Crime File


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.

When Rifkin got back home, his mother demanded the keys to her car to go on a 30-minute shopping trip. While she drove around, Tiffany lay dead in the trunk of the car. Rifkin’s mother never got to know, and Rifkin managed to remove the body from the trunk, but somehow he was in no hurry to dispose of the body this time. For the next three days, he busied himself with getting his pickup truck in order while Tiffany’s body decomposed. The stench of rotting flesh did not seem to bother Rifkin much. Five days after killing Tiffany, on June 29, 1993, Rifkin decided to dispose of her body. He stuffed her body in his pickup truck and was driving towards Melville’s Republic Airport to dump it when state troopers, Ruane and Spaargaren, spotted his vehicle without the rear license plate on the Southern State Parkway. They signaled him to stop, but Rifkin tried to drive away. Rifkin knew instantly that he had run out of luck, and he put in his best effort to get away from the police. A high speed chase followed, which ended in Mineola, New York, when Rifkin lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a utility pole right in front the courthouse, where he would eventually stand trial and be convicted. Rifkin’s game was over, and the wheels of justice were set in motion.

There could be nothing more incriminating than a rotting dead body in the trunk, and Rifkin was promptly placed under arrest and interrogated. The homicide detectives started questioning Rifkin at around 8:25 a.m. on June 28, 1993 and continued for the next eight hours. However, they did not record the marathon questioning session for some reason. Rifkin claimed to have unsuccessfully asked for a lawyer “at least 20 times”, and his request was turned down every single time. The transcript of his interview prepared by the police indicated that he was offered the liberty to get himself a lawyer, which he declined. Rifkin gave detailed description of all 17 murders he had committed, in the absence of his counsel, and also wrote out for the detectives the names of his victims as far as he could recall. Wherever needed, he also drew maps to assist the detectives recover the bodies. He was completely dispassionate about the killings and frequently referred to them as “events” or “incidents”, and also referred to his victims by the number he would assign to them in the order of killings. So, Marry Catherine Williams was ‘Number Thirteen’, which confused the police initially leading to the count mounting to 18 instead of 17, Williams having been counted twice.

The police did not want the intervention of the lawyers before their investigation was complete because they knew well enough that if Rifkin stopped speaking on the instructions of his attorney, the truth of many deaths may never see the light of the day and the families of many dead victims may never get to know what happened to their daughters. So, the police visited Rifkin’s house in East Meadow, but did not tell Rifkin’s adoptive mother, Jeanne Rifkin, as to why her son was being held by the police. They initially told her that he had been detained in connection with a traffic accident, but later the officers told her that he had been arrested for a crime, but did not disclose the nature of the crime. However, by 9:00 a.m., the media reports cleared all her doubts and she got in touch with her lawyer, who referred her to a criminal attorney by the name Robert Sale. Sale phoned the officer holding Rifkin at around 3:30 p.m. and told them to stop questioning his client immediately, but Rifkin’s interrogation, apparently, continued at least for an hour more in the absence of Rifkin’s attorney, Mr. Sale. By the time the police was done questioning, Rifkin had spoken about the killings in great detail.

Although Rifkin had spoken freely and had told the police officers all that he could recall, his memory did fail him at multiple places, and some of the facts he narrated did not quite fit in. For instance, he said that he had killed Barbara Jacobs in August 1991 whereas her body had been found in July 1991. He had also forgotten the names of most of his victims, and referred to most of the victims by their “business names”. However, he managed to accurately tell the police where they could find the bodies of Lauren Marquez and Iris Sanchez. Their bodies were found on June 29, 1993. Julie Blackbird’s remains could not be found.

On June 29, 1993, at around 9:00 a.m., Rifkin’s attorney, Robert Sale, met his client the first time, and the first thing Rifkin told him was that the police had taken away his glasses, which had given him a terrible migraine rendering him unable to function. Sale and Rifkin appeared before Judge John Kingston half an hour later and Rifkin entered a plea of “Not Guilty” in the murder case of Tiffany Bresciani. Sale knew that Rifkin could not be released on bail. So, he did not put up a fight for it, but managed to convince the judge to postpone the formal arraignment by two weeks. Rifkin was immediately moved to the Nassau County Correctional Facility in East Meadow.

