Life Interrupted — (The Baltimore Sun)

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The Baltimore Sun

By Michael Ollove, Sun Staff

Originally published May 22, 2003

ALTOONA, Pa. – Those who love Mitch and Cookie Grace are bleakly consistent in the metaphor they use to describe the couple’s circumstance this past year. Invariably, they turn to the imagery of death.

“I see them dying right before my eyes,” Sharon Mock, Cookie’s younger sister, says in the back room of the Graces’ cheery scrapbook store.

“It’s like an ongoing funeral,” is how Sam Ebersole, a longtime foreman in Mitch’s contracting company, puts it outside the Graces’ Tudor-style home in adjacent Hollidaysburg.

Other old friends, the Lingenfelters, for example, and Dan and Bonnie Bartley, also perceive the Graces among the living in literal terms only. A year ago, Mitch and Cookie, both in their mid-50s, were on the same track as most of those in their circle, contentedly advancing toward old age while enjoying the returns on lives earnestly lived. Many of those rewards they expected would come by way of their proudest project, their only child, Erika.

Even the Graces don’t believe those blessings will arrive now. Contentment, fulfillment, pleasure – no one realistically believes those will be part of a future belonging to Mitch and Cookie. Their lives, Fran Lingenfelter says mournfully, seem only a slight variation on death itself. “I don’t know how I’d go on,” she concludes. “I’d be dead.”

Maybe it should be expected that death would be the operative language in regard to the Graces. Death – or murder, more precisely – is what has sundered their lives. The homicides of two people they never met, never laid eyes on, had never heard of, marks their ruination. The remaining defendant arising from those murders awaits trial in a Maryland jail cell two hours to the southeast. She weighs barely 95 pounds, almost too frail to lift the chains she must wear when she is outside her cell. For these last 25 years, this wispy figure has been the be-all, the end-all in the once providential lives of Mitch and Cookie.

Not so long ago, The Altoona Mirror regularly heralded her unflappability on the basketball court as Hollidaysburg High’s star point guard. Over the last year, Erika Elaine Sifrit, nee Grace, has moved to even more prominence in her hometown newspaper. She is accused of helping to perpetrate one of the most gruesome crimes in memory in Ocean City, Md., where she and her husband, Benjamin Sifrit, traveled last Memorial Day weekend for 10 days of relaxation.

On Day 7 of that vacation, Cookie answered the phone back at Memory Laine (a reference to Erika’s nickname Lainey), the scrapbook store in Altoona. She listened for a moment to her daughter’s voice, then screamed and dropped the phone. Mitch, smoking a cigarette out front, heard his wife’s outburst, rushed inside and fumbled for the receiver. The distance he traversed – a matter of a few feet – turned out to be the most monumental crossing of his life. It was the threshold between the sweetness that had been the Graces’ lives until then and the sepulchral existence they lead today.

Their schedule now is determined by the rules of a jailhouse. When can they speak to Erika by phone? (Every night for 20 minutes between 7 and 9.) When can they visit? (Wednesday and Sunday mornings for 20 minutes between 10 and 11.) The space in between those anticipated moments is empty time, occasionally filled with conversations with lawyers.

The facts of the crime associated with their daughter are unfathomable, more so to them than anyone. On the Saturday that they arrived in Ocean City last year, Erika and Benjamin met another vacationing couple from Virginia and shared drinks with them at a nightclub. Hours later, Joshua Ford and Martha Crutchley were dead in the penthouse of the Rainbow Condominiums, where the Sifrits were staying. Their bodies were dismembered, dispersed into garbage bags and disposed of in a landfill.

The next day, Erika and Benjamin resumed their vacation. There would be crab dinners overlooking the Atlantic, miniature golf and club-hopping. The recreation would not come to a halt until five days later when they were arrested while apparently burglarizing a Hooters restaurant. Erika’s phone call home came later that day.

Last month, a jury in Montgomery County convicted Benjamin Sifrit, 25, of second-degree murder in the killing of Crutchley (but not Ford) and accessory to murder after the fact for his admission that he cut up their bodies and got rid of them. Erika, also charged in the two murders, will face her own jury in Frederick beginning June 2.

