New Yorks worst serial murder case of
this century began--or ended--with a routine traffic stop in the predawn
hours of June 28, 1993. State troopers Deborah Spaargaren and Sean Ruane
were working the graveyard shift in East Meadow, Long Island, when they
spotted a pickup truck with no license plate ahead of them, at 3:15 A.M.
The driver wasnt speeding, but the absence of a tag was in itself a
minor violation, and they turned the flashers on, prepared to write a
Curiously, though, the driver of the pickup did not stop. He didnt speed
up, either, but he kept on driving. When the troopers used their siren,
he appeared oblivious; likewise when Ruane got on the loudspeaker and
ordered him to stop. Ten minutes later, with a call for reinforcements
on the air, their quarry missed a turn and crashed into a lamp post at a
Mineola intersection. Faced with pistols now, the solemn driver gave his
license up and stepped out of the car.
By that time, Ruane and Spaargaren had smelled his reeking cargo, moving
toward the rear bed of the truck, where something long and thick was
wrapped in plastic, bound with rope. A peek inside the tarp revealed a
womans decomposing body. Motorist Joel Rifkin, now in handcuffs, helped
identify the corpse as 22-year-old Tiffany Bresciani. She was a
prostitute, he told the officers. I had sex with her, and then I killed
her. He was on his way to dump the body near Republic Airport, he
explained, when he was spotted by Ruane and Spaargaren. The case was
open-and-shut ... but it was far from simple.
In custody, Rifkin soon
began confessing to other homicides, a total of seventeen, including
Bresciani. The murders spanned four years, and all the victims were
described as prostitutes by Rifkin, though surviving relatives of
several vocally dispute his claim. Whatever their employment status,
there was no doubt of the body count--unless, some officers suggested,
Rifkins estimate was low.
The son of unwed teenage parents, born in
1959, Joel was adopted by Ben and Jeanne Rifkin at three weeks of age.
The couple was so happy with their son that they repeated the procedure,
with a daughter, three years later. In 1965, the family settled in East
Meadow, where Joel would spend most of his remaining years. He shared
his mothers enthusiasm for photography and handicrafts, a brainy child
who never quite fit in with other kids his age.
Despite a tested IQ of
128, Joel did poorly in school, at least part of his problem traceable
to the merciless teasing of class-mates. They called him The Turtle,
mimicking his slouched posture and slow footsteps, seldom missing a
chance to make him the butt of cruel jokes. Rifkin graduated from high
school in 1977, but he could never quite cut in college, despite
sporadic attempts over the next twelve years.
He drifted in and out of
jobs, mostly living at home, enjoying one brief relationship with a girl
who recalls him as sweet, but always depressed. In February 1987,
Rifkins father killed himself to end the pain of cancer, and Joel
delivered the eulogy at his funeral. Things seemed to go downhill from
On August 22, 1987, Rifkin was arrested in Hempstead, Long Island,
for soliciting a prostitute. He paid a fine and managed to conceal the
incident from his mother, ranging farther afield to seek hookers in
Manhattan when he felt the urge. On the side, he began collecting books
and press clippings on serial killers of whores, including the
unidentified Green River Killer and New Yorks own Arthur Shawcross.
Somewhere along the way, he moved from abstract study of the killers
into emulation of their brutal crimes.
Rifkins first two victims have never been found or identified. He
recalls killing one hooker in 1989 and another in 1990, dismembering
their bodies and dropping the pieces into Manhattan canals, but the
butcher work repulsed him, and he didnt really hit his stride until
1991. On July 14 of that year, 31-year-old Barbara Jacobs was found,
strangled and rotting, in the Hudson River; her body had been wedged
inside a plastic bag, then forced into a cardboard box.
victim, Korean hooker Yun Lee, was fished out of the East River on
September 23, her body folded inside a steamer trunk. Mary Ellen DeLuca,
age twenty- two, had been missing for a month when her nude, strangled
body was found in a field upstate, at Cornwall, New York. Lorraine
Orvieto, age twenty-eight, was strangled by Rifkin a few days before
Christmas, jammed in a 55-gallon oil drum and dropped into Coney Island
Creek, where her body would remain undiscovered for over six months.
The oil drum was a new kink with Rifkin, used at least four times by his
count. A Jane Doe victim, thus entombed, was dredged from Newtown Creek,
in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, on May 13, 1992. Maryann Holloman, age 39, was
retrieved from Coney Island Creek in her oil drum on July 9, two days
before passers-by found the skeletal remains of Lorraine Orvieto nearby.
There was another oil drum victim, Joel insists, although he doesnt know
her name and cant recall exactly when he dropped her body in the Harlem
Still, Rifkin liked to vary his technique from time to time. With 25-year-old
Iris Sanchez, strangled in April 1992, he simply drove to JFK Airport
and left her body in a vacant lot, beneath a mattress. (It was still
there, waiting for detectives, at the time of Joels arrest.) On May 25,
1992, he strangled crack addict Anna Lopez, dumping her corpse in some
woods off Interstate 84, in Brewster. New York. Jenny Soto was the
fighter, breaking off her fingernails on Rifkins face before he snapped
her neck on November 16, 1992.
Three months later, he killed Leah Evens
and left her in rural Northampton, where her skeleton was found on
Mothers Day. With Joels confession in hand, police descended on Jeanne
Rifkins home, scouring the premises for evidence. In Joels room, they
struck pay dirt, recovering dozens of ID cards, drivers licenses and
credit cards, photographs, articles of jewelry, and piles of womens
clothing taken from his victims.
Out in the garage, they found a
wheelbarrow and a chainsaw stained with human gore. Neighbors had noted
a foul odor emanating from the Rifkin garage, where corpses were
occasionally stored before disposal, but the stench was attributed to
fertilizer and insecticide Joel used on his landscaping job.
