A MATCH MADE IN HELL (KEEP BJ SIFRIT BEHIND BARS)
The subject of M. William Phelps’ magnificent true crime book CRUEL DEATH; Erika and Benjamin (BJ) Sifrit were a match made in Hell.
BJ was a thuggish, violent, ill-tempered bully while Erika was a highly strung, compulsive nervous wreck riddled with anxiety. There is an argument made in Phelps’ book that if these two had never met, they may never had descended into the chaotic and murderous events that would eventually get them locked up. It would seem that the love that these two had for one another was a ticking time bomb just waiting to explode on the unfortunate souls that they would encounter in their search for the ultimate thrill.
Like a 21st Century Starkweather/Fugate — these two had a love that killed.
It was a week of murder and robbery for this married couple that would ultimately lead to their eventual arrest, trial and sentencing — because of the gravity of their crimes Erika and BJ deserve to rot in their jail cell forever. So, it is extremely upsetting to hear that there is consideration underway of BJ’s release from Roxbury Correctional Institution. Out of respect for the dead, they should never see the light of day.
ERIKA AND BJ — THE KILLERS
It all happened within the vacation getaway of Ocean City, Maryland during the summer of 2002 but the seeds of the crime originally go back to when Erika and BJ married in 1998; both of them were aged 20. It was a whirlwind romance where they married within a few months of first meeting.
Erika didn’t fit the mould of your typical spree killer. She was an honours student in high school and she was totally infatuated with basketball. An obsessive type of person; Erika was known to spend her entire day practicing her free-throws. She was a basketball star at Mary Washington College and one of the brightest in her class. According to Phelps in Cruel Death: As a kid in Roaring Spring, Erika Grace [maiden name] was well-liked and thought of as someone who had been given things others were never going to get… every opportunity was handed to her.
Benjamin Sifrit had graduated training as a NAVY SEAL but was later discharged for bad conduct before he actually managed to become a SEAL. Sifrit had a string of strikes to his name while in the service including repeatedly being absent without leave, insubordination and wearing unauthorised insignia. BJ had a “love” of Hitler, as described by Erika. He had a swastika tattooed on his chest and Erika had told the police during her interview that they “both agreed with his beliefs”. As well as the Nazi obsession BJ had a number of other strange or eccentric interests which included a love for exotic snakes, a mutual obsession with Hooters paraphernalia (stealing as much tat from Hooters as they could whenever they visited the joints). BJ was a thrill seeker that was always on the prowl for the ultimate buzz — after all — what is a bigger buzz than murder?
BJ was extremely hot-headed (as shown in his military record) and Erika had issues of co-dependency, jealousy and what would appear to be obsessive compulsive behaviour (Erika was easily frazzled when something seemingly small was out of place). But these issues were boiling on the inside. On the outside; the couple appeared to be a fun-loving and happy go-lucky young couple. They were seemingly two good looking, intelligent and athletic Americans that enjoy drinking, vacations and partying. And it was this outer appearance that snagged Martha Crutchley and Joshua Ford into their murderous web. They were charmed by what had appeared on the outside, while on the inside — something much much darker lurked — two hearts of darkness.
Erika worked hard during early married life. She had her own scrapbook store which her parents set up for her and worked her ass off to please BJ. During the early years of their marriage Erika was infatuated with BJ — the same way she was infatuated with basketball. Erika had an obsessive personality, clinging to whatever she could with a vice like grip. The warning signs into her husband’s psyche were there for any reasonable thinking woman to see of course; Erika just chose not to see it. BJ had a swastika tattoo. He had snakes that he named Bonnie & Clyde, Hitler and HIV. He was a frequent drug and alcohol taker and Erika confided to a friend early in the relationship that she often saw BJ stealing.
Erika had her own disorders of course. It was said that she had a habit of checking that the upper door was locked 9 times and the lower door was locked 12 times every morning. Erika would spend a great deal of her morning twisting the lock over and over and over again to ensure it was locked. BJ had picked up on these habits and would use them against Erika. He would purposely wait for Erika to get to work and with the intention of ruining her day, while she was at work BJ would call and ask her: “Are you sure you locked the door? I think the door might be open… maybe the oven is on too.” It was surely a case of gas-lighting where BJ was trying to ensure he had a psychological grip on the fragile and highly strung Erika.
As Phelps said about the couple in Cruel Death: Erika’s hang-ups fuelled the passively sinister character stirring in BJ during the early stages of their marriage. For one, there is no doubt that BJ Sifrit had a death wish….
As Erika drifted further from her friends and parents, BJ became more abusive towards Erika. Targeting her confidence with comments about her weight, her hair and [according to Erika]: purposely moulding me into someone that other men would not find attractive. On top of this, BJ engaged in reckless behaviour including racially antagonising people that he came into contact with. BJ was also prone to shooting his .357 Magnum out the window of Erika’s ride at the passing road-signs.
The couple were on a one way collision course. They were two sticks of dynamite just waiting to go off.
MARTHA & JOSHUA — THE VICTIMS
It was a thrill killing. Erika had come from a wealthy family and there was no financial need or desire to kill Joshua and Martha, the only need came from knowing what killing felt like.
The night started pleasantly for the vacationers. Ford and Crutchley had met the Sifrits on a bus heading towards “Seacrets” Nightclub (pun intentional). Ford had offered to pay for the Sifrits’ bus fare and the two couples spent time at the club together drinking all night. The couples went back to the beautiful rented condo in Ocean City, Maryland to talk shit and carry on partying.
The dynamic of the night changed when Erika accused the couple of stealing her purse. The tension seemed to rise and rise within the small complex until BJ eventually pulled a gun on the couple, asked them to strip naked and they then retreated into the bathroom (with BJ locking the door after them). BJ unloaded the gun into the door and then smashed the door off his hinges. It was horror movie stuff.
