The Altoona Mirror
Sunday, July 7, 2002

"Expert sees few murder connections"

By William Kibler
Staff Reporter

It's intriguing to think that the gruesome and seemingly motiveless murders in Ocean City, Md., over Memorial Day weekend were "thrill kills" and that the Duncans-ville couple charged with them also could be responsible for a pair of vicious murders here in the past year.
    State police at Bedford continue to investigate the possibility that Benjamin and Erika Sifrit may have been involved in the murder of Dana Gates and the beating of her boyfriend, Lorin Burket, in November in Queen.
    But a nationally renowned criminal profiler from Oregon, who has read all the newspaper stories about the cases and seen available court documents about those killings and the murder of Randy Buchanan in Juniata in June 2001, doesn't think the Sifrits were killing for thrills or responsible for the other murders.
    The Sifrits' motive was more mundane than thrilling, profiler Brent Turvey theorizes. Mere profit, he says. Turvey is a forensic scientist and principal author and editor of "Criminal Profiling: An Introduc-tion to Behavioral Evidence Analysis," published by Academic Press, London.
    What went wrong?
    Something still unexplained -- although maybe connected with drug use or psychopathic personality -- went wrong in Ocean City, leading the Sifrits to kill Martha Crutchley, 51, and her boyfriend Joshua Ford, 32, he contends.
    But the Sifrits originally targeted the Fairfax, Va., couple only for theft, Turvey believes.
    By William Kibler BYLINE2:Staff Writer
    It's intriguing to think that the gruesome and seemingly motiveless murders in Ocean City, Md., over Memorial Day weekend were "thrill kills" and that the Duncans-ville couple charged with them also could be responsible for a pair of vicious murders here in the past year.
    State police at Bedford continue to investigate the possibility that Benjamin and Erika Sifrit may have been involved in the murder of Dana Gates and the beating of her boyfriend, Lorin Burket, in November in Queen.
    But a nationally renowned criminal profiler from Oregon, who has read all the newspaper stories about the cases and seen available court documents about those killings and the murder of Randy Buchanan in Juniata in June 2001, doesn't think the Sifrits were killing for thrills or responsible for the other murders.
    The Sifrits' motive was more mundane than thrilling, profiler Brent Turvey theorizes. Mere profit, he says. Turvey is a forensic scientist and principal author and editor of "Criminal Profiling: An Introduc-tion to Behavioral Evidence Analysis," published by Academic Press, London.
    What went wrong?
    Something still unexplained -- although maybe connected with drug use or psychopathic personality -- went wrong in Ocean City, leading the Sifrits to kill Martha Crutchley, 51, and her boyfriend Joshua Ford, 32, he contends.
    But the Sifrits originally targeted the Fairfax, Va., couple only for theft, Turvey believes.
    *oming monday
    While nationally renowned criminal profiler Brent Turvey doesn't think Erika and Benjamin Sifrit are connected to several unsolved Blair County murders, he does have plenty of theories about those killings and what police can do to solve them.
    Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler has the details in Monday's Mirror.
    A nationally renowned criminal profiler sees little reason to think accused murderers Benjamin
    *nd Erika Sifrit might be connected
    *o a series of unsolved murders here.
    *urder 3
    The Sifrits' motives and modes of operation have little in common with the murderers of Gates and Buchanan, Turvey believes, al-though there is still a major chunk of the Ocean City story untold.
    It could conceivably reveal a Gates connection, he allows.
    But theft wasn't the motive in either the Gates or Buchanan cases, he notes.
    The Buchanan killing was a personal venting of anger, he says. In the Gates case, the body was not cut up and disposed of as in Ocean City. Nor was there forced entry in the Buchanan case, as in secondary cases involving the Sifrits. And where are the photos connected with either Gates or Buchanan, as there were in other cases connected with the Sifrits? he asks.
    The Sifrits, both 24, were connected to the missing couple when they tripped an alarm attempting to steal $5,000 worth of T-shirts from a Hooters restaurant gift shop May 31, court documents state. During the burglary investigation, police found the Sifrits had several items belonging to the murder victims.
    Erika Sifrit eventually confessed that she and her husband on May 25 invited Crutchley and Ford to the penthouse at Rainbow Condomin-iums in Ocean City after spending the night at a club. Later that night, Crutchley and Ford locked themselves in a bathroom in fear of her husband, who kicked in the door and shot the couple, she confessed.
    She said Benjamin Sifrit then dismembered their bodies, put the parts in five or six trash bags, and she helped load the bags into their Jeep and dispose of them in a trash bin in Delaware.
    Before the murder, the Sifrits had been on a run of burglaries and were grooming their victims, taking pictures of them in their element, so they could later go back to steal from them, Turvey says.
    Their plan was working, he says. They may not have been brilliant, but they were painstaking planners, he adds. They had canvassed the Hooters restaurant in Ocean City carefully before the burglary that led to their arrest and the discovery of their connection with the murder, he says.
    The Sifrits also canvassed the home of an Altoona man before setting up a lost-keys ploy as justification for returning to his house -- although they were foiled in their attempt to burglarize.
    They seemed to have been following the same plan with Crutchley and Ford: grooming them, taking photos, winning their trust. Erika Sifrit was flirtatious, according to witnesses, and offered drugs to another man at a nightclub the evening of the murder.
    It's no discredit to the theory that they departed from the plan, he says, noting that criminals often don't stick to their plans.
    Drugs, sex, jealousy?