Despite his confessions and the overwhelming evidence against him,
Rifkin pled not guilty at his murder trial. Conviction was a foregone
conclusion, However, and in the absence of a death penalty statute, he
received the maximum sentence of twenty-five years to life.
1994, it was reported that Rifkin had engaged in a jailhouse scuffle
with mass murderer Colin Ferguson over the use of a public telephone.
The argument over whose killings were better reportedly ended when
Ferguson punched Rifkin in the mouth.
Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia
of Modern Serial Killers - Hunting Humans
Joel David Rifkin
January 20, 1959)
is an American serial killer convicted of the murder of 9 women (although
it is believed he killed as many as 17), mostly drug addicted
prostitutes, between 1989 and 1993 in New York City.
Although Rifkin often hired prostitutes in Brooklyn
and Manhattan, he lived in East Meadow, a suburban town on Long Island.
During his trial, Rifkin was represented by Mineola-based attorney John
The son of unknown parents, he was adopted by Bernard
and Jeanne Rifkin when he was three weeks old. The couple adopted
another child, a daughter, three years later. In 1965, the family
settled in East Meadow, New York, where Rifkin would spend most of his
A shy, awkward child, he was a target for bullies. He
had an I.Q. assessed at 128, but struggled academically in school due to
severe dyslexia. After graduating from high school, Rifkin, who was
particularly interested in horticulture and photojournalism, made
several attempts at community college and attended the State University
of New York at Brockport, where he worked for a time as a photographer
on the school's newspaper The Stylus. He held down various odd
jobs, spending much of the little money he made on prostitutes.
In February 1987, Rifkin's adoptive
father committed suicide to end the pain of cancer, thereby increasing
Rifkin’s depression. At this time he became increasingly obsessed with
violence, murder, and prostitution. Rifkin was arrested for soliciting a
August 22, 1987
in Hempstead, Long Island. He concealed this arrest from his family.
Rifkin committed his first murder in 1989, killing a
prostitute, dismembering her body and tossing it into the East River.
Over the next four years, he killed 16 more prostitutes. Sometimes he
would take his victims back to East Meadow, to the house where he lived
with his sister and elderly mother. Other times he killed them in his
Police finally caught up to Rifkin in June 1993, when
state troopers spotted his pickup truck without license plates on the
Southern State Parkway. A high-speed chase ended in Mineola, where he
crashed into a utility pole which was located directly in front of the
courthouse in which he would eventually stand trial. Troopers detected
an odor from the back of the truck. It came from the dead body of
Tiffany Bresciani, 22, the girlfriend of Dave Rubinstein (a.k.a. Dave
Insurgent, a member of the 1980s punk band Reagan Youth), and his final
Rifkin was found guilty of nine murders in 1994 and
sentenced to 203 years to life. He would be eligible for parole only in
2197, at the age of 238.
Rifkin's prison life
In early 1994, it was reported that Rifkin had
engaged in a jailhouse scuffle with mass murderer Colin Ferguson. Prison
officials decided in 1996 that Rifkin was so notorious that his presence
in the general prison population could be disruptive. He was confined to
his cell at the Attica Correctional Facility for 23 hours a day. He
spent more than four years in solitary confinement before being
transferred to the Clinton Correctional Facility in Clinton County.
In 2000, a state appellate court
determined that prison officials had not violated Rifkin's
constitutional rights by housing him in isolation. Rifkin's lawsuit
seeks $50,000 for each of his 1,540 days in solitary confinement (totaling
$77 million). If he were to receive any money, it would be subject to
state laws that earmark most of the award for the families of his
victims. Corrections officials say that Rifkin is now imprisoned with
more than 200 other inmates at Clinton who are not allowed into the
general prison population.
In 2010, Rifkin was interviewed by
ABC's Martin Bashir as part of the Nightline Prime mini-series,
Secrets of Your Mind. During the course of the episode, Rifkin
underwent a brain scan to see if abnormal brain chemistry could have
possibly made him more likely to commit murder.
Joel David Rifkin: New York's Most Prolific Serial Killer
by Michael Newton
New York state
troopers Sean Ruane and Deborah Spaargaren were patroling Long Island’s
Southern State Parkway at 3:15 a.m. on June 28, 1993, when they spotted
a Mazda pickup truck with no rear license plate. When flashing red
lights failed to stop the driver, they used the loudspeaker, ordering
the driver to halt. But he accelerated, speeding down the next off-ramp,
into the streets of Wantagh.
The wild chase was on.
Ruane and Spaargaren called for backup as they pursued their quarry at
nearly 90 miles an hour. Five more patrol cars joined the convoy, sirens
wailing, before the Mazda’s driver missed a turn in Mineola and crashed
his truck into a telephone pole at 3:36 a.m. He offered no resistance as
police removed him from the pickup, frisked him for weapons and removed
an X-acto knife from his pocket.
The driver’s license
identified him as 34-year-old Joel David Rifkin, residing on Garden
Street in East Meadow, Long Island. He was generally unkempt, and a
thick layer of Noxema was smeared across his mustache. When told his
truck had no rear license plate, Rifkin assured the officers it had been
present when he left his home, some 40 minutes earlier. He had no
explanation for the wild flight to avoid a minor traffic ticket, but the
cause of Rifkin’s panic was revealed a moment later.
Drawn to the pickup’s
bed by a foul odor, troopers peeled back a blue tarp and found a woman’s
naked, decomposing corpse. She appeared to have been dead for several
days. That explained Rifkin’s use of Noxema. It was a trick for handling
corpses, to avoid their stench, portrayed by Hollywood two years earlier
in the Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs.
