Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Joel David Rifkin: New York's Most Prolific Serial Killer


Rifkin arrived at Attica state prison in February 1996, sporting a black eye from his first assault by fellow inmates while confined on Rikers Island. Prison was an exaggerated replay of high school, with constant threats and taunts from other convicts. Although never housed in the prisons general population, Rifkin created enough disruption by his mere presence that administrators moved him into IPC--involuntary protective custody--where prisoners spend 23 hours a day confined to their Spartan cells.

Aside from books and magazines (no more than 10 per isolation cell), Rifkin had lawsuits to amuse himself. The Orvieto family sued him first, on a civil count for Lorraines wrongful death, and Rifkin responded with a snide handwritten brief, branding his victim an AIDS carrier who may be responsible for the eventual deaths of numerous individuals, crediting her relatives for shared responsibility in what might have been. Next, in November 1997, it was Rifkins turn to sue prison officials and the New York Daily News for branding him HIV-positive. According to Rifkins complaint, the reports prompted a series of inmate assaults that he suffered in January and February 1996, leading to his confinement in a solitary cell for personal safety.

The next time Rifkin made headlines, in April 1998, the news involved sale of his artwork at the New York State legislatures office building in Albany as part of a program to compensate crime victims. Fifty percent of the proceeds from sales were earmarked for New Yorks Crime Victims Board, with inmate artists retaining the rest. Most of Rifkins 20 paintings and sketches depicted wildlife or flowers, but one--titled Guardians Failure--showed a bare foot with a coroners toe tag and an angel weeping in the corner.

Buoyed perhaps by that effort, in August 1999 Rifkin unveiled his plans for Oholah House, a proposed shelter for prostitutes that would include drug treatment, counseling, medical care and job training. Oholah, Rifkin explained, was both the Hebrew word for sanctuary and the name of a prostitute whose violent death is described in Ezekiel 23:3-10. (In fact, the latter name is spelled Aholah.) Rifkin called his plan a way of paying back a debt, I guess, and while the idea drew praise from some quarters --including prosecutor Fred Klein-- most objected to Rifkins inclusion of a Motivation Room where residents would be scared straight with photos of hookers murdered on the job. These girls think, I cant be touched, Rifkin explained. Well, 17 girls thought that, and now theyre dead.

Good works notwithstanding, Rifkin had no luck in his bids to escape solitary confinement. By unanimous decision, a New York appellate court refused to lift the lockdown in June 2000. Days later, Rifkin was transferred from Attica to the Clinton Correctional Facility at Dannemora--long known as the Siberia of New York prisons, isolated in the Adirondack Mountains, 350 miles north of Manhattan. On December 14, 2001, Rifkin lost his latest appeal of his conviction. Despite finding that Wexner should have excluded Rifkins confession to the Bresciani murder--an argument pursued in vain for five years--the appellate court found overwhelming evidence establishing his guilt and refused to overturn any part of his sentence.

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