After a year’s build-up, her parents await the coming denouement of this nightmare, anticipating a measure of finality, even if it only marks the end of one dreadful stage and the beginning of the next. They hope for acquittal – they insist on Erika’s innocence – but brace for something worse. “I can’t imagine having a life again,” Mitch says in his kitchen on a brilliant spring morning when azaleas and dogwoods are resplendent outside.

Cookie, her back to the perfect day outside the kitchen window, seems to be only half-listening. “Nothing gets any better – only worse,” she interjects as if in answer to a question that only she hears. Her face is a mask of misery.

Sympathy rolls naturally toward the families of murder victims like boulders down a hillside. That is as it should be. Their loss is unlimited and unending, their innocence without question.

We are far stingier when it comes to those related to the supposed perpetrator, even if they, too, suffer grievously and permanently. It is not simply a matter of comparative loss – the death of one couple’s child vs. the possible guilt and punishment of the other. We can’t help seeing parents of the accused as complicit, even if there’s no logical or evidentiary reason to hold such a belief. We think to ourselves: Didn’t they raise the person accused of these evil acts? They must have done something wrong, something that would explain the inexplicable. In the absence of any other rationale for this awful crime, isn’t there always guilt by parenting?

No one can say with certainty that there is nothing in Erika Grace’s upbringing in placid central Pennsylvania that would portend a disastrous turn in her life. If it exists, it is buried deep. There is only perplexity in Altoona among those who are close to the Graces, perplexity and something scarier. “When this happened,” said Terry Lingenfelter, a bank executive, whose own daughter was a sort of basketball protege of Erika’s, “we said if that can happen to Erika Grace, it could happen to our kids.”

To find trauma in Erika’s life, you have to go back a ways. Even then, all you find is the sort of event that, while monumental in the melodrama of an adolescent’s existence, would strike most adults as nothing more than a passing tribulation.

She grew up in Roaring Spring, a pastoral enclave not quite 10 miles south of the small metropolis of Altoona. The area is at a far remove from Pennsylvania’s big cities – a safe remove, many who live here like to emphasize. Mitch and Cookie were raised in Roaring Spring, too; both their fathers worked at the old pa
per mill. But it was elsewhere that they met.

Cookie was a nursing student at Lancaster General Hospital when Mitch’s mother was admitted there as a patient. Mitch was working construction in the area, and made Cookie’s acquaintance while visiting his mom. Soon they were driving home together every weekend. And soon after that, they married and moved back permanently, she to a nursing job in a hospital and he to create G. Mitchell Grace Construction, which would one day grow to a crew of 150 men with jobs building apartment buildings, motels and condos in the mid-Atlantic, including, one day, the Rainbow Condominiums in Ocean City, Md.

They were nearly inseparable. After she finished her hospital shift, Cookie would jump into Grace Construction paperwork. When Mitch took up coaching girl’s basketball, Cookie learned scorekeeping. To this day, they have never been apart overnight. Once, hospitalized for tests related to his asthma, Mitch checked himself out at 1:30 in the morning. He missed Cookie.

Erika was born in 1978, and her parents gleefully indulged their little girl. They enrolled her in dance, voice and cheerleading. But it was basketball that stuck.

That it would be basketball that captivated Erika was not so surprising, not in this part of Pennsylvania. High school sports are a community-wide passion here, and particularly girls’ basketball. From the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s, when Erika was a youngster, girls’ teams from the Altoona area outperformed the boys’ and advanced higher in state tournaments. Radio stations broadcast their play-by-play. Accounts of their games led the sports pages. The bleachers were always full when the area’s big rivals met; it wasn’t unusual for 2,500 fans to show up.

Ten years later, one coach all but glows remembering the police escort that led his team back from one big tournament. “I mean, it was Hoosiers stuff,” recalls Tom Goss, who coached Erika’s Central High School team in 1993. “It was thousands of people.”

Though she was slight and neither particularly strong nor fast, Erika excelled in this basketball hotbed. A superior ball-handler who wore a trademark white bow in her dark hair and hi-tops, she would drive toward the key, pull up just short of the three-point line, dribble once between her legs to set her feet and freeze her defender, and hurl a shot upward from her waist. Usually, it went in.

