For five years, Joel Rifkin avoided capture as he used the city streets across Long Island, New Jersey, and New York City as his hunting ground, but once he was caught, it took little time for police to get him to confess to the murders of 17 women.
Joel Rifkin's Early Years
Joel Rifkin was born on January 20, 1959, and adopted three weeks later by Ben and Jeanne Rifkin.
Ben worked as a structural engineer and Jeanne was a homemaker who enjoyed gardening. The family lived in New City, a hamlet of Clarkstown, New York. When Joel was three, the Rifkins adopted their second child, a baby girl who they named Jan. After a few more moves the family settled into in East Meadow, Long Island, New York.
East Meadow was then much like it is today: a community of mostly middle to upper-income families who take pride in their homes and community. The Rifkins blended quickly into the area and became involved in the local school boards and in 1974, Ben earned a seat for life on the Board of Trustees at one of the town's main landmarks, The East Meadow Public Library.
The Adolescent Years
As a child, there was nothing particularly remarkable about Joel Rifkin. He was a nice child but terribly shy and had a difficult time making friends.
Academically he struggled and from the start, Joel felt that he was a disappointment to his father who was very intelligent and actively involved on the school board. Despite his IQ of 128, he received low grades as a result of undiagnosed dyslexia.
Also, unlike his father who excelled in sports, Joel proved to be uncoordinated and accident-prone.
As Joel entered middle school, making friends did not come easy. He had grown into a clumsy adolescent that appeared uncomfortable in his own skin. He naturally stood hunched over, which, along with his unusually long face and prescription glasses, led to constant teasing and bullying from his schoolmates. He became the kid that even the nerdy kids teased.
In high school, things got worse for Joel. He was nicknamed Turtle due to his appearance and his slow, unsteady gait. This lead to more bullying, but Rifkin was never confrontational and seemed to take it all in stride, or so it appeared. But as each school year passed, he distanced himself further from his peers and chose instead to spend much of his time alone in his bedroom.
Considered to be an annoying introvert, there were no attempts made from any friends to coax him out of the house unless it was to pull a mean prank, including hitting him with eggs, pulling down his pants with girls around to see, or submerging his head into a school toilet.
The abuse took its toll and Joel began avoiding other students by showing up late to classes and being the last to leave school. He spent much of his time isolated and alone in his bedroom. There, he began to entertain himself with violent sexual fantasies that had been brewing inside of him for years.
Rifkin enjoyed photography and with the new camera given to him by his parents, he decided to join the yearbook committee. One of his jobs was to submit pictures of the graduating students and activities going on at school. However, like so many of Rifkin's attempts to find acceptance among his peers, this idea also failed after his camera was stolen immediately after joining the group.
Joel decided to stay on anyway and spent a lot of his spare time working on meeting the yearbook deadlines. When the yearbook was completed, the group held a wrap-up party, but Joel was not invited. He was devastated.
Angered and embarrassed, Joel once again retreated to his bedroom and submerged himself into true crime books about serial killers. He became fixated on the Alfred Hitchcock movie, "Frenzy," which he found sexually stimulating, especially the scenes that showed women being strangled.
By now his fantasies were always made with a repetitive theme of rape, sadism, and murder, as he incorporated the murders he saw on screen or read in books into his own fantasy world.
Rifkin was looking forward to college. It meant a new start and new friends, but typically, his expectations turned out to be far greater than reality.
He enrolled at Nassau Community College on Long Island and commuted to his classes with a car that was a gift from his parents. But not living in student housing or off-campus with other students had its drawbacks in that it made him even more of an outsider than he already felt. Again, he was facing a friendless environment and he became miserable and lonely.
Trolling for Prostitutes
Rifkin began cruising the city streets around areas where prostitutes were known to hang out. Then the shy, slouched-over introvert who found it difficult to make eye contact with girls at school, somehow found the courage to pick up a prostitute and pay her for sex. From that point on, Rifkin lived in two worlds - the one that his parents knew about and the one filled with sex and prostitutes and consumed his every thought.
The prostitutes became a live extension of Rifkin's fantasies that had been festering in his mind for years. They also became an inexhaustible addiction that resulted in missed classes, missed work, and cost him whatever money he had in his pocket. For the first time in his life, he had women around who seemed to like him which boosted his self-esteem.
Rifkin ended up dropping out of college, then enrolling again at another college only to then drop out again. He was constantly moving out, then back again with his parents each time he flunked out of school. This frustrated his father and he and Joel would often get into big shouting matches about his lack of commitment towards getting a college education.