When asked about the
body, Rifkin said, “She was a prostitute. I picked her up on Allen
Street in Manhattan. I had sex with her, then things went bad and I
strangled her. Do you think I need a lawyer?”
Rifkin was booked at
Hempstead, where homicide detectives launched a marathon interrogation.
Officers staked out the house in East Meadow, where Rifkin lived with
his sister and elderly mother. A telephone call from police told
71-year-old Jeanne Rifkin that her son had been detained after a traffic
accident. The rest would be revealed to her on television, hours later,
when detectives laid the outline of their case before the media.
Rifkin’s victim was
identified as Tiffany Bresciani, a 22-year-old Louisiana native,
tricking in Manhattan the past two years to feed her drug habit. During
questioning, Rifkin described her death in clinical detail, but his
emotional detachment was not the worst part of the confession. The
murder, detectives gathered, was not his first.
Bresciani was “number
17,” Rifkin said.
It was nearly 8 p.m.
when authorities presented Jeanne Rifkin with a search warrant, scouring
her two-story house for evidence against the man who appeared to be New
York’s most prolific serial killer. When they left, six hours later, the
searchers carried off at least 228 items (one report claimed there were
more than 1,000) linked to Rifkin’s four-year murder spree. His upstairs
bedroom yielded 75 pieces of women’s jewelry, photographs Rifkin had
taken of several unidentified women, various items of feminine clothing,
makeup cases, a woman’s curling iron, wallets and pocketbooks, plus a
mixed bag of ID cards. One driver’s license belonged to Mary DeLuca,
found dead in Cornwall, New York, in October 1991. Another belonged to
Jenny Soto, fished out of the Harlem River in November 1992. Rifkin’s
bedroom reading material included a book on the unidentified Green River
Killer and news clippings about the case of New York serial slayer
In Rifkin’s cluttered
garage, detectives followed their noses to a reeking wheelbarrow,
extracting three ounces of human blood. A pair of women’s panties lay on
the floor, near a stockpile of rope and tarp. A chainsaw found in the
garage was stained with blood and bits of human flesh. Neighbors
recalled strange odors emanating from Rifkin’s garage, but they had
assumed he stored insecticides there, for use in his garden and
They were wrong.
It was the smell of
death, and it would linger long after the source had been removed.
He was born on January
20, 1959, the son of unwed college students who were not prepared to
start a family. A childless couple from Upstate New York, Bernard and
Jeanne Rifkin, adopted him on Valentine’s Day and named him Joel David.
The Rifkins also adopted a daughter, Jan, in 1962. Three years later
they moved to East Meadow, Long Island, and Joel entered first grade at
Prospect Avenue Elementary School.
It was hell from day
one. Something about Joel Rifkin set him apart, an undefined quality
that made him an immediate outsider, natural prey to all manner of
bullies. Classmates dubbed him “The Turtle,” after his slouching posture
and slow gait. Excluded from team sports and neighborhood games, Joel
was the butt of every prank and sadistic joke: bullies assaulted him in
school and pulled his pants down, stole his lunch and books, and
harassed him constantly. He was also an academic failure, suffering from
undiagnosed dyslexia despite a tested IQ of 128.
Joel’s poor grades
embarrassed his father, a member of the East Meadow School Board. He
raged at Joel, “Why can’t you do anything to please me?” Jeanne Rifkin
shared her love of gardening and photography with Joel oblivious to his
torment by peers. “I thought of him as a loner,” she subsequently told
reporters. “It didn’t fully come home to me what was happening until
Things went from bad
to worse at East Meadow High School. Except for his grades, Joel was the
stereotypical nerd, in glasses and high-water pants with white socks.
One of the bullies who harassed him later called Rifkin “an abuse unit.
He was subtly obnoxious, like his presence annoyed you.” Rifkin joined
the track team, in an effort to fit in, and was rewarded with the
nickname “lard ass.” Teammates hid his clothes and shoved his head into
a toilet bowl. Instead of fighting back, Rifkin invited them to watch TV
and drink beer at his house. “We used him, to be blunt about it,” one of
them recalled, years later. “He was easy to make fun of.”
A failure in
athletics, Rifkin joined the yearbook staff, and promptly had his camera
stolen. Undeterred, he slaved to put the senior yearbook out, but he was
excluded from the year-end wrap party. That left him “absolutely
devastated,” in his mother’s words, but there were other compensations.
Joel’s parents gave him a car that year, and he used it to troll for
prostitutes, first in nearby Hempstead, later in Manhattan. According to
Robert Mladinich in From the Mouth of the Monster, Joel’s fantasies
included “some bondage” and “some rape,” plus “a gladiator type thing
with two girls that would fight to the death.” In some daydreams he
raped and stabbed women, but his fantasy victims were silent, “just
passive about it.” After a 1972 viewing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy,
loosely based on London’s “Jack the Ripper” homicides of 1964-65, he
fixated on strangling prostitutes.
eluded Rifkin, for the most part. One high school date was scuttled
after fellow track team members trapped him in the gym and pelted him
with eggs, forcing Joel to call his father for help. Another time,
Rifkin made it as far as a local pizza parlor with his date, but the
same bullies chased them out, pursuing the couple on foot until Joel and
the girl found refuge in a public library.
Graduating near the
bottom of his class in 1977, Joel Rifkin looked forward to college and
adulthood. Life could only get better, he reasoned.
But the worst was yet
Rifkin’s first attempt
at higher education took him to Nassau Community College, on Long Island.