“She probably was as good a three-point shooter as any kid who ever came out of that area,” says Curt Kassab, her coach in her last two years of high school. “I believe she was one of the best three-point shooters in the country. The only thing that kept her from going to a Division I school was her size.”

Because basketball was her passion, it naturally became her father’s, too. From her third-grade year through college, Mitch never missed a game. To s day, he can recite what she did in all the big contests. He also became deeply involved as a coach and a major financial sponsor of basketball programs in the area. He built Erika a mini-court in the garage and spent hour after hour rebounding for her.

By all accounts, though, he only followed her lead. No one accuses him of pushing her beyond either her abilities or her interest level, and no one suggests that he was anything other than a supportive, if avid, fan in the stands.

Erika pushed herself plenty. Coaches describe her as relentless in her efforts to improve her game. Every day after practice at school, she would return home to take 300 three-point shots, 100 foul shots and 100 field goals. “She had to hit a foul shot, a lay-up and a ‘3’ in a row before she would come in for dinner,” Mitch says.

In her ninth-grade year, Tom Goss, the Central High coach, began the season with only eight players on his varsity roster. To fill out the team, he elected to bring up five players from the junior high team, including Erika. Chagrined by the raid on his team, the junior high coach quit, and Goss replaced him with Mitch Grace.

There were complaints that Erika had received preferential treatment because of Mitch. Parents of some players groused about her playing time, and a few teammates sniped at her. “She would come home from practice crying,” Mitch says. “She couldn’t wait for me to pick her up.”

Goss was aware of the resentment, but denied being influenced by Mitch. As for Erika, Goss says, “I actually gave his daughter less time than she deserved. She didn’t start, and she was probably better than one of the kids who did.”

That year, Central High went farther in the state tournament than it ever had. But the controversy didn’t subside. The school board ordered Goss to fire Mitch. For a week in June 1993, it was the lead story in the Altoona sports section. Erika, all of 15 years old, was always mentioned in the stories, tainted like an unindicted co-conspirator.

Goss refused to get rid of Mitch, and the school board fired him for it.

It was an aggravating episode for Mitch, but, he knew, far worse for Goss and for Erika, who saw herself as the cause of everyone’s displeasure. “It’s funny,” Mitch says now, “the things you used to think were hard.”

Looking back for clues about their own daughter, the Graces always start with that year. “That’s when she lost all her self-confidence,” says Mitch. He didn’t want her hurt anymore, so he gave her a choice. She could stay at Central but not play basketball, or they would move, so she could play somewhere else. That summer, they moved up the road to Hollidaysburg, an affluent town adjoining Altoona.

By her senior year, she was a star at Hollidaysburg High. But, first came the crucible of playing at Central for the first time after her transfer. “When she went out on that floor, for a minute or a minute and a half, those kids – some had been her friends – booed her,” says her aunt, Sharon Mock. “I sat in the stands and bawled.”

The rest of high school was a happy time for Erika. She was a strong student and an athletic celebrity. She had plenty of friends, too. She was the kid who bought trinkets for sick teachers, gave hugs to parents of friends, made time for outings with her grandparents. No one recalls her as a dominating personality, but rather someone happy to concede attention to others. She was also eager to please, probably to a fault.

“I always thought she was a person who could easily be manipulated,” says Sandi Marchi, a high school physical education teacher who was quite close to Erika. “She wanted to have friends, and I think that made her extremely accommodating.”

Even on the basketball court, where she seemed fearless, her coaches knew she was a reluctant star. “I would have had her shoot three times as much as she did,” says Galen Bickel, who gave private basketball lessons to Erika. “But she was so nervous about stepping on someone else’s toes.”

With top college programs out of her reach, Erika chose Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va. Her freshman year, she succeeded an All-American point guard, but contributed right away. During her first two years, she was among the nation’s leading three-point shooters. Coach Connie Gallahan had high expectations for Erika in the next two years. But in the fall of her junior year in 1998, probably for the first time in her life, Erika did something surprising.

“She came into my office,” says Gallahan, “and told me she had decided not to play.”