The Death of Ben Rifkin
In 1986, Ben Rifkin was diagnosed with cancer and he committed suicide the following year. Joel gave a touching eulogy, describing the love that his father had given to him throughout his life. In truth, Joel Rifkin felt like a miserable failure who was a major disappointment and embarrassment to his father. But now with his father was gone, he was able to do what he wanted without the constant worry that his dark seedy lifestyle would be discovered.
The First Kill
After flunking out of his last attempt at college in the spring of 1989, Rifkin spent all of his free time with prostitutes. His fantasies about murdering the women began to fester.
In early March, his mother and sister left on vacation. Rifkin drove into New York City and picked up a prostitute and brought her back to his family's home.
Throughout her stay, she slept, shot heroin, then slept more, which irritated Rifkin who had no interest in drugs. Then, without any provocation, he picked up a Howitzer artillery shell and struck her repeatedly on the head with it and then suffocated and strangled her to death. When he was certain that she was dead, he went to bed.
After six hours of sleep, Rifkin awoke and went about the task of getting rid of the body. First, he removed her teeth and scraped her fingerprints off of her fingers so that she could not be identified. Then using an X-Acto knife, he managed to dismember the body into six parts which he distributed in different areas throughout Long Island, New York City, and New Jersey.
The woman's head was discovered inside a paint bucket on a New Jersey golf course, but because Rifkin had removed her teeth, her identity remained a mystery When Rifkin heard on the news about the head being found, he panicked. Terrified that he was about to get caught, he made a promise to himself that it was a one-time thing and that he would never kill again. (In 2013, the victim was identified through DNA as Heidi Balch.)
The promise not to kill again lasted about 16 months. In 1990, his mother and sister left again to go out of town. Rifkin seized the opportunity of having the house to himself and picked up a prostitute named Julia Blackbird and brought her home.
After spending the night together, Rifkin drove to an ATM to get money to pay her and discovered he had a zero balance. He returned to the house and beat Blackbird with a table leg, and murdered her by strangling her to death.
In the basement of his home, he dismembered the body and placed the different parts into buckets that he filled with concrete. He then drove into New York City and disposed of the buckets in the East River and the Brooklyn canal. Her remains were never found.
The Body Count Climbs
After killing the second woman, Rifkin did not make a vow to stop killing but decided that dismembering the bodies was an unpleasant task that he needed to rethink.
He was out of college again and living with his mother and working in lawn care. He tried to open a landscaping company and rented a storage unit for his equipment. He also used it to temporarily hide the bodies of his victims.
In early 1991 his company failed and he was in debt. He managed to get a few part-time jobs, which he often lost because the jobs interfered with what he enjoyed most - strangling prostitutes. He also grew more confident about not getting caught.
Beginning in July 1991, Rifkin's murders began to come more frequently. Here is the list of his victims:
- Barbara Jacobs, age 31, killed July 14, 1991. Her body was found inside a plastic bag that had been placed into a cardboard box and put into the Hudson River.
- Mary Ellen DeLuca, age 22, killed on September 1, 1991, because she complained about having sex after Rifkin bought her crack cocaine.
- Yun Lee, age 31, killed on September 23, 1991. She was strangled to death and her body was put into the East River.
- Jane Doe #1, was killed in early December 1991. Rifkin strangled her during sex, put her body into a 55-gallon oil drum and dumped it into the East River.
- Lorraine Orvieto, age 28, was prostituting in Bayshore, Long Island when Rifkin picked her up and strangled her during sex. He disposed of her body by placing it into an oil drum and into Coney Island River where it was discovered months later.
- Mary Ann Holloman, 39, was killed on January 2, 1992. Her body was found the following July, stuffed inside an oil drum in Coney Island Creek.
- Iris Sanchez, age 25, killed on Mother's Day weekend, May 10, 1992. Rifkin put her body under an old mattress in an illegal dump area located near the JFK International Airport.
- Anna Lopez, age 33, and the mother of three children, was strangled to death on May 25, 1992. Rifkin disposed of her body along I-84 in Putnam County.
- Jane Doe #2 was murdered mid-winter 1991. On May 13, 1992, parts of her body were found inside an oil drum floating in Newton Creek in Brooklyn, New York.
- Violet O'Neill, age 21, was killed in June 1992 at Rifkin's mother's home. There he dismembered her in the bathtub, wrapped the body parts in plastic, and disposed of them in rivers and canals in New York City. Her torso was found floating in the Hudson River and days later other body parts were found inside of a suitcase.
- Mary Catherine Williams, age 31, was killed at Rifkin's mother's home on October 2, 1992. Her remains were found in Yorktown, New York the following December.
