New York State's most prolific serial killer might not have been discovered on a hot summer night 25 years ago if the license plate on his pickup truck had not fallen off, authorities say.
It was, as Joel Rifkin said later, a 25-cent part that brought him down, but it caught the eye of two troopers patrolling the Southern State Parkway.
“They initiated a traffic stop and a high-speed chase ensues,” said Eugene Corcoran, then the State Police lieutenant who supervised the investigation. He is now the district executive for the federal courts in the Eastern District of New York. The chase covered about 20 miles through Nassau before Rifkin, a landscaper living with his mother and sister in East Meadow, hit a utility pole on Old Country Road in Mineola. The odor from the truck was immediately overwhelming, Corcoran said, and troopers peeked in the back to see what was under a tarp.
“They could see part of a hand and the head” of Rifkin’s final victim. Corcoran had troopers take Rifkin to Troop L, located then on the grounds of Republic Airport in East Farmingdale — where Rifkin was headed that night to bury that body.
In interviews this month, investigators and lawyers shared their memories of the case that stunned Long Island 25 years ago, and the effects it had on their lives.
Fred Klein, the major offense prosecutor on call, drove to the scene. Before the day was done, Rifkin, now 59, had written out a detailed description of how he had murdered 17 women who were working as prostitutes. He gave names when he knew them, dates, where he picked them up and, crucially, where he had dumped the bodies.
His guide enabled police all over the metropolitan area to find bodies they didn’t know existed or to explain how and why bodies had been found earlier. Rifkin had been bludgeoning or strangling women for five years, dismembering some of them.
Rifkin did not respond to a request sent to him at Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate Dannemora for comment for this story. Family members of his victims either could not be reached or declined to comment.
The discovery of a serial killer on Long Island came in the midst of a year dominated by bizarre and disturbing stories here – it began with 10-year-old Katie Beers still captive in an underground dungeon and ended with Colin Ferguson shooting dozens of commuters going home on an evening train, killing six of them. In its year in review, Newsday described 1993 as “Long Island’s own annus horribilis — the year that violence, abuse, bloody mayhem and sexual perversion tore at the fabric of Nassau and Suffolk Counties’ suburban life.”
The night he was arrested, Rifkin told troopers where he had picked up the woman found in his truck, Tiffany Bresciani, 22, of Louisiana, and how he had killed her, but troopers wondered if he’d done this before, Corcoran said.
“Is there more than one? Is there less than 10?” they asked Rifkin, Corcoran said. He admitted dumping two women’s bodies in Suffolk County, but troopers continued to question him, Corcoran said.
“He kind of leaned back and said, ‘One or 100, what’s the difference?’” Corcoran said. Rifkin then asked for paper, a pen, a map and a calendar, and wrote out a list of 17 victims, how he killed them and where he left them.
With Rifkin’s detailed confession, investigators got to work. Police searched his mother’s home and discovered a room full of evidence — driver's licenses of victims, their underwear, their jewelry and other trophies Rifkin had kept.
Some of the bodies already found had not been classified as homicides, Klein said. They were so decomposed that no signs of violence were visible, and medical examiners had mistakenly concluded that some had died of drug overdoses, he said. Within weeks, Rifkin faced murder charges not only in Nassau but in the numerous other counties where he had dumped other victims.
The confession and the evidence collected from Rifkin’s bedroom left him boxed in as his first trial approached in Nassau. His trial lawyer, John Lawrence of Mineola, planned an insanity defense, but that allowed Klein to introduce evidence of all of Rifkin’s murders.
Lawrence said preparing for hearings and the trial with Rifkin was bizarre.
“That was an experience, because Joel — aside from the pathological issues — had some smarts about him,” Lawrence said. They talked about trial strategy and how to present his case. But other times, Lawrence said his client made him uncomfortable.
“There were times he would come up with things about the afterlife, or an energy flow” he detected leaving his victims, Lawrence said.
