The following content contains disturbing accounts of violence, including sexual violence. Discretion is advised.
In 1989, in his family home in Long Island, Joel Rifkin’s murderous impulse bubbled up for the first time. Using a diffused artillery shell he bought at a flea market, a then-24-year-old Rifkin bludgeoned a sex worker he knew as “Susie” after having sex with her.
Rifkin smashed his victim’s head more than two dozen times, recalls Robert Mladinich, a former New York Police Department detective and author.
When Susie tried to get up, Rifkin strangled her to death. He then carried her body to the basement, where he dismembered her with a knife.
Rifkin showed no emotion when he described the horrific murder during a prison interview more than two decades ago, Mladinich tells A&E True Crime. “[Rifkin] was very dispassionate,” he says. “Just matter of fact.”
In a six-year span, Rifkin killed another 16 women in the similar manner as Susie, dumping their bodies all over New York and New Jersey.
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In 1993, Rifkin’s gruesome rampage ended with his arrest after police officers discovered his last lifeless victim in his truck. Rifkin, who became known as “Joel the Ripper” in the media, is considered one of the most prolific serial killers in New York history.
But there was one aspect of his life that made the serial killer cringe with self-loathing, says Mladinich, who wrote a biography about Rifkin in 2001 entitled From the Mouth of the Monster: The Joel Rifkin Story, based on prison interviews with Rifkin, with whom he was friends in college. As a teenager, Rifkin struggled to make friends and endured constant ridicule and bullying from classmates.
Rifkin’s Early Life
Joel Rifkin was born on January 20, 1959, to two unwed college students who gave him up for adoption. He was adopted by Bernard and Jeanne Rifkin at three weeks old. The family—which also included a daughter, Jan, adopted three years after Joel—lived in East Meadow, Long Island.
From the moment he stepped into kindergarten class, Rifkin was an outcast whose insecurities were amplified by learning disabilities, along with incessant teasing and harassment from other students. As he developed into adolescence, Rifkin’s resentment manifested into violent sexual fantasies about female classmates who rejected and mocked him, Mladinich says.
Bullies often targeted Rifkin to establish themselves as tough kids in elementary and middle school, according to Mlandinich’s book. To avoid them, Rifkin would regularly be the last student to line up for the opening bell. He would also show up late to his first class and wait until other kids had gone home when the school day ended.
In high school, Rifkin joined the track team in the hopes that being part of an athletic clique would soften the bullying he endured. Instead, his teammates picked on him too—dunking his head in a toilet bowl, stuffing a dead chicken in his mouth and filling his gym bag with eggs and shaving cream.
Rifkin believed he had gained some measure of acceptance by shooting photos for the yearbook club, according to Mladinich. But the female seniors overseeing the yearbook’s production didn’t invite Rifkin to the wrap-up party.
“He was so hurt by that,” Mladinich says. “He visibly winced when he spoke about that incident.”
The party snub, as well as having his camera stolen, had a profoundly negative effect on Rifkin.
“His mother told me that she had no idea he was being bullied,” Mladinich says. “But…the yearbook committee not inviting him [to their party] was the only time she saw him visibly shaken to his core.
Mladinich met Rifkin in the 1980s when both of them attended the same college in upstate New York. While they didn’t have classes together, the duo worked together on a paid assignment for a boxing magazine to cover a match one semester. They struck up a brief friendship, but they lost touch when Rifkin dropped out.
In addition to suffering from undiagnosed dyslexia, Rifkin stuttered, had a difficult time following instructions and was physically uncoordinated, which often frustrated his father, a structural engineer and mathematician.
“Joel wasn’t good at sports, wasn’t good at math and wasn’t good at basic learning,” Mladinich says. “Even though his father was a very patient man, he would get exasperated with his son’s academic and athletic failures. So it made Joel feel like an immense failure.”
Rifkin found refuge with his mother. “He had a very good relationship with her,” Mladinich says. “They shared hobbies of photography and gardening.”
Mark Safarik, a forensic expert and retired FBI profiler who has interviewed Rifkin and has researched his early years, said most serial killers experience some form of trauma early in life that influences their violent behavior when they reach adulthood.
“With these type[s] of offenders, they go through some kind of physical, psychological and sexual abuse,” Safarik tells A&E True Crime. “With Rifkin, clearly there was some bullying. Those around him back in those days likely perceived him as this dumb kind of guy”
Safarik believes the childhood bullying Rifkin endured may have played a role in his becoming a serial killer. “He would isolate himself and internalize these fantasies without developing strong social constructs,” says Safarik. “He turned inward.”
Rifkin’s Killing Spree, Trials and Convictions
Years after college, Mladinich believed Rifkin’s keen photographic eye must have led to a successful career behind the camera. “He was so talented, I figured he was shooting professionally for a prestigious publication,” Mladinich says. “You can imagine my surprise when he got arrested.”
At the time, Rifkin was a 34-year-old unemployed landscaper living with his mom and sister. His father committed suicide in 1987. On June 28, 1993, Rifkin fled a traffic stop for driving without a license plate and crashed into a pole. In the truck’s bed, police found a woman’s decomposing body wrapped in a blue tarp.
The same night, Rifkin confessed to murdering 17 sex workers from New York City, ditching their bodies—some of which he had dismembered—in multiple locations between his home and New Jersey.
His final victim, the woman found in Rifkin’s trunk, was identified as 22-year-old Tiffany Bresciani. He had murdered her in a parking lot in Manhattan.
Ultimately, another 14 victims were also identified, including 25-year-old Susie, whose real name was Heidi Balch. Her skull was discovered in a golf course in 1989, but was not positively identified until 2013 through the help of DNA testing.
On June 9, 1994, in Nassau County Court, Rifkin was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for Bresciani’s murder, which he was convicted of the month prior, plus an additional two and one-third years for endangering the lives of the officers involved in the chase before his arrest. After a series of trials, Rifkin was convicted of a total of nine murders and was sentenced to a total of 203 years in prison. (In 2002, New York’s Supreme Court denied his appeal of the nine convictions.)
Rifkin is serving his time at Clinton Correctional Facility in New York.
When he sat down for an interview with Rifkin in 2015, Safarik wanted to probe what made the serial killer choose his victims. “For whatever reason, there were women who saw [Rifkin] several times and they were not killed,” Safarik says. “I wanted to know what was the trigger.”
During the Safarik interview, Rifkin commented that some of his victims couldn’t satisfy him or please him, and a few ridiculed him. “That caused him to make the decision that they weren’t going to live,” Safarik says. “I was struck by his lack of self-awareness about this. There was this blank stare on his face. He couldn’t really explain why he felt the way he did.”