Joel Rifkin: An oral history of a Long Island serial killer Copy

Twenty-five years after his arrest, a look at a case that stunned America, as told by the people who lived it.

State troopers escort Joel Rifkin from Troop L headquarters in Farmingdale on June 28, 1993, the day of his arrest. Photo credit: John Paraskevas

When state troopers signaled for the 1984 Mazda pickup truck to pull over on the Southern State Parkway in the wee hours of June 28, 1993, they thought it would be a routine stop for a vehicle driving with no license plates.

They had no idea that the driver, unemployed landscaper Joel Rifkin of East Meadow, had a body in the back of the vehicle, or that within hours he would confess to 16 more murders.

Twenty-five years after an arrest that shocked Long Island, Newsday looks back at Rifkin’s story as told through the voices of those who lived it – the day of his arrest, his early years growing up here, his crime spree and his ensuing trials and imprisonment.

In the end, Rifkin was convicted of nine murders and was sentenced to more than 200 years in prison.

The following is compiled from Newsday’s original reporting between 1993 and 1995, unless otherwise indicated.


The day of the arrest

At approximately 3 a.m. on June 28, 1993, state troopers saw a Mazda pickup truck driving east on the Southern State Parkway without a license plate. Trooper Sean Patrick Ruane testified that as they tried to get the vehicle to pull over, the driver led police on a 25-minute chase, reaching speeds of up to 90 mph.

Rifkin ultimately crashed into a utility pole on the corner of Old Country Road and Washington Avenue in Mineola, and as police approached, he reportedly put his hands up and surrendered.

Rifkin, at the scene talking to the troopers as he surrendered, according to later testimony, said: “I know I had a plate on when I left. It’s always a 25-cent part.”

After handcuffing Rifkin, Ruane said that he and other officers walked to the back of the van and shined flashlights on what looked like something in a blue tarp. That’s when they found the body.

Det. Sgt. Gregory Quinn, who was in a patrol car with Rifkin at the time, according to court testimony: “[I said], What’s going on? [Rifkin said] ‘Give me a minute.’ Rifkin took a deep breath. “He said, ‘I picked up this girl on Allen Street in the city . . . She was a prostitute and I was going to have sex with her.’ I said, ‘What happened?’ He said, ‘Things went bad and I strangled her.’ “

Later reports indicated that Rifkin had been on his way to Republic Airport in Farmingdale to dispose of the remains. Instead, police took him to the state police headquarters there for interrogation, and Rifkin would soon reveal that he was behind at least 16 other killings.

Tom Capers, a senior state police investigator who interviewed Rifkin on the day he was arrested: “He said he would need maps, a calendar, a pen and paper, and he would write it all down for us. He wrote for approximately an hour. When he finished writing, we went over the list that he had prepared.”

In a scribbling kind of handwriting, Rifkin detailed his crimes, the victims and, in some cases, where police could find the bodies.


The early years

Joel Rifkin was born Jan. 20, 1959. He was adopted by Bernard and Jeanne Rifkin as an infant, as was a younger sister, Jan (no blood relation to Joel). The family moved from Rockland County to East Meadow about 30 years before the killings. Shortly after moving into their new home, the Rifkins enrolled Joel in kindergarten and discovered that he had dyslexia.

Hal Reiter, an East Meadow neighbor: “He was a gentle, courteous kid.”

A family friend in East Meadow: “There were problems tied to Joel’s learning disability, and just getting him to understand the importance of learning. There was always a concern for him, but there was a great deal of compassion, too. I mean, they were great parents.”

A source familiar with Rifkin’s schoolwork: “There was external abuse from peer groups, kids were taunting him, he had difficulty with school work, couldn’t focus, didn’t finish his work, just couldn’t seem to learn.”

A former classmate, describing Rifkin during his senior year of high school: “[He was] low functioning, very bland, very introverted. He blended into the background. He just didn’t fit in. He saw it as his lot in life. . . I remember him not being invited to the end-of-the-year summer party.”

Frances Parisi, one of Rifkin’s teachers at East Meadow High School: “His family was so community-minded . . . I never knew a more loving family. A finer family you could not find.”