Before the trial, Lawrence said, Rifkin established a better rapport with the prosecution psychiatrist, serial killer expert Eliot Park Dietz, than he did with his own mental health expert, forensic psychologist Barbara Kirwin of Huntington. Rifkin told Dietz in detail how he planned his killings, how he avoided detection, how he got sexual gratification from both the killings and the victims’ personal effects — much to Lawrence’s dismay.
He said he told Rifkin, “This is someone who is not trying to work with you and help you. This is someone who’s trying to show you to be a sadistic killer.”
After Rifkin was convicted in Nassau, he was sent to Suffolk where he faced two murder charges.
There, Rifkin testified himself in a pretrial hearing to contest that his confession was voluntary. He said he had demanded an attorney 20 times.
Michael Ahearn, then the chief of the Suffolk district attorney’s Homicide Bureau, recalled how Rifkin continually corrected him during cross-examination. If Ahearn got the location wrong of where he picked up a victim, he said Rifkin “became indignant . . . What it gave me was that he liked to be in control."
Rifkin planned to offer a defense in Suffolk that being adopted made him what he was, but ultimately he ended the case with the first of numerous guilty pleas to his crimes.
By the time Rifkin was done taking guilty pleas throughout the area, he had been sentenced to 203 1/3 years to life in prison. He is now in Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, near the Canadian border.
For the key players in the case, contact with Rifkin was life altering.
Klein became chief of Nassau’s Major Offense Bureau soon afterward. Corcoran said it played a role in his promotion from lieutenant to captain.
Lawrence said he paid an enormous toll, starting with the day of the conviction. He said he sat in his car outside his home for an hour and a half, listening to Frank Sinatra. He was still so tense when he got out of his car that he said he sprained his back.
“It did change me personally,” he said. “I was completely numb. In many ways, it was almost like a tsunami.”
Ahearn said Rifkin’s lack of concern for his victims haunted him for years — and still does.
“You just wonder about how someone could do what he did and not have any feeling for it,” Ahearn said. “Revenge, jealousy — usually there’s some human connection [in a murder]. He never really displayed that. It was really unnerving.”
The victims who have been identified, from past Newsday coverage:
- Heidi Balch, 25, of New York City, was Rifkin's first known victim.
- Anna Lopez, 33, of Brooklyn, was a mother of three daughters who struggled with drug addiction, according to her own mother.
- Jenny Soto, 20, of Brooklyn, dropped out of high school and had turned to prostitution to support a drug habit, family members said.
- Iris Sanchez, 25, Manhattan.
- Lorraine Orvieto, 28, Stony Brook. She graduated from Ward Melville High School and was a college graduate.
- Mary Ellen DeLuca, 22, of North Valley Stream.
- Violet O’Neill, 21, of Manhattan had been living with her grandmother in Manhattan when she was last seen on July 18, 1992.
- Leah Evens, 28, of Brooklyn, was a mother of two. Her body was found in May 1992 by a Korean family hunting for dandelions in the woods off County Road 51 in Southampton. She was the daughter of a civil court judge and attended Sarah Lawrence College for two years.
- Maryann Hollomon, 39, lived at the Regina Residence Hotel in the East Village.
- Yun Lee, 31, lived on Pearl Street in Manhattan, where Rifkin said he picked up many of his victims.
- Barbara Jacobs, 31, of Queens.
- Mary Catherine Williams, 31, of Kew Gardens, had come to New York from Charlotte, N.C., hoping to become an actress. She was a high school homecoming queen, a gymnast and a cheerleader at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. But after her marriage fell apart, she became addicted to crack cocaine and turned to prostitution to support her habit.
- Lauren Marquez, 28, Sunnyside, Queens, was the mother of two children. She was found in Westhampton.
- Julie Blackbird, 31, originally from Texas.
- Tiffany Bresciani, 22, left her home in Metairie, Louisiana, a New Orleans suburb, and headed first to Los Angeles and then New York. She was an only child who hoped to become a singer or an actress. But a drug problem led her to topless dancing and prostitution.