    Drugs may have played a part in what went wrong for the Sifrits, Turvey suggests.
    Police say there was a small amount of a white powder substance -- consistent with personal use not drug dealing -- and a rolled-up $20 bill at the murder scene. Erika Sifrit reportedly snorted Xanax, Ocean City police investigator Scott Bernal says.
    Drugs can introduce an element of irrationality, Turvey says.
    Or maybe there was a sexual conflict, he adds.
    According to witnesses, Erika Sifrit seemed to be overtly sexual.
    Maybe her husband got jealous, Turvey suggests.
    Turvey doesn't mince words in his portrait of Benjamin Sifrit. Turvey says he seems to be a full-blown psychopath, a person who does not value people except as means to an end, a person for whom others are a source of gratification or an obstacle, nothing else.
    Erika Sifrit may have had mental or emotional problems, but she seemed to be in control, Turvey says, noting her behavior often seems manipulative.
    She had "a killing machine" at her disposal, he says.
    Benjamin Sifrit had been a Navy SEAL. Elite warriors, SEALs are "over-the-top" people, egocentric, cocky and highly capable, he says.
    But also self-disciplined, which Benjamin Sifrit was not, he adds.
    Benjamin Sifrit was a washout, court-martialed in October 2000 on two charges of going absent without leave, three charges of insubordination, one charge of drunken or reckless driving and one charge of wearing unauthorized insignia. He's not a representative of the real SEALs mentality, Turvey says, noting that he wanted to be something more than he is. He seems to lack self-esteem, and Erika Sifrit put that to use, he theorizes.
    Where's the thrill?
    Turvey thinks the Sifrits weren't yet done with the Crutchley and Ford crime when police caught them at Hooters.
    "They were still cleaning up," he says.
    The Sifrits kept the victims' IDs and Atlantis Condominiums key, not out of sheer carelessness or as trophies, but so they could burglarize the victims' condominium, he theorizes. They may have been carrying their IDs so they had their home addresses for a burglary there, he adds.
    Turvey ridicules the thrill-kill idea.
    "Where's the thrill?" he asks. "Where do you see the pattern of remorselessness and the excitement associated with killing?"
    And the idea they were imitating a movie script like "Bonnie and Clyde" or "Natural Born Killers" is silly, he believes.
    Such ideas distract police from the real issues, he says.
    Real issues such as the possibility that the Sifrits were selling stolen items over the Internet, he says.
    Police could get traction on that one by getting a search warrant for the Sifrits' Duncansville apartment, he says.
    But Ocean City police and Maryland State Police agree there isn't probable cause yet to do that, Blair County District Attorney Dave Gorman says.
    Turvey thinks there is enough probable cause and says some law enforcement officials just don't know how to justify warrants.
    Several police agencies in central Pennsylvania are going to meet soon to discuss several local burglaries they think the Sifrits committed, and that may lead to a search warrant application, Richland Township Detective Kevin Lehman says.
    Turvey also recommended that police get all photos they can lay their hands on to determine whether the Sifrits took pictures of other victims.
    And he recommended checking the Sifrits' phone records.
    Many police fail to do that, he says.
    And they should check the national database to ensure the Sifrits aren't on any "wants and warrants" lists in other jurisdictions, he says. Police agencies don't always do that, either, he says.
    Police need to do more information sharing, he says.
    Investigation progress
    Ocean City police are making progress in figuring out a motive for the killings, department spokesman Jay Hancock says. They've been learning some information from a third couple who met the Sifrits and the victims on a bus that evening and went with them to the nightclub before leaving their company, he said.
    Police probably will ask the FBI to profile the case to help develop the motive, Bernal says.
    From jail in Worcester County Detention Center, near Ocean City, Erika Sifrit has been feeding police information a little at a time about crimes the Sifrits committed previously, Richland Township Detec-tive Kevin Lehman says. It's enough to keep police interested and deal discussions going, he says.
    The separation of co-conspirators helps each begin to think in his or her own self-interest, he says. The one who gets off lightest ultimately is often the one who "gets on the bus first" telling police what they did together, he says.
    That cooperative defendant often works under the guidance of his or her attorney.
    The attorney often makes a proffer, a statement of "hypothetical" crimes the defendant might be able to tell police about and a suggestion about what kind of breaks might be available from prosecutors in return.
    Prosecutors can't use the proffer as a confession.
    But police can investigate the validity of the claims it makes.
    The defendant's credibility in-creases with the responsibility she accepts for what happened.
    The cooperating co-defendant's culpability isn't the issue, as much as credibility, her value as a witness to make charges against the other guy stick.
    Meanwhile, police in this area are planning to meet to pool their information and brainstorm about what to do regarding several burglaries in the region they believe the Sifrits committed.
    Police are wondering whether it makes sense to file charges on the lesser cases, given the expense and security risk of bringing them to Pennsylvania repeatedly for court appearances, Lehman says.
    But even if they don't file charges, it's important to clear the burglary cases, he says. Police at first believed they were "inside" jobs, done with a key. Employees were under suspicion. They now think the Sifrits did them with lockpicks. They'd like to reassure employers and employees, he says.
    Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler can be reached at 949-7038.

Cite: Kibler, W. "Expert sees few murder connections,'" The Altoona Mirror, July 7, 2002