Rifkin’s trial was another interesting story. He was formally arraigned for the murder of Tiffany Bresciani on July 15, 1993, and Rifkin asserted his plea of “Not Guilty” once again. His attorney Robert Sale – also called Bob Sale – sought to have Rifkin’s confession rejected by the court as illegally acquired on the ground that Rifkin had not been advised of his rights when the police questioned him. Sale also tried to have the various murder charges consolidated and heard at Nassau County as part of a single trial. Sale seemed to think that a jury at Rifkin’s hometown might be easier to persuade to accept Rifkin’s plea of not guilty by the reason of insanity. A formal hearing on the applications moved by Rifkin was scheduled to start in November 1993, but Sale did not know that his client had different ideas. Before the next date of hearing, Rifkin fired Robert Sale as his lawyer and hired the Nassau County’s former Assistant District Attorney, Michael Soshnick, and his partner, John Lawrence.
The suppression hearing to adjudicate on the question whether or not the constitutional rights of the accused had been violated in obtaining evidence against the accused thereby entitling the accused to have the illegally and unconstitutionally obtained evidence suppressed, came up for hearing on November 8, 1993, and Soshnick and Lawrence started where Robert Sale had left off. They argued to have Rifkin’s confession thrown out. They sought the suppression of the evidence obtained by the search of Rifkin’s truck when he was stopped, for the police did not have sufficient probable cause in law to go through the contents of the truck and for that reason the search was illegal.

The hearing was still on when the Assistant District Attorney Fred Klein offered Rifkin a deal of 46 years to life in prison for all 17 murders in return of a guilty plea on all charges. Rifkin, however, was in no mood to take the deal because he was convinced that he was going to have the case thrown out on grounds of insanity. As the hearing proceeded, Rifkin’s attorneys started behaving in a manner that did not go down well with the Judge Wexner. Soshnick often appeared unprepared and arrived late repeatedly whereas Lawrence would miss hearings for days on end. By the time it was March 1994, Judge Wexner had had enough of Rifkin’s attorneys and their arguments. He was not convinced by the arguments in the least, and certainly not impressed by Rifkin’s new attorneys’ careless ways. The motions were rejected and Rifkin’s trial was scheduled to begin in April 1994. The news reached Rifkin, and Soshnick was fired on the spot. Lawrence was left alone to defend Rifkin, and the guy had no experience in conducting criminal trials.

On April 11, 1994, the jury selection commenced for Rifkin’s first trial, and a group of seven men and five women were picked from a number of potential jurors. These twelve members of the jury were to decide Rifkin’s fate in accordance with the law. The arguments opened on April 20, 1994. The prosecution, led by Fred Klein, forcefully argued that Rifkin was a sexual sadist and obtained a great deal of satisfaction from the suffering of his victims. Klein asserted that Rifkin had been “caught red-handed” and that he was now “using and abusing the concept of mental illness” to get away with murders. On the other hand, Rifkin’s attorney, John Lawrence, called Rifkin a “paranoid schizophrenic” living “in the twilight zone” with little control over his emotions, which were more of “violent, irresistible compulsions” that left no room for choice. Rifkin slept through much of prosecution’s arguments, which Lawrence blamed on his allergies to the bologna sandwiches that Rifkin had to eat in jail.
Dr. Park Dietz, who had earlier appeared for the prosecution in the high profile cases of Arthur Shawcross, Jeffrey Dahmer and John Hinckley, appeared as a prosecution witness supporting the case against Rifkin. According to him, Rifkin was “sick but not insane’ and “knew exactly what he was doing, and he did it”. Lawrence could not really put up a great fight against the testimony of the expert witness. The pile of evidence was heavily stacked against Rifkin, and the jury did not have much difficulty in arriving at a conclusion. After brief deliberation on May 9, 1994, the jury returned holding Rifkin guilty of murder and also of reckless endangerment when he made the police chase him immediately prior to his arrest. Judge Wexner awarded Rifkin 25 years to life for murder.

After the first trial was over and while the sentence was awaited, Rifkin was moved to Suffolk to stand trial for the murders of Evens and Marquez. Another suppression hearing failed to yield any favourable results for Rifkin, and when the defence of constitutional violations failed, Rifkin was not left with any patience to stand another long-drawn trial. He pleaded guilty to the slaying of Sanchez in Queens, and also pleaded guilty on three more counts of murder in Brooklyn. The victims were Orvieto, Holloman and an unnamed woman killed in 1992. By January 1996, Rifkin had already been sentenced to serve 183 years in prison for seven murders and 10 other homicide hearings were yet to commence.

The case for the suppression of evidence for constitutional violations was taken to the Supreme Court of the State of New York by Rifkin’s lawyers, but in 2002 whatever hopes they might have had were dashed when the New York Supreme Court trashed his appeals, and maintained his conviction for the murder of nine women. Joel Rifkin’s fate was thus sealed. He is currently serving a total term of 203 years to life in the Clinton, N.Y. correctional facility. As far as the possibility of parole is concerned, he will be eligible for any such relief only in 2197.


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