Bored and restless, he cut classes habitually, completing only one
course in the 1977-78 academic year. Rifkin transferred to the state
university at Brockport, a Rochester suburb, in fall 1978. He enjoyed
the photography club but turned in his usual lackluster academic
performance over the next two years, before dropping out in 1980. Rifkin
had his only real girlfriend in Brockport, but the relationship went
nowhere, his paramour recalling Joel as “sweet, but always depressed.”
Back at home with his parents, Rifkin tried Nassau Community College
again, attending erratically, earning only 12 credits by the time he
finally quit in 1984.
Throughout the 1980s,
Rifkin worked a series of odd jobs around Long Island, seldom staying
long at any. Poor hygiene, chronic absenteeism and general ineptitude
blocked the road to advancement. His employer at a local music store
described Joel as “a total piece of work. This guy couldn’t even count
to 10.” In his down time, idling between jobs and classes, Rifkin
dreamed of becoming a famous writer, churning out fragments of bleak
poetry. He maintained his interest in photography and horticulture, but
failed to make either a paying proposition. Joel left his parents
several times, renting small apartments, but he was never gone long,
always moving home again when his latest job fell through.
“I couldn’t put two
nickels together,” Rifkin recalled of those years, and most of what he
did earn went to prostitutes. “The whole focus of my life,” he later
said, “was on the streets.” Even there he proved inept, robbed by
hookers or their pimps at least a dozen times. One girl duped him twice,
using the same ruse both times to flee with his cash before sex.
Rifkin’s father was
chronically ill. A heavy smoker, already afflicted with emphysema,
Bernard was diagnosed with prostate cancer in fall 1986. Weary of the
pain by February 1987, he took a massive dose of barbiturates and died
after four days in a coma. Joel delivered a eulogy at his father’s
funeral, moving the mourners to tears, and his depression deepened. He
was arrested in Hempstead, in August 1987, after soliciting sex from an
undercover policewoman, but he escaped with a nominal fine. Instead of
keeping him away from prostitutes, the incident made him more devious.
In 1988 Rifkin
enrolled in a two-year horticulture-study program at the State College
of Technology in Farmingdale, New York. For the first time in his life,
he made straight A’s for two consecutive semesters, rewarded by
selection for an internship at the prestigious Planting Fields Arboretum
in Oyster Bay, New York.
The appointment was an
honor, and it had an unexpected bonus. Joel found himself strongly
attracted to one of the other interns, a pretty blond, but while he
shadowed her at every opportunity, he never found the nerve to ask her
out. Instead, he concocted an elaborate fantasy affair, frustrated
beyond endurance when she failed to reciprocate his secret passion.
It was finally too
much. Years of pent-up anger and humiliation craved release. Rifkin had
reached the detonation point.
All he required now
was a target.
Despite his history of
morbid fantasy, Rifkin would later claim he had to plan the murder of
his first victim, in March 1989. Rifkin acknowledged that his violent
mental images were “a little more intense than regular” at that time.
His mother chose that month to travel out of state, leaving Joel alone
in the East Meadow house.
East Village for hookers one night, at about 10 p.m., he selected a
young woman remembered only as “Susie.” She was a hard-core drug addict,
demanding several stops to purchase crack before they drove back to Long
Island. After listless sex, Susie again asked Joel to take her out in
search of drugs. Instead, he picked up a souvenir howitzer shell and
beat her furiously. “I just lost control,” he said later. “I stopped
when I got tired.”
Susie was still alive,
however, and she fought back when he tried to move her, biting one of
Rifkin’s fingers deeply before he strangled her to death. After
wrestling her body into a plastic trash bag, Rifkin cleaned up the blood
and signs of combat in his living room, then lay down and slept for
several hours as if nothing had happened. Upon waking, he dragged Susie
down to the basement, draped her body across the washer and dryer, then
used that makeshift operating table to dismember her corpse with an
X-acto knife. In his mind, the grim task was “reduced to biology class.”
To foil identification, Rifkin severed Susie’s fingertips and pulled her
teeth with pliers, then jammed her severed head into an old paint can.
The other parts went into garbage bags and then into his mother’s car.
Rifkin drove the body
parts across the state line to New Jersey, dropping the head and legs in
the woods near Hopewell. Doubling back from there, he returned to
Manhattan, pitching the arms and torso into the East River. Rifkin
believed his victim would never be found, but he had been careless.
March 5, 1989, a member of the Hopewell Valley Golf Club sliced his ball
into the woods along the seventh green and found the can containing
Susie’s head. Rifkin suffered “a major anxiety attack” after learning
that Susie was HIV positive, following the case as police prepared
artists’ renderings of the victim in life and checked them against a
list of 700 missing women. But Susie has never been identified. Her case
remained unsolved until Rifkin confessed in 1993.
Joel waited more than
a year to claim his second victim. He was vague on dates, different
reports placing the crime 14 months after Susie’s murder, or late in
1990. The victim was prostitute Julie Blackbird, selected for her
“pseudo-Madonna look.” Rifkin drove her home to East Meadow when his
mother was again out of town, and they spent the night together. At
about nine the next morning, Rifkin recalled “completely bugging out,”
beating Blackbird with a heavy table leg before he strangled her. When
she was dead, he considered raping her corpse in conscious emulation of
serial killer Ted Bundy, but the prospect repulsed him.
Determined not to
bungle the disposal this time, Rifkin went out to purchase cement and a
large mortar pan. He dismembered the corpse as before, placing the head,
arms and legs in buckets weighted with concrete; the torso filled a milk
crate by itself. Driving into Manhattan, he consigned Blackbird’s head
and torso to the East River, then dropped her weighted arms and legs
into a Brooklyn barge canal. The remains were never found. We know
Blackbird’s fate today only from Rifkin’s confession, and from her diary
stashed in his bedroom.
Murder was easy.
Joel couldn’t wait to
play the deadly game again.
