New Yorks worst serial murder case of this century began 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 wasn’t speeding, but the absence of a tag was in itself a minor violation, and they turned the flashers on, prepared to write a quick citation.
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 there.
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.
Another 31-year-old 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 River.
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 blood. 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.
In early 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.