Crime File

Joel Rifkin – I Killer on the Prowl

In the fourteen years between 1989 and 1993, Joel Rifkin killed no less than 17 women, many of whom would never have been identified as his victims but for his own confession in June 1993 after he was finally apprehended by the police by chance. HEMRAJ SINGH tells the story of another serial killer.

In March 1989, a severed head was found on a golf course in Hopewell Township, New Jersey. The police managed to get a digital reconstruction of the victim’s face eventually and got to have a fair idea as to what the victim might have looked like, but that was the end of the road because the victim could not be identified. The case went cold and the victim remained unidentified for over 20 years until March 2013 when the investigators could finally piece together her true identity. She was Heidi Balch, the first victim of the infamous serial killer Joel Rifkin, who was believed to have killed no less than 17 women between 1989 and 1993.

The identification of Heidi Balch was made difficult by the fact that although she had not been seen since 1989, she had been reported missing by her aunt only in 2001. Furthermore, her aunt had said that Balch had been last seen in 1995, which later turned out to be untrue. To complicate matters further, Balch was a prostitute and a user of drugs and was known as “Susie”, in her work circle. After being caught in 1993, when Rifkin told the police that he had killed a prostitute by the name “Susie”, the search for the victim took the investigators to New Jersey, and finally led to Heidi Balch, which was when the investigators thought that one of the kill stories told by Rifkin seemed to connect him to a severed head found in Hopewell Township in 1989. Finally, over two decades later, the family of Heidi Balch got to know what really happened to her. But she was just the first of many who fell victim to Rifkin’s bloodlust.

Rifkin told the police that in March 1989 when he was cruising around in Manhattan’s East Village looking for hookers, he came across a young prostitute called “Susie” at around 10 p.m. She was a heavy drug abuser, and made him make several stops for drugs before they got back to Long Island, where they had aggressive sex. Susie started pestering Rifkin to take her out again for drugs, which infuriated him, and, instead of taking her out, he bludgeoned her to death with a heavy, blunt object. Rifkin told that he kept on hitting her until he got tired. But Susie was not dead. She fought Rifkin and bit one of his fingers deep, which angered Rifkin further and he strangled her to death. He wrapped her body in a plastic bag and cleaned up the room, and then dozed off with a dead body in the house as though it were a piece of furniture. He woke up several hours later, and took Susie’s body to the basement and dismembered it with an X-acto knife. To prevent identification, he cut off Susie’s fingertips and pulled her teeth out with pliers. He decapitated her, and stuffed her head in a paint can. He placed other body parts in garbage bags and put the bags in his mother’s car, and drove to New Jersey. He dropped Susie’s head and legs in the woods by Hopewell Township and returned to Manhattan to dump her arms and torso into the East River. Rifkin thought Susie’s body parts would be lost to nature without a trace. He was wrong.

On March 5, 1989, one of the members of Hopewell Valley Golf Club hit the ball into the woods and came across the can with Susie’s head in it. However, Susie remained unidentified for over two decades until 2013.

Born on January 20, 1959, Joel David Rifkin was adopted and raised by Bernard and Jeanne Rifkin. Bernard and Jeanne had adopted Rifkin when he was three weeks old. Some three years later, the couple adopted a daughter and settled in East Meadow, New York, which is also where Rifkin settled in and lived most of his life.

Joel Rifkin’s I.Q. stood at an above-average 128, but he had difficulties performing at schools due to severe dyslexia. He was also a shy and a rather awkward child, which made him a permanent target for the bullies. After school, he attended State University of New York at Brockport, where he also worked as a photographer for the school’s newspaper, The Stylus. He landed several odd jobs, but squandered the little money he earned on the prostitutes he had taken to visiting as regularly as his rather meager earnings permitted.

Rifkin’s adoptive father was suffering from cancer, and to end the pain caused by the illness he committed suicide in February 1987, which plunged Rifkin into severe depression. He became quite obsessed with violence and murder and his inclination towards prostitutes also mounted, which led to his arrest on August 22, 1987 for soliciting a sex worker in Hempstead, Long Island. The arrest was brief and he could manage to conceal it from his family.

In 1989, Rifkin killed a prostitute named Heidi Balch, dismembered her body and threw the body parts all over to avoid identification. She could be identified two decades later after Rifkin confessed to having killed her. After killing Balch, Rifkin kept on killing, and within the next four years he had killed over 16 prostitutes. He killed his victims in his car and sometimes also took them to his East Meadow home, which he shared with his mother and sister, and killed them there.