- Jenny Soto, 23, was strangled to death on November 16, 1992. Her body was found the following day floating in Harlem River in New York City.
- Leah Evens, 28, and the mother of two children was killed on February 27, 1993. Rifkin buried the corpse in the woods on Long Island. Her body was discovered three months later.
- Lauren Marquez, 28, was killed on April 2, 1993, and her body was left in the Pine Barrens in Suffolk County, New York, on Long Island.
- Tiffany Bresciani, 22, was Joel Rifkin's final victim. On June 24, 1993, he strangled her and put her body in his mother's garage for three smoldering days before getting the opportunity to dispose of it.
Rifkin's Crime Is Discovered
At around 3 a.m. Monday, June 28, 1993, Rifkin swabbed his nose with Noxzema so that he could tolerate the pungent odor coming from the corpse of Bresciani. He placed it in the bed of his pickup truck and got on Southern State highway headed south to Melville's Republic Airport, which is where he planned to dispose of it.
Also in the area were state troopers, Deborah Spaargaren and Sean Ruane, who noticed Rifkin's truck did not have a license plate. They attempted to pull him over, but he ignored them and kept driving. The officers then used the siren and a loudspeaker, but still, Rifkin refused to pull over. Then, just as the officers requested backup, Rifkin tried to correct a missed turn and went straight into a utility light pole.
Unhurt, Rifkin emerged from the truck and was promptly placed in handcuffs. Both officers quickly realized why the driver had not pulled over as the distinct odor of a decaying corpse permeated the air.
Tiffany's body was found and while questioning Rifkin, he casually explained that she was a prostitute that he had paid to have sex with and then things went bad and he killed her and that he was headed to the airport so that he could get rid of the body. He then asked the officers if he needed a lawyer.
Rifkin was taken to police headquarters in Hempstead, New York, and after a short period of questioning by detectives, he began to reveal that the body they discovered was just the tip of the iceberg and offered up the number, "17."
The Search for Rifkin's Victims
A search of his bedroom in his mother's home turned up a mountain of evidence against Rifkin including women's driver's licenses, women's underwear, jewelry, prescription drug bottles prescribed to women, purses and wallets, photographs of women, makeup, hair accessories, and women's clothing. Many of the items could be matched to victims of unsolved murders.
There was also a large collection of books about serial killers and porn movies with themes centered on sadism.
In the garage, they found three ounces of human blood in the wheelbarrow, tools coated in blood and a chainsaw that had blood and human flesh stuck in the blades.
In the meantime, Joel Rifkin was writing a list for the investigators with the names and dates and locations of the bodies of 17 women he had murdered. His recollection was not perfect, but with his confession, the evidence, missing person reports and unidentified bodies that had turned up over the years, 15 of the 17 victims were identified.
The Trial in Nassau County
Rifkin's mother hired an attorney to represent Joel, but he fired him and hired law partners Michael Soshnick and John Lawrence. Soshnick was a former Nassau County district attorney and had a reputation for being a top-notch criminal lawyer. His partner Lawrence had no experience in criminal law.
Rifkin was arraigned in Nassau County for the murder of Tiffany Bresciani, to which he pleaded not guilty.
During the suppression hearing which began November 1993, Soshnick tried unsuccessfully to get Rifkin's confession and his admission to killing Tiffany Bresciani suppressed, based on the grounds that the state troopers lacked probable cause to search the truck.
Two months into the hearing, Rifkin was offered a plea deal of 46 years to life in exchange for a guilty plea of 17 murders, but he turned it down, convinced that his lawyers could get him off by pleading insanity.
Throughout the four-month hearing, Soshnick offended the judge by showing up to court late or not at all and often arriving unprepared. This irritated Judge Wexner and by March he pulled the plug on the hearing, announcing that he had seen enough evidence to reject the defense motions and he ordered the trial to begin in April.
Infuriated by the news, Rifkin fired Soshnick, but kept Lawrence on, even though it would be his first criminal case.
The trial began on April 11, 1994, and Rifkin pleaded not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. The jury disagreed and found him guilty of murder and reckless endangerment. He was sentenced to 25 years to life.
Rifkin was transferred to Suffolk County to stand trial for the murders of Evans and Marquez. The attempt to have his confession suppressed was again rejected. This time Rifkin pleaded guilty and received an additional two consecutive terms of 25 years to life.
Similar scenarios were played out in Queens and in Brooklyn. By the time it was all over, Joel Rifkin, the most prolific serial killer in the history of New York, was found guilty of murdering nine women and had received a total of 203 years in prison. He is currently housed at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Clinton County, New York.