Though his name is not as well known as the likes of Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy, Joel Rifkin nonetheless numbers among the most prolific serial killers in American history. Sometimes known as “The Drifter,” Rifkin was eventually convicted of killing at least nine women, many of them sex workers, and may have been responsible for the deaths of as many as twice that number.
Rifkin’s early victims
As far as we know, Joel Rifkin committed his first murder in February of 1989, in his home in East Meadow, New York. His victim was Heidi Balch, and the exact method of her execution is difficult to say, because of the extreme duress under which he put her body once she was dead. He removed her teeth and fingernails, cut off her head and left it in a paint can on a golf course in Hopewell, New Jersey, then dismembered her body and disposed of her legs, arms, and torso in different places across the tri-state area.
Though much of Balch’s body was found at various times throughout 1989, her remains were not identified until 2013, and by then Rifkin had claimed many more victims. As a young man, Rifkin had struggled in school. He was unpopular, and never excelled academically, but he showed some talent for landscaping, a career that he claimed to want to pursue. While still living at home, he told his mother that he wanted to start his own landscaping business. To this end, she helped him to buy a 1978 van and a trailer. While he did undertake some landscaping contracts, the van and trailer were also put to work in his more nefarious business, claiming the lives of more than a dozen women over the next few years.
It was also under the guise of his landscaping business that Rifkin bought two more trucks and rented storage space to house the various vehicles and trailers. This rented storage space would become his hideout for his murders, and also the place where he kept trophies of each killing, usually jewelry or clothing taken from his victims.
Rifkin continued to kill…
In May of 1991, he picked up Barbara Jacobs, who was likely his second or third victim. If she was his third, then the body of his second victim has still never been found. Barbara Jacobs was, though, dead and stuffed into a garbage bag near the Hudson River. Over the course of the next year, Rifkin would claim several more victims, disposing of their bodies in a variety of ways, including a steamer trunk and a dump near the military academy at West Point.
Beginning around Christmas of 1991, Rifkin purchased four 55-gallon steel drums, ostensibly for his landscaping company. He used these to dispose of the bodies of several of his victims, dumping them into nearby rivers. When he ran out of drums, he returned to other methods, including hiding the body of one of his victims under a mattress and dismembering another, and depositing her body in a suitcase. Sometimes, he would keep the remains in his storage unit for several days before disposing of them.
All told, Joel Rifkin claimed the lives of at least nine women, and likely many more. The estimate for his murders in New York total around seventeen, and he has been compared to the prolific and unidentified Long Island serial killer known as the Craigslist Ripper, who claimed as many as eighteen victims, though Rifkin was already in prison by the time those crimes were committed.
Last known victim of Joel Rifkin
Rifkin’s last victim was Tiffany Bresciani. At the time, Bresciani was dating Dave Rubinstein, a singer, and co-founder of the hardcore punk group Reagan Youth, which sought to draw parallels between Young Republicans and Hitler Youth, while also comparing the policies of the Reagan administration and American conservatives with the beliefs of hate groups, a stance given added urgency by the fact that Rubinstein’s parents were Holocaust survivors.
By the time Rubinstein met Bresciani, however, the band had broken up, and Bresciani supported both Rubinstein and their shared drug habit through sex work. Rubinstein routinely waited up for Bresciani while she was with clients, which is how he came to identify Joel Rifkin. On June 24, 1993, Bresciani left with a “familiar” customer in a Mazda pickup truck, telling Rubinstein that she would be back in 20 minutes. When she didn’t return, he called the police with a description of the truck.
Four days later, two New York state troopers pulled over a pickup truck without a license plate. Inside, under a tarp, they found Bresciani’s body. Rifkin had kept it in his storage unit over the weekend, and was hauling it away to dispose of it when he was pulled over. Though Bresciani was dead, it was the beginning, rather than the end, of Rubinstein’s misfortune. Just two days after Joel Rifkin was arrested, Rubinstein’s mother died in a freak accident. Three days later, Rubinstein took his own life. In a way, he could be considered Rifkin’s final victim.
In 1994, Joel Rifkin was convicted of nine counts of second-degree murder, and sentenced to 203 years in prison—a sentence he is currently serving at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. During his trial, it came out that Rifkin committed his murders out of “psychosexual sadism.” He said that even before he began killing, he was obsessed with the Alfred Hitchcock film Frenzy, and would masturbate to the scenes in which women were strangled.
Since his arrest, Rifkin’s notoriety has been such that prison authorities have deemed it impractical to keep him in the general population. During the early years of his incarceration, before he was transferred to Dannemora, he spent more than four years in solitary confinement, eventually bringing a lawsuit over his treatment. Despite this, Rifkin has sometimes been consulted by newspapers for opinions about other serial killers who have haunted the same Long Island area that he also terrorized.
In 2011, he was asked by Newsday about the Long Island serial killer known as the Craigslist Ripper. “My guess,” he said, “is that it would be someone like a landscaper, contractor, or a fisherman.” A possible lead on the case, or more likely just a dark reflection of Rifkin’s own horrifying history? Since the Craigslist Ripper remains unidentified, we may never know.