Mark Vangasteren, who was on the cross country team with Rifkin: “We used him, to be blunt about it. He was easy to make fun of. He would usually laugh, even if we were being really cruel. . . . Look, it’s not something I’m proud of, but that’s how it was.”

After high school, he attended Nassau Community College for one semester, then SUNY Brockport for two years. It was during his time at Brockport, according to sources, that he began patronizing prostitutes; dating had become difficult in high school because of what one friend called a “stigma” about being seen with him.

Shortly thereafter, Rifkin briefly dated a woman from Long Island; friends said it seemed he was in love for the first time.

The woman: “[He was a] “sweet boy … Our first date he told me he was adopted. I asked him if he wanted to find his real parents, and he said he had his real parents, he didn’t have to search any further. … [by the spring]he was depressed and not very motivated. He never got the grades. He didn’t work hard at all and he didn’t attend all his classes. I knew his parents were upset, because Joel didn’t want to go back. He wanted to live the lie and stay on campus. When he knew he had to go home, he told me his parents were going to be very disappointed. We were sitting in the parking lot, and he was talking about his parents’ reaction and what he was going to do with his life.”

The two broke up when Rifkin moved back to East Meadow. In 1980, he went back to Nassau Community College briefly, then worked a number of odd jobs. Friends also said he spent a large amount of time driving around the suburbs, or into the city, often late at night.

A friend who saw Rifkin around 1983: “I thought to myself, Joel still doesn’t know what to do with his life.”

Later that year, Rifkin moved out of the East Meadow house and into a tiny apartment near Levittown. He had a $5-an-hour job in a baby furniture store on Old Country Road, and had saved enough to afford the $400-a-month rent on the apartment.

Glen Stolfi, a friend who lived with Rifkin during the summer of 1984: “Joel wanted to be independent. But we were both very introverted. We didn’t hang out with girls. We didn’t get a second glance from girls. He could not start a conversation with a woman. We went to the movies. We listened to the Moody Blues, the Grateful Dead, Simon and Garfunkel. Once we played backgammon for 13 hours straight. … I don’t believe he was ever made to feel like he was integrated with the world. I know what that feels like. … If he promised he was going to do something for you, he would do it. He’s the most mild-mannered person you could know . . . I trusted Joel Rifkin as much as I trust my girlfriend or my mom and dad.”

Rifkin moved back to East Meadow by 1985, and later enrolled at the State College of Technology at Farmingdale in 1987 and attended on and off until May 1992 without completing most of his terms.

In 1987, Joel Rifkin’s father, Bernard, who had been suffering from prostate cancer, was found unconscious in their East Meadow kitchen after a suicide attempt. He died four days later in the hospital.

From Joel Rifkin’s eulogy for his father in 1987, according to friends: “Though my father did not give me life, he gave me love.”

A family friend on the eulogy: “Joel was very composed. … he referred to the fact that he was an adopted son, which a lot of people didn’t know. He seemed to rise to the occasion.”

Robert Kushner, a friend of Bernard Rifkin: “His dad’s death was a very tough time for Joel. I know Jeanne spent an enormous effort with Joel after Ben’s death. She did everything to help him.”

Rifkin briefly moved out of his mother’s house after the funeral, but moved back in a few weeks later. He also continued seeing prostitutes, often meeting them on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in Hempstead, or along Route 110 in Suffolk County. In August 1987, he was arrested for soliciting an undercover policewoman and paid a $250 fine.


The crimes

Nassau Assistant District Attorney Fred Klein said the first victim was a female prostitute that Rifkin strangled. Afterward, he slept for six hours. He later dismembered her body and dumped the body parts in New Jersey, according to testimony. She wasn’t positively identified until 2013, when it was confirmed she was Heidi Balch.

Eighteen months went by until Rifkin killed again. Then there were at least 15 more from 1991 to 1993, often with the same patterns.

Rifkin, in 1999: “I still don’t understand why … There were nights I’d be with more than one girl. One girl would walk away fine; the other would end up dead. I don’t know why. … A lot of the feelings you get with [prostitutes] is total worthlessness … They see themselves as being incapable of being loved. Their only experiences with men are abusive. … These girls think, ‘I can’t be touched,'” he said. “Well, 17 girls thought that. And now they’re dead.”

