Part of the fascinating A&E show The Killing Season focuses on unsolved murders attributed to the still unknown Long Island Serial Killer, referred to as LISK. Did you know that years before this there was another Long Island serial killer? This week on True Crime Corner—who is Joel Rifkin?
Little did Bernard and Jeanne Rifkin know that their adopted infant son, Joel David Rifkin, born January 20, 1959, would turn into a killer. He would be the first of two children adopted by the couple. They later brought home a daughter to complete their family.
As a youngster, Rifkin had issues in school. No matter how hard he tried to fit in, his classmates rejected and bullied him, calling him a turtle due to his posture and walk. His participation in extracurricular activities and sports wasn’t well received by his peers. As well as floundering socially, he struggled with his grades, in part due to dyslexia.
Rifkin later fixated on a fantasy of strangling prostitutes, believed in part from a movie he saw. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1972 film Frenzy, seems to have stirred a frenzy in Rifkin, one he wouldn’t act on until 1989. He also became fascinated by other men who stalked streetwalkers, notably The Green River Killer (Gary Ridgway) and New York killer Arthur Shawcross.
Rifkin often utilized the services of prostitutes, sometimes more than once in a day. He spent most of his money on them, and would even forego more important matters to spend time in their company. Lack of funds and the inability to show up for work kept him drifting in and out of his parents’ home.
One day he decided to act out his murderous fantasy. When he was sure no one was home, Rifkin brought a working girl back to his widowed mother’s house, where he bludgeoned her before strangling her. (His father Bernard Rifkin committed suicide in 1987, ending his life before his cancer was able to kill him).
To dispose of her body, he decided to first dismember it. In an attempt to assure she would remain a Jane Doe, he removed her teeth and fingertips before depositing her remains on a golf course and in a river. The head was soon discovered on the golf course property, but the first victim wasn’t identified until 2013 using DNA technology.
Although he still patronized prostitutes, a year would pass before Rifkin would claim a second victim, dispatching her in much the same way as he did the first. This time the remains were deposited into water, weighed down by concrete.
Unable to hold down a steady job, Rifkin opened his own landscaping business in the early 1990s that didn’t meet with much success. However, he still continued to murder prostitutes, storing corpses on his business property until he had time to dispose of them. He would go on to take the lives of another 15 unsuspecting women.
What led to Rifkin’s capture? He was pulled over by the police for a minor infraction—a missing license plate. At first he didn’t stop as instructed, but continued to drive until he struck a pole. The officer smelled the stench emanating from Rifkin’s pickup truck, and a body was discovered in the bed of the vehicle, wrapped for disposal at a nearby airport. Rifkin didn’t resist the officers, and was easily taken into custody.
A search of his room at his mother’s home yielded several pieces of incriminating evidence. He kept trophies from his victims including clothing, jewelry, and identification cards. Even more disturbing were the blood-stained chainsaw and wheelbarrow recovered from the garage.
No one will ever fall victim to the notorious killer again. He was sentenced to over 200 years in prison for the deaths of the seventeen women he confessed to killing from 1989 until his apprehension in 1993. All is not lost for Rifkin. Assuming he has an extremely long life span, he’s eligible for parole in 2197. Until then he remains incarcerated in New York.
Rifkin denies any involvement with the more recent Long Island murders, claiming he never deposited remains in any of the locations where bodies were recovered. He has indicated that he most likely would have continued to murder if he wasn’t caught, and still isn’t sure why he committed the crimes. He preyed upon prostitutes with drug problems, women not always reported missing, and sadly not always a top priority for investigators.
There’s an excellent book on Rifkin, From the Mouth of the Monster: The Joel Rifkin Story by Robert Mladinich. The descriptions of the crimes are so vivid that this is to date the only book where I needed to skim over a few pages. It’s very well done and I highly recommend it if you have an interest in Joel Rifkin.
Be sure to catch The Killing Season, if you’re not watching already. I’ve seen the first four episodes so far and it’s awesome.