A 'Frenzy' Of Murder: The Story Of New York Serial Killer Joel Rifkin
As a teenager, Joel Rifkin became obsessed with Alfred Hitchcock's 1972 film 'Frenzy,' about a serial killer in London who rapes and strangles women to death with a necktie.
The arrest of Joel Rifkin [Joe DeMaria/New York Post Archives /(c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images]
In the early morning hours of June 28, 1993, two New York state troopers noticed a pickup truck driving with no license plates on a highway on Long Island, New York. The troopers pulled behind the vehicle, flashed their lights, and figured they would pull over the driver and write a ticket for a small infraction. Little did they know that this would be anything but a routine traffic stop.
The man behind the wheel of the truck was Joel Rifkin, and a lifetime filled with disappointment and rage had reportedly contributed to turning him into the most prolific serial killer in New York’s history. After a short pursuit between the troopers and Rifkin ended and the contents of Rifkin’s truck were discovered, the entire world would soon learn the depraved truth about the quiet man who lived a seemingly normal life in suburban Long Island.
Rifkin was born in 1959 and was adopted when he was only three weeks old. He grew up in the middle-class Long Island suburb of East Meadow with his parents and his younger sister. Rifkin was a bright child with a reported IQ of 128, but he was awkward, lacked social skills, and was routinely bullied throughout his adolescence. Classmates allegedly nicknamed him “The Turtle” due to the way he hunched over when he walked. Rifkin seemed the very definition of an outcast and he had no close friends or girlfriends.
While he was still a teenager, Rifkin became obsessed with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1972 film Frenzy, about a serial killer in London who rapes and strangles women to death with a necktie. He began to fantasize about murdering sex workers and, after his parents gave him a car, Rifkin made a habit of cruising the streets of Long Island and lower Manhattan and patronizing sex workers sometimes three or four times a week.
Rifkin graduated from high school in 1977 and decided to give higher education a shot at Nassau Community College. He also briefly moved to upstate New York to attend the State University at Brockport, but he had trouble staying focused in school and dropped out. He moved back to his parents’ home in East Meadow in the spring of 1980 and repeated the same process over the next several years: Rifkin would enroll in courses at nearby Nassau Community College and would usually then quit during the course of the semester. By 1984 he’d only earned 12 college credits.
As in childhood, Rifkin’s young adulthood was marred by isolation from his peers. And, just as he had underachieved in school, Rifkin had a hard time keeping up with work tasks at the various jobs he held between his failed attempts to attend college. One coworker at a record store reportedly said that Rifkin “couldn’t even count to ten. Every time we tried to do deposits at the end of the day he would always foul up. He couldn’t get it right.” Rifkin lived an isolated existence, but he dreamed of being a great writer. He’d spend hours by himself in his bedroom in his parents’ home, reading and attempting to write his own material, which he was rarely satisfied with.
As Rifkin’s life continued on an aimless path, his family was struck with terrible news. In the fall of 1986, Rifkin’s father, Benjamin, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. After enduring months of pain, but seldom complaining to his family, Benjamin Rifkin committed suicide in February 1987.
Joel, now 28 years old, delivered the eulogy at his father’s funeral and brought many mourners to tears with his words. He told the crowd that it didn’t matter that he was adopted. He said of his father, “He did not give me life; he gave me love.”
Things seemed to go downhill after his father committed suicide. Rifkin retreated further into himself and continued to prowl the streets of Long Island and lower Manhattan for hours at night looking for the perfect sex worker companion.
Things took a turn for the better, however, because of a chance encounter at a pizzeria in Queens. Rifkin struck up a conversation with Kathryn Mary Kelty, who was sitting at a booth writing in a notebook. Kelty told Rifkin she was working on a screenplay, and he told the woman that he too was a screenwriter. He also allegedly lied and told Kelty he was a student at NYU. The two exchanged phone numbers and a true friendship seemed to blossom. After a few months of communication, Kelty asked Rifkin to move into her Manhattan apartment under the condition that he help her edit her screenplay.
Rifkin agreed and made the move to the apartment on 49th Street, but quickly became unhappy when things with Kelty remained platonic. Rifkin attempted to move the relationship in another direction, but Kelty always rejected his advances. Kelty’s new tenant was also not working on her screenplay as promised, so she eventually grew tired of the living arrangement and thew Rifkin out.
Once again, Rifkin moved back into his old bedroom in the house in East Meadow, dejected. After a few months back home, Rifkin informed his mother of his plans to start a landscaping business and to return to school to study horticulture. But he seeemingly couldn’t resist the temptation of his long-held desire to frequent sex workers.