Rifkin started his own
landscaping business in April 1991, renting space at a local nursery to
store his equipment. It was a half-hearted effort at best. He complained
to his landlord, “I keep losing all my customers,” and by summer he was
falling behind on his rent. The obsession with murder had consumed his
life and he began using the rented “job site” as a way station for
corpses in transit.
Barbara Jacobs was the
next to die, a 31-year-old addict with arrests on her record for auto
theft and prostitution. Joel picked her up on July 13, 1991, and took
her home to East Meadow for sex. When she fell asleep, he clubbed her
with the same table leg he had used on Julie Blackbird, then finished
the job by manual strangulation. Put off by the thought of another
dismemberment, Rifkin wrapped Jacobs in plastic, folded her into a
cardboard box, and placed her in the back of his mother’s Toyota pickup.
He drove to the Hudson River, dropping her into the water near a cement
plant. She was found hours later by firefighters on a training exercise,
but this time Rifkin reported, “It didn’t even faze me.”
The coroner blamed her
death on a drug overdose, and Jacobs was buried in Potter’s Field
cemetery, unidentified until Rifkin confessed her murder two years later.
Crack addict Mary
Ellen DeLuca, a 22-year-old Long Island native, was last seen alive at
11:00 p.m. on September 1, 1991, when she left a group of friends to
earn the price of her next fix. Rifkin found her on Jamaica Avenue in
Queens and drove her around New York until sunrise, shelling out $150
for drugs at various stops. They wound up at a cheap motel, DeLuca first
balking at sex and demanding more dope, then rushing through the act,
complaining all the while. At some point in the litany, Rifkin asked
DeLuca if she wanted to die, and she allegedly said yes. As he strangled
her, Rifkin recalled, “She did nothing, just accepted it.” He remembered
her murder as “one of the weird ones.”
It also left Rifkin
with a new problem. Afraid to drag the corpse out in broad daylight, he
drew inspiration from Hitchcock’s Frenzy and went out to purchase a
cheap steamer trunk, squeezing DeLuca inside it. From the motel, he
drove upstate to Orange County and left DeLuca’s body at a rest stop
outside Cornwall, near West Point. She was found on October 1, nude
except for a brassiere, without ID. Decomposition made it impossible to
determine a cause of death, and she was buried nameless, unidentified
until June 1993.
process was erratic, sparing most of the hookers he patronized on a near
nightly basis, prompting him to kill others on a whim. On the September
night he picked up 31-year-old Yun Lee, a Korean native he had been with
before, she was his second prostitute in an hour. That may explain his
failure to perform as Lee went to work. He struck her on impulse,
strangling her while she “mouthed something about making a big mistake.”
It was Rifkin’s first murder of someone he knew beforehand, and he
experienced fleeting remorse. “Actually,” he later said, “I thought I
Rifkin wedged Lee into
the same trunk he’d used for Mary DeLuca and dropped her in the East
River. She was found on September 23--eight days before DeLuca--floating
past Randalls Island, at the Harlem River’s mouth. Lee’s ex-husband
identified the body, sparing her from an unmarked grave.
Rifkin could not
recall the name of “number six,” murdered a few days shy of Christmas
1991. He picked her up on West 46th Street in Manhattan and strangled
her in his car during oral sex, describing the event as “very quick.”
Afterward, he drove back to Long Island with the body slumped beside
him, concealing her under a tarp at his rented workplace. Next, he drove
to a recycling plant in Westbury, where he had once worked part-time,
and helped himself to a 55-gallon oil drum. There was ample room for
Jane Doe in the barrel, safely hidden for their ride to the South Bronx,
where Rifkin found a district rife with junkyards and rolled her into
the East River. About to leave, he was confronted by patrolmen who
accused him of illegal dumping, but Joel persuaded them he was
collecting junk instead. They let him go with a warning.
The oil drum worked so
well for Rifkin that he purchased several more for use as makeshift
coffins. He used the next one on Lorraine Orvieto, a 28-year-old manic-depressive
who tried to control her mood swings with cocaine. The habit was
expensive and she tricked to keep herself supplied. It was a life far
removed from her affluent Long Island home where she’d been a high
Rifkin found Orvieto on December 26, 1991, in
Bayshore, Long Island. He parked near a schoolyard fence and strangled
her while she performed oral sex, discovering her HIV-positive status
when he found a bottle of AZT in her purse. He kept the pills, along
with Orvieto’s jewelry and ID, as souvenirs of the kill. Back at the
landscaping lot, Rifkin stuffed her into an oil drum, drove her body to
Brooklyn and dropped it into Coney Island Creek. She was found by a
fisherman on July 11, 1992, two months before her family filed a missing
Even the parents of
his victims didn’t seem to miss Rifkin’s prey.
It was a killer’s
dream come true.
repetition. One week after he killed Lorraine Orvieto, on January 2,
1992, Rifkin went hunting again. At 39, Mary Ann Holloman was his oldest
victim, an addict who sewed personalized G-strings for strippers when
she wasn’t working the streets. Rifkin drove her to the same parking lot
where he had taken Yun Lee and strangled her during fellatio. Later, he
recalled the act as “very automatic. Not much with that one.” He
followed the same disposal procedure as with Orvieto: back to Long
Island, the oil drum and Coney Island Creek.
An anonymous caller
reported Holloman’s floating remains to police on July 9, 1992, two days
before Orvieto’s corpse was found. Unlike Orvieto, Holloman was
identified from dental records and returned to her family for burial.
Two floaters in as many days suggested a serial killer at large, but New
York police had their hands full with 2,000 murders a year in those days,
and junkie prostitutes were never high priority.