There had been no signs, no warning, no conversation. It was shocking and unwelcome news for Gallahan, who had not bothered to recruit another point guard. But Gallahan’s disappointment was nothing compared with that of Erika’s parents. Mitch was heartb
roken and flummoxed. “Don’t ask,” he says. “To this day, I don’t know why.”

Erika told Gallahan and others that she was simply burned out from having played basketball since the age of 8.

There did seem to be a reordering of her priorities. She told her mother that a professor had criticized her apparent choice of athletics over academics. The comment wasn’t entirely fair; Erika was an honors student, and she would ultimately graduate cum laude. Still, she seemed to take the criticism to heart. She talked about applying to law school and signed on for an internship in the district office of a local congressman.

The next summer, her priorities changed again when she met Benjamin Sifrit.

Sifrit, who goes by B.J., was a Navy SEAL and unlike anyone Erika had ever met – reckless and cocksure, with a smile that was model perfect and a build as square and solid as cinderblock. He had lived an itinerant life – his father was a business executive who frequently changed jobs and locales. After graduating from high school in Texas, Benjamin enlisted in the Navy and within months was accepted into the rigorous SEAL training program.

No one seems to know much about their courtship, other than that it was fast and intense. Mitch and Cookie had no idea Erika was even in a serious relationship. In August, they asked her to join them in Ocean City, N.J., where they were going to visit Cookie’s great-aunt. Erika said she was bringing a friend, and that turned out to be Benjamin. He stayed a couple hours, long enough for a pizza dinner, but didn’t have much to say. The Graces didn’t give him much thought; they didn’t see him looming large in their daughter’s life.

Months later, though, they learned Erika was capable of bigger surprises than quitting basketball. She brought B.J. home with her that Christmas, and this time introduced him as her husband. In fact, only two weeks after the visit to Ocean City, Erika and B.J. had flown to Las Vegas to get married. Erika had kept it a secret all that time, even during her parents’ several visits to see her at Mary Washington.

Mitch and Cookie were dumbfounded and deeply hurt. Both had expected to see their only child walk down the aisle, to be a part of that momentous day. There was so much they wanted to say, to demand, to vent. They didn’t. Fighting was not their style. They were appalled by what Erika had done, but it was over. They didn’t see the point in antagonizing the daughter they loved so fiercely. “Do you want to lose your daughter?” is how Cookie sees it.

The marriage was troubled from the start. Even before they learned Erika was married, the Graces say, they learned B.J. had cheated on Erika with a woman in Arkansas where he had been sent on a training mission. Erika found out about the affair early in 2000 when she visited B.J. on another training exercise in Alaska and stumbled upon an e-mail from the woman.

Erika flew home in despair. Mitch and Cookie knew exactly what should happen next. “I did everything I could to beg her to get away from him,” Cookie says. But Erika wouldn’t leave B.J., who called her to beg forgiveness.

“She really wanted a marriage like ours,” Cookie says. “We’re together; we’re a family. It’s all she’d ever known. Erika does not believe in divorce.”

After 10 days, they drove her back to B.J. in Virginia Beach, where the couple lived.

Trouble ensued, and not only marital. B.J. was drummed out of the SEALS for reasons that remain unclear, and by the summer of 2000 he was on his way out of the Navy altogether. He was convicted at a court martial on a variety of charges, including reckless driving, failure to appear for duty and swearing at his officers. He received a three-month sentence and a bad conduct discharge.

At the court-martial, he said he had purposely set out to get thrown out of the military. He didn’t offer an explanation until his murder trial in April. He testified that his absences for training were more than Erika could bear. “She had obsessive-compulsive disorders and anxiety problems,” he testified. “She couldn’t handle it. … She had several emotional breakdowns. … She couldn’t function.”

Neither B.J. nor members of his family agreed to be interviewed for this story.

After B.J.’s discharge, he and Erika took a six-week vacation to South America. Mitch and Cookie paid for the cruise ship there and the plane tickets back. After their return, they seized on the idea of opening a business together, a scrapbook store because that had always been a hobby of Erika’s. Her parents put up the money, and in the spring of 2001, Memory Laine opened in a strip mall off one of Altoona’s main thoroughfares. The Graces also bought the couple a new Jeep Cherokee.

