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Murder case deal in doubt


SNOW HILL - As a Worcester County judge rejected a motion yesterday to throw out evidence in the coming trial of murder suspect Benjamin A. Sifrit, his wife's lawyer filed court papers that could force prosecutors to drop first-degree murder charges against Erika E. Sifrit, a key provision of a deal that defense attorney Arcangelo M. Tuminelli says was made when she agreed to cooperate with police.

The couple, both 24-year-old residents of Duncanville, Pa., are charged in the shooting deaths of two Virginia tourists who investigators say were killed and dismembered in a north Ocean City penthouse during the Memorial Day weekend.

Prosecutor Joel J. Todd, after meeting in July with the victims' families, ruled out seeking the death penalty for Benjamin Sifrit in the killings of 51-year-old insurance executive Martha Crutchley and 32-year-old Joshua Ford. Relatives said they want Benjamin Sifrit to spend life in prison without a chance for parole.

Todd also agreed not to seek the death penalty or life without parole for Erika Sifrit, according to a memorandum written by Todd. The memorandum was signed by him and Tuminelli on June 2, two days after the Sifrits were arrested during a bungled burglary at a Hooter's Restaurant about eight blocks from the oceanfront high-rise where investigators say the Virginia couple died.

According to the documents, Todd agreed not to prosecute Erika Sifrit for murder if she submitted to a polygraph test and if no other evidence contradicted her.

The apparent hitch, according to court papers, occurred July 24, when prosecutors abruptly canceled a polygraph examination that was to have been conducted by the Secret Service. They canceled the test after Erika Sifrit was questioned for five hours by Ocean City police.

"This appears to be a case of buyer's remorse," Tuminelli said yesterday. "This is an agreement that was written on [Todd's] office computer, witnessed by several police officers and signed by him."

A hearing on Tuminelli's motions is scheduled for Sept. 30 before Circuit Judge Theodore R. Eschenburg, who is also considering a request by Todd to have Erika Sifrit's trial moved outside Worcester County because of extensive publicity.

Todd, as is his policy, refused to comment on the specifics of the cases, but he said that "there was no polygraph, there never was a polygraph."

Much of what police know about the killings in the 11th-floor penthouse of the Rainbow Condominiums was provided by Erika Sifrit, who told detectives that her husband shot Crutchley and Ford as they cowered in the master bath of the two-story unit, police said.

Police said she told them that she helped her husband, a former medical corpsman in a Navy SEAL unit, dispose of the dismembered bodies in a Rehoboth Beach, Del., trash bin.

Investigators, using information from Erika Sifrit, found human remains in plastic garbage bags in a Delaware landfill June 3. Police are awaiting the results of DNA testing being conducted at the Maryland State Police crime lab in Pikesville.

Yesterday, Circuit Judge Thomas C. Groton III rejected arguments from Benjamin Sifrit's attorney, public defender Burton Anderson, that police illegally entered and searched the condominium where investigators say Ford and Crutchley were killed.

Sifrit and his wife are being held in the Worcester County Detention Center. Separate trials are scheduled for December.

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