A prostitute who identified herself as Charlotte Webb and had seen Rifkin a few times was informed after the arrests that her name had been found at Rifkin’s home: “Oh, my God. It could have been me … I’ve got to get out of this business … Some guys get rough. I never had an inkling with him, that’s what was so scary. He was just a mellow, nerdy guy. It’s always possible with these quiet, nerdy types but I never, ever suspected it with him. … He’d give me $40 or $50 up front, so I could buy drugs. I wouldn’t rip him off, like some girls might. Then I would always talk to him, sometimes for a half-hour or more, afterwards. He said he liked me, I guess that’s why I’m still alive. … Joel Rifkin, he was normal with me but he would drive and drive a whole lot before he picked a girl. Those are the guys that you always have to be careful with.”

Rifkin also had a habit of keeping mementos from his victims; among the items seized by police from his bedroom were women’s clothing, rolls of film and more than 75 pieces of jewelry and a brown wallet belonging to Jennie Soto, 22, whose body was found on the shore of the Harlem River in the Bronx. They also seized multiple items from the garage.

Dr. Helen Morrison of Chicago, who has researched serial murderers for 20 years, on the mementos: “They’re more than souvenirs. They are almost a living proof that he really has had this contact with these individuals. A piece of something is equivalent to the humanity of the victim. They are actual symbols. They’re interchangeable with the victim.”

Rifkin’s final murder – Tiffany Bresciani, who was in the back of his Mazda when he was arrested – occurred after Rifkin picked her up on June 24, 1993.

Rifkin: “Things went badly.”

Tom Capers, a senior state police investigator who interviewed Rifkin on the day he was arrested: “He didn’t know why [he strangled her].

Rifkin told State Police he did not try to dispose of the body for days. The body stayed in the trunk when he drove his mother to her job at Nassau County Medical Center. When he returned home, he took the body out of the trunk and dumped it in a wheelbarrow in the garage. That weekend, according to a family friend, Rifkin worked on his trucks. Klein said that on June 28, after waiting for his mother and sister to fall asleep, Rifkin loaded the body into the Mazda and let it roll quietly out of the driveway without the motor on “so nobody can see what he’s doing because he knows it’s wrong.”

It was on that ride in that Mazda that his actions finally caught up with him.


The trial and sentencings

Rifkin appeared at his trial in Nassau County for the murder of Tiffany Bresciani.

Nassau County Judge Ira Wexner, addressing a courtroom full of 60 prospective jurors on the first day of the trial: “Anyone who feels unable to serve on this jury may stand and leave as soon as I am done talking.”

Just about everybody left – and this happened four times.

A female prospective juror who opted out: “I live by myself. I take the train late at night . . . I have a feeling this would have an effect on the rest of my life.”

Rifkin, at the trial, addressing Wexner: “I am not guilty.”

Cheryl Bresciani, the victim’s mother, on seeing Rifkin as the trial opened: “I looked for a second. He looked down. I think he’s probably ashamed. I know I would be if I had hurt humanity.”

Rifkin’s lawyers attempt an insanity defense.

Defense attorney John Lawrence, in his opening statement: “[T]he monster inside of him took control and caused him to act out in very macabre ways.”

Nassau Assistant District Attorney Klein, in his opening statement: “He got a sexual charge out of thinking about strangling young women from a young age. … The defendant is misusing and abusing the concept of mental illness in this trial because his only way out now is to fool you.”

Psychologist Dietz, testifying about the insanity defense: “So far I haven’t found a serial killer for whom an insanity defense can be supported objectively.”

Klein: “Hopefully, the facts will show the jury that the expert psychiatric testimony is really irrelevant. It’s so clear that he doesn’t meet the insanity test. He may be strange and his crimes may be bizarre, but that doesn’t equate to lack of responsibility.”

A letter Rifkin wrote to prosecution during the trial: “The defendant contends that given the bazzar [sic] nature of his numerous and severe mental infirmeties [sic], combined with the nature of the physical situations that he found himself in, further combined with lack of sleep and the external stress of sexuall [sic] inability, overbore his will in such a way that his self control was negated and his judgement as well as his appreciation for his immediate actions were not fully realized.”