Their largesse toward their daughter may have been an indulgence, but it was part of a design. Mitch did not believe that Erika should have to wait for his death before enjoying the fruits of his prosperity. “I think that’s a waste. Why should I be dead before she gets that money? I want to see her enjoy it while I’m still here. … If I have enough money this year to buy them a Jeep that they can enjoy, I’m going to do it.”

He insists the money did not spoil Erika. “It’s not like she didn’t work hard. She always worked, at basketball, at school, everything. It’s not like she wasn’t deserving.”

Despite the young couple’s early troubles, Mitch and Cookie were hopeful that Altoona would have a salutary effect, that taking B.J. into the family’s bosom would help to right him. “OK, you go through him having an affair, being in the brig, getting discharged,” says Mitch. “Now you think, ‘This is a good, peaceful area for them to live.’ You think, they’ll settle down, maybe he’ll calm down.”

What they saw over the next months was not reassuring.

Some of what bothered them was trivial. They didn’t like it when Erika, the most conventional of girls, got tattoos. They weren’t too keen about the swastika tattooed on B.J.’s chest either. They weren’t charmed that B.J. and Erika began keeping snakes, including pythons named Bonnie and Clyde and a cobra called Hitler. They were troubled by B.J.’s insistence on always carrying a gun. They were beside themselves when he presented Erika with a .357 Smith & Wesson revolver on her birthday. It was the gun Ocean City police officers would find her carrying.

Much about B.J. was unsettling. He seemed to enjoy making others uncomfortable. Frequently, he silently glared back at someone who asked him a direct question. Requesting something of him seemed the surest way of making sure he wouldn’t do it. Sharon Mock, Erika’s aunt, asked him to frame a favorite photo, and when he didn’t do it after a few days, she asked him again. He just glared at her. “Erika said, ‘You asked him too many times, so he’s not going to do it.'”

He was contrary, even with Erika, maybe especially with her. Once, when she complimented him on how his hair looked, he shaved his head.

Mitch and Cookie came to believe that B.J. purposely tormented Erika. She had always been the most organized of kids, but now they saw signs of obsessiveness and deep anxiety, which they attributed to B.J.’s deliberate provocations. In the mornings, he watched Erika check, recheck and check again that the oven was off and the front door locked. Then, as soon as they got to work, he would ask her if she was sure she had turned off the stove and locked the door, setting off her anxieties.

“I used to ask myself, ‘Why would you want to stay with someone who 20 times a day tries to torture you?” Mitch says. “I just don’t understand.”
B.J. showed little interest in the store and was indifferent to customers. Mitch and Cookie were shocked to find him in the store wearing a T-shirt that said, “F— You.” He let Erika wait on customers, haul and inventory merchandise and answer the phone, even if it was ringing right beside him and she was occupied with a customer. He spent hours in a back office playing computer chess.

B.J. made little effort to socialize in Altoona, but he did strike up a friendship with Galen Bickel, the Graces’ longtime family friend who had helped coach Erika. Bickel is an elementary school teacher who is drawn to Eastern philosophy, Ayn Rand and Bob Dylan. He devised his own board game, and often played it for hours at a time at the store with B.J.

Bickel found B.J. charming and funny, but was alarmed by his pronouncements. B.J. gave Bickel a copy of a book, Masterpieces of World Philosophy, in which B.J. had highlighted a number of passages having to do with the subjugation of others – often violently. One passage discussed Machiavelli’s belief that new rulers “should cause great injuries, for small injuries do not keep a man from revenge.” In a portion on Nietzsche’s works, B.J. had noted a section that read, “His injunction is for one to become an individual, and to follow one’s own desires – if necessary, through the destruction of others.” Another section called women, “only half human” and “dangerous plaything(s).”

B.J. was taken by what he considered Nietzsche’s idea of the “overman,” who, in B.J.’s interpretation, was a superior man for whom the normal rules did not apply. He confided to Bickel that he missed “the rush” of being a SEAL. He told him he watched snakes and crocodiles for hours, relishing their savagery, and that he admired Adolf Hitler for the power he had amassed. He also left Bickel with a clear impression about his view of his own capabilities. “One time, we were talking, and he said he wouldn’t have any trouble taking anyone out. … He made it sound like he had no reverence for life.”