The death scene was vicious. Not just for the actual execution of the friendly and amiable mortgage and insurance brokers but also because of the rising sense of fear and humiliation they must have felt in the build up.
BJ allegedly asked them as they stood naked in front of him: “Do you want to die?” As Erika would later explain to prosecutors; she knew from the moment that BJ started barking orders that the couple were doomed to die and what did she do about it? Nothing…
Joshua was the same as BJ in one respect — a military man — but that is about as far as it goes. Joshua had travelled as far as Korea, had a black belt in Karate and yet never felt the need to flaunt or brag about his toughness. Joshua had tried to ask BJ why he was doing this and tried to calm the situation down without the need for violence — it was typical of his gentle character.
Joshua had been honourably discharged from the military in stark contrast to BJ’s disgraced exit from the services. What was taking place in that condo was a story of pure evil colliding with two people of genuinely good character — Joshua and Martha.
Martha had then grabbed Erika and began pleading for her life crying that she didn’t steal from the Sifrits. BJ locked the couple in the bathroom, pondered on what to do next and then decided to shoot Joshua four times. Martha was then stabbed to death and the bodies were dumped on Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. However; it wasn’t as clean as just that… There was more to the tale that doesn’t even deserve going into detail. What the couple did to the bodies after death is an abhorrent sin to the sanctity of the body, which included acts of cutting, sawing and necrophilia — true sexual depravity. It should again be stressed and this point that these two should never ever ever see the light of day for the rest of their natural lives.
Clearly still buzzing from the murders; they then went and burglarized a Hooters restaurant (stay classy Sifrits) — this robbery occurring on the 31st May 2002. They were then caught in the act of the robbery and the police were stunned to find that they were linked to the recent disappearances of Ford and Crutchley.
When police searched Erika’s purse they found the driving licenses belong to their victims. Erika confessed immediately to the murders and pinned the blame all on BJ as soon as she could — without hesitation. Perhaps more cunning and wiser than Erika, BJ had stayed silent — only disclosing to the police what he felt was necessary.
At trial the two tried to blame each other for the murders. BJ maintained that he was asleep in the car during the murders and was disgusted to stumble upon the “horrific” scene, while conceding that the dismemberment of the bodies was his idea. There was a key witness in this case however that would put the nail in the Sifrit coffin. It would appear that another couple had a similar experience in Ocean City with the Sifrits just days after the first murder and were lucky enough to live to tell the tale. It again occurred after meeting at Seacrets (Justin met the couple there).
Melissa Selling and Justin Wright described the “living nightmare” of their night partying with the Sifrits. At the same condo where the first murders took place and just a couple days after the first incident, the new couple were invited back for a nightcap. It just seemed another normal party night in Ocean City for Melissa and Justin at first. While in the bathroom however, Melissa had noticed the way the door had been taken off the hinges and the small holes in the bathroom door (which she later realised were bullet holes). This and BJ’s general hostile demeanour had filled her with a sense of frightened dread and a need to get the hell out of there.
Erika then began the hysterics and again claimed that her purse was missing. BJ resorted once again to brandishing his gun and talking of “ridding the world of bad people”. BJ bragged about the previous murders to Melissa. For some reason; things then just simmered down this time around and BJ went from hot back to cold and began rolling a joint and laughing with Justin.
When BJ and Erika went to the bedroom to have sex, Melissa left the ‘party’ as soon as she could and drove home. Not long later making her way home she received a call from Justin and she drove back to pick him up from outside the condo — telling him: “I’m not going back up there”. It was Melissa’s testimony that was vital in convicting the pair.
BJ was lucky enough to only receive a conviction for second degree murder with the eligibility for parole in 2021. The detective on the case Detective Bernal has vowed to make sure that BJ serves every day of the 38-year term, stating: “I’ll be at every parole hearing even if I’m retired… I’ll make sure to bring the autopsy pictures.” Amazingly; Benjamin Sifrit was acquitted of all charges in the death of Joshua Ford and only received a second degree murder charge for Martha.
Erika had a tougher time of it through the courts and was sentenced to life without parole plus 20 years. Erika received a first degree murder charge for Ford and second degree for Crutchley. It seemed that Erika’s willingness to talk to the police in stark contrast to BJ’s recalcitrance is what guaranteed that she received the harsher sentencing. Other evidences against Erika included the fact that the murder weapon not only belonged to her but was found in her purse.
Erika has exhausted all chances through the court to try to appeal the original sentence but it is with great sadness to report that Benjamin could be released as early as in 2021. It is hoped that publicity back into the case will stop any release for Benjamin Sifrit.
THE FAKE VICTIM
Many have tried to support Erika and paint her as victim of domestic abuse suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and while there may be truth to this, there is also the fact that Erika not only tried the same crappy act again on another couple but she had ample opportunity to stop the first murders and didn’t. In the words of Phelps:
The evidence… If truly looked upon objectively, points directly to Erika’s culpability, responsibility and involvement. And if you look really hard, staying in between the lines of reality, you might even take a stab at saying Erika could have played a large role in the crime than BJ.
And therein lies the potential parallels to Caril Ann Fugate. BJ and Erika were a couple that thrived on movies like Badlands, Kalifornia, True Romance and Natural Born Killers — so, they decided to live it themselves and now they sit rotting where they belong. After all the thrill seeking, they now cannot even walk to the market. The greatest thrill they will get now is their thirty minutes of yard time a day — long may this remain.
The author M. William Phelps who has written dozens of true crime books has said that this was the toughest case he has had to write about. The sheer depravity of the case is sickening.
The couple have now been divorced for ten years at the time of writing thus ending the tainted love story of the Sifrits.