Opening arguments heard in trial of MWC graduate

ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

FREDERICK, Md.--The state will prove the bullets that killed Joshua Ford came from a handgun Erika Sifrit carried, a prosecutor told jurors yesterday as the Pennsylvania woman's double-murder trial began.

The defense countered in its opening statement that there is no evidence the Mary Washington College graduate fired the shots. Her lawyers contend her husband, Benjamin, killed and dismembered Ford and Ford's girlfriend, Martha Crutchley, on the night the vacationing couples met in Ocean City.

The gun, a five-shot, snub-nosed .357 Magnum revolver, is the strongest evidence linking the 25-year-old defendant to the May 26, 2002, murders. Police found it tucked in her jeans' waistband five days later when they arrested the Sifrits allegedly burglarizing a Hooters restaurant in Ocean City.

Erika Sifrit, 25, of Altoona, Pa., has pleaded innocent to all charges, but the defense doesn't dispute that she participated in the burglary and in covering up the Virginia couple's slaying afterward, defense attorney Thomas Ceraso said in his opening statement.

Benjamin Sifrit was convicted April 9 of second-degree murder for Crutchley's death but acquitted of killing Ford. He testified at his trial that he was asleep in the Sifrits' car outside the Rainbow Condominium penthouse when Ford, 32, and Crutchley, 51, both of Fairfax, were killed. Parts of their bodies were found later in a landfill in Sussex County, Del.

The trial, being held in Frederick County Circuit Court, was moved from Worcester County due to heavy publicity.

Worcester County State's Attorney Joel J. Todd used a computer-assisted slide show during his opening statement in the packed courtroom. Against a magenta background, he displayed pictures of the gun and items found in Erika Sifrit's purse that Todd implied were ghoulish souvenirs of the killings: four shell casings and a live round from the same weapon; a gold ring belonging to Ford that Erika Sifrit later wore as a necklace; and both victims' driver's licenses.

"Her hobby was that she liked to collect things," Todd said, "anything to help the defendant look back and remember significant events in her life."

Joshua Ford's brother Mark, of South Boston, Mass., testified that the ring with a carved dragon design was his brother's. He also identified a tattoo in a photograph of Joshua Ford's arm as the same kind his brother had.

Todd showed the jury photographs of Erika Sifrit carrying a folding knife clipped to her pants pocket. That knife, with a serrated blade, could have been used to cut up the bodies, Dr. Adrianne Sekula-Pearlman, a deputy Delaware state medical examiner, testified.

But both sides agreed Benjamin Sifrit also owned a knife consistent with the type of blade used for Crutchley's dismemberment.

Ceraso said the defense will prove that Benjamin Sifrit, a former Navy SEAL, killed the couple. The defense evidence will include statements Sifrit made to others as well as his own trial testimony, Ceraso said.

"We have a confession, an absolute confession and concession on the part of Benjamin Sifrit," Ceraso told jurors as Erika Sifrit watched calmly from her seat.

"He killed them. He butchered them," Ceraso said.

Melissa Seling, a state's witness at Benjamin Sifrit's trial, will testify that several nights after the killings, Sifrit threatened her and her boyfriend with the same gun that killed Ford, saying, "he would kill us the same way he killed those other people," the defense attorney said.

Ceraso said the defense also will call another witness from Benjamin Sifrit's trial, former Navy SEAL Michael McInnis, to recount a 1999 conversation in which Sifrit described how he would dispose of a body by dismembering it and placing the parts in different trash bins.

And the defense will cite Benjamin Sifrit's trial testimony in which he acknowledged cutting up the bodies, Ceraso said. When asked under cross-examination, "You did it all, didn't you?" Benjamin Sifrit replied, "Yes," Ceraso said, reading aloud from a trial transcript.

Before opening statements, out of the jury's presence, the lawyers argued strenuously over how much of Benjamin Sifrit's trial testimony should be allowed as evidence. The defense wanted to admit only his statements regarding dismemberment, while prosecutors argued that certain other statements--some implying Erika Sifrit was the killer--were needed for context.

The issue wasn't resolved, but Judge G. Edward Dwyer said he would allow at least the statements Ceraso mentioned in his opening statement.

Sekula-Pearlman testified she removed two bullets from Ford's torso--one from the neck and one from the right side of the chest.

She said Crutchley's death also was a homicide but she couldn't determine know how she died, because the only body part found was her left leg.

Erika Sifrit faces a maximum of life in prison with the possibility of parole on the first-degree murder charges. She also is charged with theft, burglary, carrying a concealed handgun and being an accessory after the fact.

The trial is expected to run through June 11.

The Sifrits became suspects in the case, police have said, after they were caught breaking into the Hooters restaurant shop in Ocean City on May 31. Erika Sifrit is also a suspect in a May 11 theft of more than $300 worth of T-shirts and hats from the Hooters in Spotsylvania County.

Friends said the Sifrits met at a party in Fredericksburg in 1999. They said Erika Grace, a history major and star basketball player, immediately fell in love with the Navy SEAL who'd come to the party with some other sailors stationed in Virginia Beach.

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