Rifkin’s ninth victim,
ironically, surfaced before numbers seven and eight. He was vague on the
details in later confessions, unable to recall the woman’s name, if he
had ever known it. He remembered her tattoos, a pickup in Manhattan, and
the way she fought for life when he began to strangle her. She followed
Mary Holloman, sometime that winter, dismembered remains consigned to
the last of Rifkin’s oil drums. He dropped her into Brooklyn’s Newtown
Creek, where she was spotted floating with the current, foot protruding
from the rusty barrel, on May 13, 1992. The cocaine in her system
prompted detectives to brand her a drug “mule,” killed accidentally by
the rupture of drug-filled condoms in her stomach. Police learned their
mistake a year later, when Rifkin confessed to her slaying, but “number
nine” remains anonymous, the last Jane Doe.
Rifkin went back to
school in spring of 1992, taking uncredited classes at SUNY Farmingdale.
His landscaping business had folded by then, his landlord clamoring for
$700 in overdue rent. As before, Joel cut most of his classes, focused
for the most part on repairing his truck, renting video porn and
trolling for prey.
He found Iris Sanchez,
a 25-year-old crack addict, working First Avenue on Mother’s Day
weekend. Rifkin was AWOL from his part-time job at an East Meadow liquor
store, looking for trouble. He picked Sanchez up in broad daylight,
driving her to a Manhattan housing project “down by where Macy’s has the
fireworks.” After strangling Sanchez during sex, he drove her corpse
across the Brooklyn Bridge, seeking a drop-off point. The site he chose
was an illegal dump, 200 feet off Rockaway Boulevard, within sight of
JFK International Airport. Rifkin wedged the body underneath a rotting
mattress, first relieving Sanchez of her watch and other jewelry. She
would not be found until June 1993, when Rifkin drew detectives a map.
At age 33, Anna Lopez
had three children by three different fathers, but she worked the
streets primarily to feed her own cocaine addiction. Rifkin found her on
May 25, 1992, Memorial Day, working Atlantic Avenue in Queens, and
retired to a nearby residential street for sex. After strangling Lopez
in his car, Rifkin drove through the night to Brewster, in Putnam County,
and dumped her corpse along I-84. A motorist stopping to relieve himself
found Lopez the next day. She was missing one earring, later found in
Rifkin’s bedroom stash.
Violet O’Neill, a
21-year-old prostitute, was the first victim Rifkin had taken home to
East Meadow in nearly a year. He picked her up in the city, strangled
her after sex at his mother’s house and dismembered her corpse in the
bathtub. Rifkin consigned her remains to the waters surrounding
Manhattan. Her torso surfaced in the Hudson River, wrapped in black
plastic, while her arms and legs were found in a discarded suitcase.
Williams, 10 years older than O’Neill, had been a high school homecoming
queen and college cheerleader in her native North Carolina. Married to a
pro football player in 1986 and divorced the following year, she had
come to New York in search of an acting career, but wound up doing drugs
and living on the streets. Rifkin had dated Williams twice and enjoyed
“a great time” before the final pickup on October 2, 1992. He bought
Williams a fix that night, then tried to choke her when she dozed off in
his mother’s car. She woke up fighting for her life, kicking the
gear-shift hard enough to snap it off before Joel smothered her.
struggle to get the car started and moving, Rifkin drove Williams to
Yorktown, a Westchester suburb, where she was found on December 21,
1992. He kept her credit cards and a wicker handbag filled with costume
jewelry--so much, in fact, that the amount would briefly cause
detectives to inflate his body count. Williams would fill another
nameless pauper’s grave until Rifkin confessed to her murder, six months
after she was found.
Jenny Soto was the
last victim of 1992, a 23-year-old addict whose many trips to detox
never turned her life around. Rifkin picked her up at about 11 p.m. on
November 16, near the Williamsburg Bridge in lower Manhattan. Strangled
in Joel’s pickup after sex, she proved “the toughest one to kill,” he
said, breaking all 10 fingernails as she clawed Rifkin’s face and neck.
Winded from the battle, Rifkin claimed her bra and panties, earrings, ID
cards and drug syringe as trophies for his cache. He rolled Soto into
the Harlem River, near the spot where Yun Lee had been found 14 months
earlier. Discovered the following day, Soto was identified from
fingerprint records of her last arrest, police initially suspecting her
ex-con ex-boyfriend of the murder.
Soto’s grim fight for
life gave Rifkin pause. Her slaying capped his own frenzied
“acceleration period” and left him with embarrassing wounds to explain.
Joel would not strike again for 15 weeks, and when he did, he would take
better care to hide his tracks.
Rifkin’s first victim
of 1993 was Leah Evens, a 28-year-old who lived with her mother in
Brooklyn. Abandoned by the father of her two children, Evens found
solace in drugs and worked the streets to keep herself “well.” Rifkin
found her tricking on February 27, 1993, stopping for sex in an
abandoned parking lot. Evens started to undress, then balked, demanding
greater privacy. Rifkin refused, strangling her when she started to cry.
Afterward, he drove Evens to the far eastern end of Long Island and
buried her in the woods, the only one of his victims who rated a shallow
grave. Hikers found her on May 9 after they spied a withered hand
protruding from the ground. A forensic anthropologist was hired to
reconstruct the victim’s face, but Rifkin confessed before the model was
finished. Police found Even’s driver’s license at his home.
The next to die,
Lauren Marquez, was a 28-year-old addict and prostitute, hooked on drugs
before she left her native Tennessee for New York City. Rifkin picked
her up on April 2, 1993, while she was working Second Avenue. They drove
to a point near the Manhattan Bridge, Rifkin clutching at her throat
without the usual preliminaries. Briefly distracted by a man who passed
the car walking a dog, he almost let Marquez escape. She fought him,
resisting strangulation until he snapped her neck. Rifkin dumped her
body in the Suffolk County pine barrens, where she lay undiscovered
until his arrest. Besides a broken neck, Marquez had fractured ribs,
though Rifkin claimed he could not remember hitting her. She was
identified through DNA testing on August 20, 1993.