Rifkin’s lawyers also explored a defense called “adopted-child syndrome” and said his Miranda Rights had been violated.

Prosecutor Michael Ahearn: “He views himself as the victim, as the person who has been put upon in this case. He used those women, he abused those women, and he ultimately took their lives.”

Testimony from psychologist Dr. Naftali Berrill, on Rifkin understanding his Miranda Rights and confession: “[He] knew very well what he was doing.”

Rifkin never took the stand. It took the jury two hours to find Rifkin guilty.

Lawrence, his defense attorney, said: “He showed no reaction whatsoever. He got up and said, ‘I’ll see you,’ and he thanked me and that was it.”

Jeanne Rifkin, who did not attend the trial, interviewed at her home after the verdict: “All I can say is, Joel has always been a very gentle person. I don’t know what happened. All I can say is, it’s a tragedy for everyone concerned. If there was a way that it could have been averted, it would have been. … He will always be my son. All those years don’t go away with the snap of a finger. … My heart goes out to [the victims and their families]. It’s a horror. It’s a nightmare that I’m not waking up from. That’s true of everybody concerned.”

Victim Leah Evens’ mother, Sue: “It is important that this man will never be able to harm anyone again.”

Prosecutor Ahearn: “He would like to think some day that he could appear before the parole board and spend the last years . . . of his life walking among the trees. Your honor, we ask that you guarantee that never happens . . . that he’s never eligible for parole and never eligible to walk among the trees.”

Bresciani’s mother, Cheryl, in a letter to the court: “Everyone has been so kind during this very hard crisis. Truly there are times I can hardly make it. I live one day at a time. I miss my daughter Tiffany very much. I yearn for her. Nothing seems to relieve this agonizing pain. I’m at God’s mercy constantly.”

Judge Wexner: “Thoughout the many weeks that you sat in my courtroom, during the pretrial hearings and the trial, you never exhibited any feeling of remorse for you actions. There is no reason whatever that you should be sentenced to anything less than the maximum amount allowable under our law. … Although you allege that the brutal, senseless and horrific murder of Tiffany Bresciani was a result of your being legally insane, a jury determined otherwise. You have been found to have knowingly committed the most heinous act one can commit against a fellow human being, the taking of a life. Every person regardless of his or her position, occupation or wealth is entitled to live. You took that right away from Tiffany Bresciani.”

He was sentenced to 25 years to life. Still, he maintained his insanity defense as he faced a trial in Suffolk for the murders of Leah Evens of Brooklyn and Lauren Marquez of Sunnyside, Queens. Word came out that Rifkin wanted to testify at his second trial, after not doing so at the first, in part to maintain that his Miranda Rights had been violated.

In a surprise turnaround, in August 1995, Rifkin changes his strategy completely and pleads guilty to the charges in Suffolk. In every other jurisdiction in which he was charged, Rifkin ultimately pleaded guilty and was sentenced in each of those jurisdictions.

Prosecutor Ahearn, questioning Rifkin on the day he pleaded guilty: “Did you know what you did was wrong and unlawful at the time?” Rifkin’s response: “Yes.”

Ahearn, in a later interview about the surprise guilty plea: “What it boiled down to is he really had nowhere to go. He didn’t have a defense left to try.”

Victim Iris Sanchez’s sister, before the Suffolk sentencing: “[He] has shown no remorse for what he has done. … For you Rifkin, you will rot in hell forever, and the rest of your life.”

Maria Alonso, mother of victim Anna Lopez: “He not only killed 17 girls, he killed 17 families.”

State Supreme Court Justice Robert Hanophy during the sentencing: “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.”

Rifkin, before sentencing for killing Sanchez in 1992: “You may all think that I am nothing but a monster, and you are right. Part of me must be. … Everyone had a theory but no one knows the real me and I have given up hoping that anyone ever will.”

Assistant District Attorney Daniel Sullivan: “Rifkin will be eligible for parole in the year 2197, which I believe will be denied.”

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