MINEOLA, LONG ISLAND — On June 28, 1993, Joel Rifkin, the unemployed landscaper who had killed 17 women and was driving around with one of their corpses in the back of his truck, was arrested.
State troopers, after noticing Rifkin’s vehicle didn’t have a license plate, pursued him on the Southern State Parkway in his 1984 Mazda pickup in what witnesses described as a “slow speed chase.” It ended when Rifkin crashed into a utility pole in Mineola, Long Island. When officers pulled back a blue vinyl tarp, they were horrified to find a body.
Rifkin immediately confessed to police that he killed the woman — and 16 others. Eventually, Rifkin would be described as the most prolific serial killer in the history of New York.
The woman found in his truck was Tiffany Bresciani, a prostitute who was also the girlfriend of punk band Reagan Youth‘s singer Dave “Insurgent” Rubenstein. Both Bresciani and Rubenstein struggled with heroin addiction, and Bresciani had been working the streets of the Lower East Side to support their habits. Soon after Bresciani was discovered to have been murdered by Rifkin, Rubenstein committed suicide.
Rifkin’s MO was picking up prostitutes for sex, and then killing his victims by suffocating or strangling them.
Rifkin was able to give the troopers detailed information on the victims. He discussed how he favored white, Latina, and Asian women, and how he got rid of the bodies by putting them in oil drums and dumping them in the Hudson and Harlem rivers. He also recalled dumping one woman’s body in a creek, and another in a town dump in Westchester.
When the cops were able to search Rifkin’s room at his mother’s house, they found numerous trophies such as underwear, jewelry, makeup, and wallets that could be connected to unsolved murders. In the garage they found a chain saw and other tools coated with human blood and flesh.
Rifkin came from a prominent family: He was the adopted son of the late, respected East Meadow school board vice president, Bernard Rifkin.
However he struggled academically, and was described a a shy child who believed that he was a disappointment to his very intelligent father. He was also bullied by his classmates and excluded from events due to his appearance and poor social skills, which led to him isolating himself even more. He reportedly immersed himself in reading about serial killers and watching films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, in which he could watch women being strangled.
Once in college, he gained some independence when his parents gifted him a car. He used it to troll Manhattan for prostitutes.
In March 1989, he made his first kill. After inviting a woman — later identified through DNA as Heidi Balch — back to his family home, Rifkin had sex with her, and then suffocated her. He then removed her teeth and, using an X-Acto knife, dismembered her body into six parts which he distributed in different areas throughout Long Island, New York City, and New Jersey.
After his detailed descriptions of his crimes, Rifkin’s guilt was never in doubt, but at trial, his lawyer claimed that he was legally insane. But the prosecution’s expert witness described the 34-year-old as a sadist and necrophiliac who even as a child was fascinated by strangulation.
Jurors voted unanimously on their first ballot that he was guilty of murder, agreeing that he did not meet the legal definition for insanity because he knew what he was doing when he strangled his victims, and knew it was wrong. Prosecutors claimed that Rifkin knew that he was a serial killer, and had studied books on police procedures so that he could attempt to outsmart police.
Rifkin was found guilty of nine counts of second degree murder in 1994 and sentenced to 203 years to life in prison. He is currently behind bars at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York.
He has also been named as a suspect in the Gilgo Beach murders, attributed to “LISK,” or the Long Island Serial Killer. In an April 2011 prison interview with Newsday, Rifkin denied having anything to do with the Gilgo murders. But experts and victims’ rights advocates, however, say Rifkin’s statements have no value.
Main photo: Joel Rifkin [Nassau County Police Department]