Twenty-four years after Long Island serial killer Joel Rifkin murdered his first victim and left her dismembered body scattered across two New Jersey towns, police say they have finally identified her.
Rifkin's first victim was Heidi Balch, 25, a New York City woman. Rifkin, New York State's most prolific serial killer, left her head at the seventh hole of the Hopewell Valley Golf Club and her legs in Jefferson Township.
"Using DNA evidence, we were able to identify the woman's remains," said Sgt. Brian Polite of the New Jersey State Police Wednesday. The case was hampered by the condition of her body and the fact that her family didn't initially report her missing.
Rifkin, 54, formerly of East Meadow, is serving 203 1/3 years to life in prison. After he was pulled over near Republic Airport in East Farmingdale with the decomposing body of Tiffany Bresciani in the back of his pickup truck, he admitted strangling 16 other women who worked as prostitutes in New York City.
Rifkin told police he had killed Balch in 1989. He has not been charged with Balch's slaying and police have said he probably will not be this long after the fact.
When Rifkin told police about this killing, he said he knew her only as "Susie," and that he dismembered her and knocked out all of her teeth to make identifying her difficult. He dismembered several of his other victims, too, often doing so in his mother's house in East Meadow.
Rifkin was convicted of Bresciani's murder in Nassau County, and then pleaded guilty to several other murders in other jurisdictions.
State Police Det. Sgt. Stephen Urbanski said Balch worked as a prostitute in New York City, using several aliases and Social Security numbers.
"It's very rare that you have a story like this," Urbanski said. "The first thing is to ID the body, and then you move on with the investigation, you look at acquaintances and things like that. In this one, the answers were there all along, we just had to put them together."
Urbanski said the search for Balch's killer led to New York, where investigators focused on a prostitute who had assumed the name Susan Spencer -- and about 15 other names. Some of the bogus Social Security numbers she had used were traced to Ohio and Florida, so Urbanski went to those states to check missing persons reports.
Finally, investigators learned the woman had once used the name Heidi Balch, who had been listed as a missing person in New York by her aunt in 2001. Even that discovery was complicated by the revelation that the last sighting of Balch was in 1995, six years after the remains were found on the golf course. Urbanski said it was later revealed Balch's aunt hadn't actually seen her niece, but that someone had mistakenly told her they had seen Heidi.
The big break came this month when Balch's aunt identified her niece from an arrest photo of Susan Spencer. Subsequent DNA tests of Balch's mother and father, who live in Maryland and Florida, respectively, confirmed the identification.
Asked whether the Nassau district attorney would prosecute Rifkin for Balch's death, John Byrne, a DA spokesman said: "It's far too early to comment as to make those determinations. We are still very much in the fact-finding stage."Balch's parents "expressed shock," Urbanski said. "They knew in their hearts something bad had happened to her, but not to this extent. I don't think they ever imagined she was the first victim of Joel Rifkin." Urbanski said state police are in the process of reviewing cases of unidentified bodies found in New Jersey from the time Balch's remains were found up until Rifkin's arrest. With AP