Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

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

Abuse Unit

He was born on January 20, 1959, the son of unwed college students who were not prepared to start a family. A childless couple from Upstate New York, Bernard and Jeanne Rifkin, adopted him on Valentines Day and named him Joel David. The Rifkins also adopted a daughter, Jan, in 1962. Three years later they moved to East Meadow, Long Island, and Joel entered first grade at Prospect Avenue Elementary School.

It was hell from day one. Something about Joel Rifkin set him apart, an undefined quality that made him an immediate outsider, natural prey to all manner of bullies. Classmates dubbed him The Turtle, after his slouching posture and slow gait. Excluded from team sports and neighborhood games, Joel was the butt of every prank and sadistic joke: bullies assaulted him in school and pulled his pants down, stole his lunch and books, and harassed him constantly. He was also an academic failure, suffering from undiagnosed dyslexia despite a tested IQ of 128.

Joels poor grades embarrassed his father, a member of the East Meadow School Board. He raged at Joel, Why cant you do anything to please me? Jeanne Rifkin shared her love of gardening and photography with Joel oblivious to his torment by peers. I thought of him as a loner, she subsequently told reporters. It didnt fully come home to me what was happening until later.

East Meadow, N.Y. High School
East Meadow, N.Y. High School

Things went from bad to worse at East Meadow High School. Except for his grades, Joel was the stereotypical nerd, in glasses and high-water pants with white socks. One of the bullies who harassed him later called Rifkin an abuse unit. He was subtly obnoxious, like his presence annoyed you. Rifkin joined the track team, in an effort to fit in, and was rewarded with the nickname lard ass. Teammates hid his clothes and shoved his head into a toilet bowl. Instead of fighting back, Rifkin invited them to watch TV and drink beer at his house. We used him, to be blunt about it, one of them recalled, years later. He was easy to make fun of.

1977 yearbook photo of Joel Rifkin
1977 yearbook photo of Joel Rifkin

A failure in athletics, Rifkin joined the yearbook staff, and promptly had his camera stolen. Undeterred, he slaved to put the senior yearbook out, but he was excluded from the year-end wrap party. That left him absolutely devastated, in his mothers words, but there were other compensations. Joels parents gave him a car that year, and he used it to troll for prostitutes, first in nearby Hempstead, later in Manhattan. According to Robert Mladinich in From the Mouth of the Monster, Joels  fantasies included some bondage and some rape, plus a gladiator type thing with two girls that would fight to the death. In some daydreams he raped and stabbed women, but his fantasy victims were silent, just passive about it. After a 1972 viewing of Alfred Hitchcocks Frenzy, loosely based on Londons Jack the Ripper homicides of 1964-65, he fixated on strangling prostitutes.

Real-life romance eluded Rifkin, for the most part. One high school date was scuttled after fellow track team members trapped him in the gym and pelted him with eggs, forcing Joel to call his father for help. Another time, Rifkin made it as far as a local pizza parlor with his date, but the same bullies chased them out, pursuing the couple on foot until Joel and the girl found refuge in a public library.

Graduating near the bottom of his class in 1977, Joel Rifkin looked forward to college and adulthood. Life could only get better, he reasoned.

But the worst was yet to come.

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