-degree murder of Ford and the second-degree murder of Crutchley in June 2003.
Two months earlier, a jury in Montgomery County found Benjamin Sifrit not guilty in the murder of Ford, but he was convicted of second-degree murder in the killing of Crutchley.
They were sentenced to life plus 20 years, and 38 years imprisonment, respectively.
Those involved in the investigation and prosecution were disappointed Benjamin Sifrit wasn't convicted on two counts of murder.
Todd said then-deputy state's attorney Scott Collins gave the best cross-examination he has ever seen, and that the prosecution became optimistic the jury would return with a homicide conviction on both victims.
"That led to a disappointment," he said.
Ferguson said the judge criticized the jury publicly for not having given a harsher verdict, which is a very rare occurrence.
"That tells you a lot," she said, adding that if the jury would have been alerted to the swastika tattoo on Benjamin Sifrit's chest, which was inadmissible information in court, things may have gone differently.
"He's a bad person," Ferguson said.
Scott Muska is a former Altoona Mirror reporter.