B.J. also demonstrated to Bickel – as well as the Graces – a new skill he had taught himself: picking locks. He had acquired a kit and one night proudly showed Bickel how he could break into a store next door.

One other Altoona resident got a glimpse of B.J.’s lock-picking skill. Not long before the Ocean City murders, the Sifrits met Jeff Greiner, a public works employee, at a neighborhood bar. After several drinks, he invited them back to his house to play pool. Without Greiner realizing it, B.J. and Erika took turns roaming his house, taking photos of various rooms. (The police showed him the photos after the Sifrits were arrested.) The next night, Greiner says, he heard a noise, opened his front door and discovered B.J. on his knees trying to pick the lock.

There was apparently other unwholesome activity that came to light after the Sifrits’ arrest in Ocean City. Police in Fredericksburg identified Erika as the woman they suspected of shoplifting $300 worth of T-shirts and hats from a Hooter’s there on May 11. She loved Hooter’s merchandise and Coach handbags, and amassed a trove of both.

In those last months before the murders, the Graces’ concerns about their daughter grew into alarm. She was working seven days a week and had lost more than 20 pounds – B.J. had told her she was heavy. She confided in her mother that she found it impossible to relax and asked her to call the family doctor on her behalf. She began taking Paxil, the anti-anxiety medication. Later her parents learned she was already taking another anxiety medication, Xanax.

“I wondered if she ever had a complete, happy day,” Cookie says. Not, she concluded, with a man like B.J.

The Graces decided Erika needed a break. They arranged for her and B.J. to stay in the Ocean City condo of a friend and offered to mind Memory Laine. On May 25, Erika and B.J. packed up their Jeep Cherokee and headed off for Ocean City and the Rainbow Condominiums.

In less than 24 hours, Ford and Crutchley were dead, their remains thrown in a dump.

Only two people know what happened in Unit 1101, and they aren’t telling anything like the same story. At his murder trial, B.J. portrayed Erika as mentally disturbed – his lawyer referred to her as “Crazy Erika” – and zonked out on medications. B.J. said he found the best way to keep her on an even keel was to accede to her wishes no matter what they were.

In the early morning hours of May 26, he said, he was sleeping off the night’s drink in their Jeep parked in the condominium’s parking lot. He testified that he awoke to Erika’s pleas for help. She led him upstairs to the apartment and the bodies of Ford and Crutchley. He was then faced with a choice, he told the jurors. “I decided to help her cover up the murders.”

Erika’s version pins the murders on her husband. Ford and Crutchley came back to the Rainbow Condos with the Sifrits. Sometime in the early morning, B.J. accused the other couple of stealing Erika’s purse, and he pulled a gun on them. They locked themselves in a bathroom, but, according to Erika, B.J. kicked open the door and shot them. When a detective asked why B.J. killed Ford and Crutchley, Erika’s lawyer reported that “Erika told him that B.J. needs a rush. He always does thing for a rush.”

Whatever the truth about Erika’s involvement in the murders, it’s clear she was engaged in unsavory behavior her parents can’t square with the daughter they cherish. There are the burglaries as well as police interviews and trial testimony that suggest provocative sexual behavior and possible drug use. Several days after the murder, she waved a gun at a nightclub bouncer, who testified that she threatened to shoot him after he caught B.J. trying to break into an ATM. He said he believed she would have killed him if B.J. hadn’t pulled her into a car. There’s also the callousness of her behavior in the week after the killings. At B.J.’s trial, prosecutors introduced their own scrapbook of photographs showing B.J. and Erika frolicking in Ocean City.

Back in Hollidaysburg, Mitch and Cookie have an all-purpose explanation for everything Erika may have done. “Without B.J.’s influence,” Mitch says, “she’s back to the Erika we know.”

In the hours after her arrest, Erika wailed to the police that she needed her husband, that she couldn’t live without him. She told one officer that if he hadn’t found the gun on her, she would have used it to kill herself.

