Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Joel David Rifkin: New York's Most Prolific Serial Killer

The Gardener

New York state troopers Sean Ruane and Deborah Spaargaren were patroling Long Islands Southern State Parkway at 3:15 a.m. on June 28, 1993, when they spotted a Mazda pickup truck with no rear license plate. When flashing red lights failed to stop the driver, they used the loudspeaker, ordering the driver to halt. But he accelerated, speeding down the next off-ramp, into the streets of Wantagh.

The wild chase was on. Ruane and Spaargaren called for backup as they pursued their quarry at nearly 90 miles an hour. Five more patrol cars joined the convoy, sirens wailing, before the Mazdas driver missed a turn in Mineola and crashed his truck into a telephone pole at 3:36 a.m. He offered no resistance as police removed him from the pickup, frisked him for weapons and removed an X-acto knife from his pocket.

The drivers license identified him as 34-year-old Joel David Rifkin, residing on Garden Street in East Meadow, Long Island. He was generally unkempt, and a thick layer of Noxema was smeared across his mustache. When told his truck had no rear license plate, Rifkin assured the officers it had been present when he left his home, some 40 minutes earlier. He had no explanation for the wild flight to avoid a minor traffic ticket, but the cause of Rifkins panic was revealed a moment later.

Drawn to the pickups bed by a foul odor, troopers peeled back a blue tarp and found a womans naked, decomposing corpse. She appeared to have been dead for several days. That explained Rifkins use of Noxema. It was a trick for handling corpses, to avoid their stench, portrayed by Hollywood two years earlier in the Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs.

Joel Rifkin after his arrest
Joel Rifkin after his arrest

When asked about the body, Rifkin said, She was a prostitute. I picked her up on Allen Street in Manhattan. I had sex with her, then things went bad and I strangled her. Do you think I need a lawyer?

Rifkin was booked at Hempstead, where homicide detectives launched a marathon interrogation. Officers staked out the house in East Meadow, where Rifkin lived with his sister and elderly mother. A telephone call from police told 71-year-old Jeanne Rifkin that her son had been detained after a traffic accident. The rest would be revealed to her on television, hours later, when detectives laid the outline of their case before the media.

Rifkins victim was identified as Tiffany Bresciani, a 22-year-old Louisiana native, tricking in Manhattan the past two years to feed her drug habit. During questioning, Rifkin described her death in clinical detail, but his emotional detachment was not the worst part of the confession. The murder, detectives gathered, was not his first.

Bresciani was number 17, Rifkin said.

Rifkin's house in East Meadow
Rifkin's house in East Meadow

It was nearly 8 p.m. when authorities presented Jeanne Rifkin with a search warrant, scouring her two-story house for evidence against the man who appeared to be New Yorks most prolific serial killer. When they left, six hours later, the searchers carried off at least 228 items (one report claimed there were more than 1,000) linked to Rifkins four-year murder spree. His upstairs bedroom yielded 75 pieces of womens jewelry, photographs Rifkin had taken of several unidentified women, various items of feminine clothing, makeup cases, a womans curling iron, wallets and pocketbooks, plus a mixed bag of ID cards. One drivers license belonged to Mary DeLuca, found dead in Cornwall, New York, in October 1991. Another belonged to Jenny Soto, fished out of the Harlem River in November 1992. Rifkins bedroom reading material included a book on the unidentified Green River Killer and news clippings about the case of New York serial slayer Arthur Shawcross.

In Rifkins cluttered garage, detectives followed their noses to a reeking wheelbarrow, extracting three ounces of human blood. A pair of womens panties lay on the floor, near a stockpile of rope and tarp. A chainsaw found in the garage was stained with blood and bits of human flesh. Neighbors recalled strange odors emanating from Rifkins garage, but they had assumed he stored insecticides there, for use in his garden and landscaping business.

They were wrong.

It was the smell of death, and it would linger long after the source had been removed.

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