After killing Heidi Balch, Rifkin did not rush into a kill spree but waited for over a year instead before striking again. Some 14 months later, in late 1990, Julie Blackbird caught Rifkin’s eye for what Rifkin called her “pseudo-Madonna look”. He picked her up and drove back to his place in East Meadow. His mother and sister were out of town, so he had the house to him. The two spent the night together. In the morning, at around nine, Rifkin started hitting Blackbird with a heavy table leg and when she was down on the floor, he strangled her to death. Once she was dead, Rifkin toyed with the idea of having sex with her corpse like Ted Bundy did, but found the idea repulsive.

This time he wanted to do a better job of disposal. So, he got some cement and a large mortar pan before chopping the body to pieces. He placed the arms, legs and head in the buckets and filled them with concrete while the torso took the milk crate. He loaded the buckets in the car and drove to Manhattan, where he dropped Blackbird’s concretized arms and legs into a canal in Brooklyn and her torso and head in the East River. Blackbird’s remains were never discovered and all that is known about her death is from Rifkin’s own confession after he was apprehended and questioned.

He had managed to get away with his first murder, and as time passed, it became abundantly clear to Rifkin that he had gotten away with the second as well. He was ready for more. Rifkin got into the business of landscaping in April 1991 and rented space at a local nursery in order to store his equipment. But the business did not take off because his heart was not in it. He wanted to kill and obsessed over it. Soon enough he started using the rented space for the purpose of storing dead bodies before disposal.
Barbara Jacobs, a 31-year-old woman, who had been arrested in the past for auto theft and prostitution, was the next to fall victim to Rifkin after he picked her up on July 13, 1991, and drove her to his place in East Meadow for paid sex. When she fell asleep, the violence streak in Rifkin took over, and he drew the same heavy table leg that he had beaten Julie Blackbird with and hit Barbara Jacobs the same way before putting his hands around her throat to squeeze the life out of her. This time he did not dismember the body, but wrapped it in plastic instead, stuffed her into a cardboard box, placed her in the Toyota pickup truck belonging to her mother and drove down to the Hudson River to dump her in it near a cement plant. Hours later, firefighters on training in the vicinity discovered the body. However, the cause of death, in Jacobs’ case, was thought to be a drug overdose, and the case was closed until Rifkin confessed to having killed her. It was only thanks to Rifkin’s own confession that the truth about her death came to light.

Mary Ellen DeLuca, a 22-year-old Long Island native, was a crack addict, and was never seen alive after 11:00 p.m. on September 1, 1991, which was when she left a group of her friends and was picked by Rifkin on Jamaica Avenue in Queens. She wanted to earn some quick money for her next fix, and exactly then Rifkin needed his next victim. The duo ended up in a cheap motel, but not before Rifkin had driven her around New York and had made several stops for drugs costing $150 in all. At the motel, she demanded more of crack and was not willing to engage in sex, but agreed grudgingly, complaining all through the act. At some point, Rifkin asked her if she wanted to die, and she said an audacious ‘yes’, and Rifkin started strangling her. “She did nothing, just accepted it,” Rifkin would later recall, and called the killing “one of the weird ones”.

With the girl dead, Rifkin had a difficult problem on his hands. He could not take the body out in broad daylight. So, he went out and got a cheap steamer trunk to stuff his lifeless victim into. He drove to Orange County and left DeLuca’s body at a rest stop outside Cornwall, near West Point. The body was discovered only after a month on October 1, 1991. She was found nude save for a brassiere and had no identification on her. The body was in advanced stage of decomposition, and for that reason the cause of death was impossible to determine. She was buried, unidentified until Rifkin confessed to killing her in June 1993.
Rifkin regularly patronized many prostitutes, but did not kill any of them until he killed Yun Lee, a Korean native, on impulse in September 1991. She was the second prostitute he had picked in an hour that night, and possibly for that reason he could not have sex with her, as he failed to maintain erection. He killed her by strangling her, which was the first time he had killed someone he knew. He was slightly remorseful for killing her, and later said, “Actually, I thought I liked her.”

Rifkin still had the trunk he had used to carry DeLuca’s body. He placed Lee’s corpse in the same trunk and dropped her into the East River. The body was found floating past Randall’s Island at the mouth of Harlem’s River on September 23, 1991. Her body was identified by her husband.

The name of the “number six” slipped off Rifkin’s re-collection. She was killed a few days prior to the Christmas of 1991 after Rifkin picked her from West 46th Street in Manhattan. She performed oral sex on him and while she was at it, Rifkin strangled her to death. Rifkin told that it was all “very quick”. He drove to Long Island with the body beside him, and placed her under a tarp at his workplace. Later, he drove the body to a recycling plant in Westbury and got a 55-gallon oil drum to place her in. He then drove to the South Bronx, where Rifkin rolled the drum with the unknown victim in it into the East River. But before he could leave, he was spotted by patrolmen who suspected him of illegal dumping. However, it was quite a junkyard there, and Rifkin could persuade the officers that he was there collecting junk. They let him off with a warning knowing little that they had just let a serial killer walk away.

…to be continued

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