After Erika’s call home a few hours later, Mitch arranged for a private plane to fly him and Cookie to Ocean City. In all the months Erika was held in the Worcester County jail, they drove the 12-hour roundtrip journey each week to be on hand for the visiting hours on Thursday and then on Sunday.

But for parents who devoted themselves completely to their daughter’s needs, this has been a time of helplessness and endless self-doubt. Erika’s fate is out of their hands. Their role has been limited to the hiring of lawyers, visiting Erika at every opportunity and speaking to her by phone. They are reduced to only the small kindnesses, like holding up magazines to the window that divides them from Erika because she was not allowed to have them in her cell. They cannot console her or themselves with hugs. The last time they touched Erika was the day she left for Ocean City.

It has been a year that has offered little cause for hope. Early on at a court hearing, they watched the collapse of a deal with prosecutors that would have spared Erika murder charges in exchange for her cooperation. Because Erika had given varying versions of the crime to investigators, prosecutors determined that she no longer had any value as a witness against B.J.

Mitch And Cookie Grace | Life Interrupted – Page 7 – tribunedigital-baltimoresun

The Graces followed B.J.’s trial from afar. Even with all they knew of B.J., they were flabbergasted that he tried to blame Erika for the murders. “I never expected B.J. was going to do this,” Cookie says. “Never, ever.”

Friends have not abandoned the Graces. Just the opposite. One of Cookie’s oldest friends, with whom she had lost touch, contacted her after hearing about the case. Now, Beverly Delozier makes a point of stopping by the scrapbook store every week. “I try to make them laugh, just so they’ll forget this awful situation for a couple minutes.”

It is Cookie and Mitch who have shunned others. They are not ashamed, they say; it’s just that they have nothing to offer. “For the last year, we’ve lived one thing, and there’s nothing else we can talk about,” Mitch says.

They don’t go to restaurants anymore or to the mall. Mitch has stopped coaching basketball. Last winter, Cookie suffered a mild stroke, which has left her without vision in one eye. They continue to operate the scrapbook store, although sales have been anemic. Last summer, Mitch said he kept the store going in the expectation that Erika would return to it. Now he mentions financial losses if Memory Laine should close. He thinks the store also gives Cookie something to do, something to take her mind off Erika’s situation.

It’s a losing cause.

“You think about this 24 hours a day,” says Mitch. “At times, you say, `I’ve got to stop thinking about this,’ but then you think of Erika sitting in a jail cell. We’ve got each other. She’s there all alone.”

Mitch and Cookie have had plenty of time to ponder why Erika stayed with a man who was so cruel to her. They knew she loved him despite everything – maybe, to their dismay, still does. She would have regarded leaving him as a failure – hers. Mitch wonders if that is his fault.

“I was always someone, who, if I did something, I was going to do it right,” Mitch says. “I never missed a basketball practice, never missed a game. I was a perfectionist that way. … Now, I wonder, did I instill too much of that in her? She didn’t want to fail in her marriage. She couldn’t say, `Well, it’s him.’ She thought if it failed, it was because she hadn’t worked hard enough, and she wasn’t going to let that happen.”

Mitch and Cookie frequently refer to the suffering of the families of Joshua Ford and Martha Crutchley. “There isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t think about them,” Cookie says.

“It’s awful to lose somebody, and not be able to even say good-bye,” says Mitch.

That sparks a thought from Cookie: “It’s horrible, but sometimes you think it would be easier … ” Her voice trails off but Mitch understands where she is going.

“I don’t want our daughter dead,” he says, “but it’s like you have a loved one who is sick and in pain. Those people lost someone forever. We will have the opportunity to be with Erika again.”

That is the glimmer in some faraway future that they cling to. It is almost all Mitch and Cookie have left.

Editor’s note

The Sun’s requests to interview Benjamin Sifrit and his family for this story were denied. Sifrit’s criminal defense attorney, William C. Brennan Jr., did not want his client interviewed before sentencing on his second-degree murder conviction and before a second criminal trial on charges arising from the burglary of an Ocean City Hooter’s restaurant. Brennan also said Sifrit’s family – his father, mother and sister – declined to be interviewed. “The family wishes to retain their privacy and do not want to draw any attention to themselves,” he said