Rifkin’s last victim,
Tiffany Bresciani, was another southern girl. She hailed from Metairie,
Louisiana, and had been drawn to New York by dreams of acting or dancing.
Instead, she wound up hooked on heroin, performing for strangers in
strip clubs and cars. By the time Rifkin found her, in the predawn hours
of June 24, 1993, she was his second hooker of the night--his fourth
within two days. Rifkin picked her up on Allen Street and drove her to
the New York Post’s parking lot, where he strangled her at 5:30 a.m.
From there, he drove back to East Meadow, stopping at stores along the
way for rope and tarp, while Bresciani lay sprawled in the backseat of
his mother’s car. By the time he got home, she was swaddled in tarp and
concealed in the trunk.
Rifkin had just
arrived home when his mother demanded her car keys and embarked on a
30-minute shopping trip, with the corpse still in the trunk. Rifkin had
no time to move the corpse, but his mother never knew. Relieved of his
“little anxiety attack,” Joel moved Bresciani into the cluttered garage,
leaving her body in a wheelbarrow. Then, as if in a fugue state, he
spent the next three days working on his pickup, ignoring the summer
heat and pervasive reek of decomposing flesh. He was on his way to dump
the corpse near Melville’s Republic Airport, some 15 miles north of his
house, when Troopers Ruane and Spaargaren noted his lack of a rear
The killing game was
over, but the quest for justice had only begun.
began interrogating Rifkin at 8:25 a.m. on June 28, 1993. They
questioned him for eight hours, but for some reason never recorded the
sessions. Rifkin later claimed that he asked for a lawyer “at least 20
times” and was always refused, investigators telling him he couldn’t
speak with counsel until “you give us one more homicide.” The written
transcript of his interview, presumably reconstructed from memory,
suggests that Rifkin was offered a lawyer and declined.
He described all 17
murders in the absence of counsel, writing out the names he remembered,
sketching maps to help police find those victims still missing. Rifkin
was dispassionate, referring to the murders as “events” or “incidents,”
listing his victims by number. Mary Catherine Williams was “number 13,”
Joel’s omission of her name confusing police and some reporters into
citing Williams as an 18th victim. Their mistake made Rifkin laugh,
explaining that the clumsy cops had counted Williams twice.
Back in East Meadow,
Jeanne Rifkin found officers circling her house by mid-morning.
Confronting them, she was first told that Joel had been detained after a
traffic accident, then that he was jailed for “a crime” which the
officers refused to describe. A 9 a.m. media report cleared up the
mystery, and Jeanne phoned her lawyer, who referred her to criminal
attorney Robert Sale. Sale called the state police at 3:30 p.m. and
ordered them to cease interrogation of his client, but the questioning
continued in Sale’s absence for at least another hour, until Rifkin
completed his grim recital of death.
His memory was far
from perfect. Rifkin had apparently forgotten the date of his father’s
death and told police he murdered Barbara Jacobs in August 1991,
although her body had been found in July. He had forgotten names of
several victims and knew others only by their “street names.” He
directed police to the remains of Lauren Marquez and Iris Sanchez, found
five hours apart on June 29, but Julie Blackbird was gone forever.
Robert Sale met his
new client for the first time at 9 a.m. on June 29, and Rifkin
complained that police had taken his glasses and left him with a
migraine headache, unable to function. Thirty minutes later, Sale and
Rifkin appeared before Judge John Kingston, entering a preliminary plea
of not guilty on the Bresciani murder. Sale waived application for bond,
knowing it was hopeless, but won a two-week postponement of formal
arraignment. Rifkin was transferred at once to the Nassau County
Correctional Facility in East Meadow. The prison van carried him past
the high school where he had graduated 16 years before.
Arraigned for the
Bresciani homicide on July 15, 1993, Rifkin repeated his plea of not
guilty. His lawyer Bob Sale sought to have Rifkin’s confession thrown
out on grounds that police could not prove he was ever advised of his
rights. Failing that, he sought to have the various murder charges
consolidated in one Nassau County trial, hoping a hometown jury would be
more inclined to find Rifkin not guilty by reason of insanity. A formal
suppression hearing was scheduled for November, but Rifkin had other
plans. Flexing his ego, he fired Sale and retained two new lawyers:
former Nassau County assistant district attorney Michael Soshnick and
his partner, John Lawrence.
hearing convened before Judge Ira Wexner on November 8, 1993, Soshnick
and Lawrence picking up where Sale left off in the effort to quash
Rifkin’s confession. They also sought to suppress his initial admission
of Bresciani’s murder, made at the time of his arrest, while claiming
that police had lacked sufficient probable cause for a legal search of
Rifkin’s truck. Midway through the hearing, Assistant District Attorney
Fred Klein offered Rifkin a sweetheart deal--46 years to life on all 17
murders, in return for a blanket guilty plea--but Rifkin refused the
bargain, apparently convinced that he would be acquitted on grounds of
insanity. As the hearing dragged on, Rifkin’s lawyers alienated Judge
Wexner by Soshnick repeatedly arriving late for court and unprepared and
Lawrence missing whole days. By March 1994 Wexner had heard enough to
reject the various defense motions outright and hold Rifkin for trial,
scheduled for mid-April. Rifkin responded to the news by firing Soshnick
on the spot, leaving Lawrence, a lawyer with no criminal experience, to
wage the battle alone.