On August 22, 1987, he was arrested in Hempstead, Long Island, for offering a woman $20 for oral sex. He bailed himself out of jail and paid a fine. Somehow, he was able to keep news of the arrest from everyone, especially his mother.
Over the next two years, Rifkin studied horticulture and completed an internship in the field. Even though he'd dropped out of the horticulture program at SUNY Farmingdale, he finally had solid credentials and began landscaping on his own.
But Rifkin’s bloodthirsty fantasies did not subside. He continued his late-night haunts, driving through seedy areas, meticulously looking for streetwalkers. In March 1989, when he was 30-years-old, his violent fantasy world and reality collided. He waited until his mother left town on a business trip, picked up a sex worker in Manhattan’s East Village, and brought her back to his home in East Meadow.
In a fit of rage, Rifkin bludgeoned the woman, strangled her to death, and dismembered her body with an X-acto knife. To help conceal her identity, he pulled the woman’s teeth out with pliers and cut off her fingertips before dumping her body parts in different locations in New York and New Jersey. Rifkin’s first victim, 25-year-old Heidi Balch, was not reported missing until 2001 and wasn’t identified until 2013.
After years of suppressing his dark impulses, Joel Rifkin was now a murderer and there was no turning back. He waited more than a year to kill his second victim, again while his mother was out of town. Over the next three years, Rifkin repeated this process no fewer than 15 times. His modus operandi always remained the same, but his dumping methods changed over the years. Rifkin would solicit sex workers, murder them (some were dismembered), and deposit them in various locations. Some ended up in waterways around New York City, some were stuffed into oil drums and left to rot (four by Rifkin’s count), one woman was left under a mattress in a vacant lot by JFK Airport, and one innocent victim even ended up in upstate Cornwall, New York.
Although Rifkin was by now a self-employed landscaper, his business was a half-hearted venture, because he was so fixated on killing. Because Rifkin’s victims were sex workers and many of them lived their lives on the street and had drug addictions, their families were less likely to report them missing. Rifkin knew this to be the case and realized he could operate basically undetected as the list of victims grew from 1989 until 1993. The final body count, by Rifkin’s admission after his capture, stood at 17 women.
Joel Rifkin had already killed three women in 1993 when his sick, fantasy-induced murder spree came to a screeching halt, literally, on June 28. A few days prior, Rifkin had picked up 22-year-old sex worker Tiffany Bresciani on Allen Street in Lower Manhattan. Bresciani had left her native Metairie, Louisiana, at the age of 17 to become a dancer. She first went to Los Angeles and eventually ended up in New York City. Along the way, she had picked up a drug habit and had drifted into prostitution to support her addiction.
After picking up Bresciani, Rifkin drove to a secluded area where the young woman thought the two would engage in sex. Rifkin suddenly pounced on Bresciani and strangled her to death. He then drove back to his home in East Meadow and, under the cover of darkness, put Tiffany Bresciani’s body in a wheelbarrow in his garage.
A few days later, around 3 A.M. on June 28, two New York state troopers spotted a pickup truck with no license plate on Long Island’s Southern State Parkway. The troopers attempted to pull the truck over but the driver, Joel Rifkin, kept driving. The pursuit lasted for 25 minutes, but abruptly ended when Rifkin slammed his truck into a utility pole in front of the Nassau County Courthouse. The troopers approached the vehicle and noticed a foul smell coming from the bed of the truck. They investigated and saw a large object wrapped in a blue tarp. When the troopers opened the tarp, they were met with a grisly scene: a body that had decayed so badly they couldn’t even determine the race of the victim. The person wrapped in the tarp was Tiffany Bresciani.
Police questioned Rifkin and he eventually admitted to the murder and said that he was on his way to dump her body when the chase occurred. Rifkin decided not to hold back at all and he confessed, in detail, his entire history of murders that night. He told authorities about all 17 victims and drew maps showing where he had dumped their body parts. Joel Rifkin’s deadly game was finally over.
When questioned by police, Rifkin’s mother and his younger sister insisted they had no idea about Joel’s twisted secret life and said they hadn’t been in his bedroom in years. A search of the family home in East Meadow produced a treasure trove of evidence: driver’s licenses, credit cards, and bras and panties belonging to the victims.
Armed with this evidence and the confession from the night of his arrest, Joel Rifkin stood trial for multiple counts of murder. His defense attorney tried to argue that his client was legally insane, but it only took a jury two hours to find him guilty of nine counts of murder.
Rifkin was sentenced to 203 years to life in prison and he is not eligible for parole until 2197. Today, Joel Rifkin is 60 years old and serving his life sentence at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York.