Jury selection for
Rifkin’s first trial, before Wexner, began on April 11, 1994. A panel of
seven men and five women was seated nine days later, with opening
arguments begun on April 20. Fred Klein described Rifkin as a sexual
sadist who relished his victims’ suffering: “He got caught red-handed,
and now he’s using and abusing the concept of mental illness.” Lawrence
called his client a paranoid schizophrenic who “lived in the twilight
zone,” overwhelmed by violent, irresistible compulsions “that took
control of his life.” Rifkin, for his part, snored through much of the
prosecution’s case, a performance Lawrence blamed on allergies to the
bologna sandwiches he ate in jail. Long Island psychiatrist Barbara
Kirwin deemed Rifkin’s psychological test results “the most pathological”
she had seen in 20 years of practice. Appearing for the state, Dr. Park
Dietz--earlier a prosecution witness against Arthur Shawcross, Jeffrey
Dahmer and John Hinckley--found Rifkin “sick but not insane. He knew
exactly what he was doing, and he did it.”
Jurors agreed with
Dietz, deliberating briefly on May 9 before they convicted Rifkin of
murder and reckless endangerment (for leading police on the wild car
chase). Wexner gave Rifkin 25 years to life for murder, plus two and
one-third to seven years on the lesser charge.
Even before he was
sentenced, on May 9, 1994, Rifkin was transferred to Suffolk County,
pending trial for the Evens and Marquez slayings. Another suppression
hearing failed to quash his confession, whereupon Rifkin pleaded guilty
on both counts, receiving two more consecutive terms of 25 years to life
in prison. In November, he pleaded guilty to the Sanchez homicide in
Queens and to three more counts in Brooklyn: victims Orvieto, Holloman
and the “Jane Doe” killed in 1992. By January 1996, Rifkin was scheduled
to serve at least 183 years for seven slayings, with 10 counts
outstanding. Judge Robert Hanophy, passing sentence in the Sanchez case,
told spectators: “It is not in my power to give Mr. Rifkin the sentence
he deserves. In case there is such a thing as reincarnation, I want you
to spend your second life in prison.”
In 2002, New York’s
Supreme Court rejected Rifkin’s appeal of his convictions for the murder
of nine women. His lawyer argued that his statements to the police at
the time of his arrest should be suppressed because he had not been
informed of his rights.
Joel Rifkin is now
serving 203 years to life in the Clinton, N.Y. correctional facility.
He will be eligible for parole in 2197.
Rifkin arrived at
Attica state prison in February 1996, sporting a black eye from his
first assault by fellow inmates while confined on Rikers Island. Prison
was an exaggerated replay of high school, with constant threats and
taunts from other convicts. Although never housed in the prison’s
general population, Rifkin created enough disruption by his mere
presence that administrators moved him into IPC--involuntary protective
custody--where prisoners spend 23 hours a day confined to their Spartan
Aside from books and
magazines (no more than 10 per isolation cell), Rifkin had lawsuits to
amuse himself. The Orvieto family sued him first, on a civil count for
Lorraine’s wrongful death, and Rifkin responded with a snide handwritten
brief, branding his victim an AIDS carrier who “may be responsible for
the eventual deaths of numerous individuals,” crediting her relatives
for shared responsibility in “what might have been.” Next, in November
1997, it was Rifkin’s turn to sue prison officials and the New York
Daily News for branding him HIV-positive. According to Rifkin’s
complaint, the reports prompted a series of inmate assaults that he
suffered in January and February 1996, leading to his confinement in a
solitary cell for personal safety.
The next time Rifkin
made headlines, in April 1998, the news involved sale of his artwork at
the New York State legislature’s office building in Albany as part of a
program to compensate crime victims. Fifty percent of the proceeds from
sales were earmarked for New York’s Crime Victims’ Board, with inmate
artists retaining the rest. Most of Rifkin’s 20 paintings and sketches
depicted wildlife or flowers, but one--titled “Guardian’s Failure”--showed
a bare foot with a coroner’s toe tag and an angel weeping in the corner.
Buoyed perhaps by that
effort, in August 1999 Rifkin unveiled his plans for “Oholah House,” a
proposed shelter for prostitutes that would include drug treatment,
counseling, medical care and job training. Oholah, Rifkin explained, was
both the Hebrew word for “sanctuary” and the name of a prostitute whose
violent death is described in Ezekiel 23:3-10. (In fact, the latter name
is spelled “Aholah.”) Rifkin called his plan “a way of paying back a
debt, I guess,” and while the idea drew praise from some quarters --including
prosecutor Fred Klein-- most objected to Rifkin’s inclusion of a
“Motivation Room” where residents would be “scared straight” with photos
of hookers murdered on the job. “These girls think, ‘I can’t be touched,’”
Rifkin explained. “Well, 17 girls thought that, and now they’re dead.”
notwithstanding, Rifkin had no luck in his bids to escape solitary
confinement. By unanimous decision, a New York appellate court refused
to lift the lockdown in June 2000. Days later, Rifkin was transferred
from Attica to the Clinton Correctional Facility at Dannemora--long
known as the “Siberia” of New York prisons, isolated in the Adirondack
Mountains, 350 miles north of Manhattan. On December 14, 2001, Rifkin
lost his latest appeal of his conviction. Despite finding that Wexner
should have excluded Rifkin’s confession to the Bresciani murder--an
argument pursued in vain for five years--the appellate court found
“overwhelming” evidence establishing his guilt and refused to overturn
any part of his sentence.
Garden of Graves. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
From the Mouth of the Monster. New York: Pocket Books, 2001.
Pulitzer, Lisa, and
Joan Swirsky. Crossing the Line. New York: Berkley Books, 1994.