Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

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


Rifkins first attempt at higher education took him to Nassau Community College on Long Island. Bored and restless, he cut classes habitually, completing only one course in the 1977-78 academic year. Rifkin transferred to the state university at Brockport, a Rochester suburb, in fall 1978. He enjoyed the photography club but turned in his usual lackluster academic performance over the next two years, before dropping out in 1980. Rifkin had his only real girlfriend in Brockport, but the relationship went nowhere, his paramour recalling Joel as sweet, but always depressed. Back at home with his parents, Rifkin tried Nassau Community College again, attending erratically, earning only 12 credits by the time he finally quit in 1984.

Throughout the 1980s, Rifkin worked a series of odd jobs around Long Island, seldom staying long at any. Poor hygiene, chronic absenteeism and general ineptitude blocked the road to advancement. His employer at a local music store described Joel as a total piece of work. This guy couldnt even count to 10. In his down time, idling between jobs and classes, Rifkin dreamed of becoming a famous writer, churning out fragments of bleak poetry. He maintained his interest in photography and horticulture, but failed to make either a paying proposition. Joel left his parents several times, renting small apartments, but he was never gone long, always moving home again when his latest job fell through.

In Robert Mladinich's The Joel Rifkin Story, Rifkin confessed that in those years I couldnt put two nickels together and most of what he did earn went to prostitutes. The whole focus of my life, he later said, was on the streets. Even there he proved inept, robbed by hookers or their pimps at least a dozen times. One girl duped him twice, using the same ruse both times to flee with his cash before sex.

Rifkins father was chronically ill. A heavy smoker, already afflicted with emphysema, Bernard was diagnosed with prostate cancer in fall 1986. Weary of the pain by February 1987, he took a massive dose of barbiturates and died after four days in a coma. Joel delivered a eulogy at his fathers funeral, moving the mourners to tears, and his depression deepened. He was arrested in Hempstead, in August 1987, after soliciting sex from an undercover policewoman, but he escaped with a nominal fine. Instead of keeping him away from prostitutes, the incident made him more devious.

State University of New York at Farmingdale
State University of New York at Farmingdale

In 1988 Rifkin enrolled in a two-year horticulture-study program at the State College of Technology in Farmingdale, New York. For the first time in his life, he made straight As for two consecutive semesters, rewarded by selection for an internship at the prestigious Planting Fields Arboretum in Oyster Bay, New York. 

The appointment was an honor, and it had an unexpected bonus. Joel found himself strongly attracted to one of the other interns, a pretty blond, but while he shadowed her at every opportunity, he never found the nerve to ask her out. Instead, he concocted an elaborate fantasy affair, frustrated beyond endurance when she failed to reciprocate his secret passion.

It was finally too much. Years of pent-up anger and humiliation craved release. Rifkin had reached the detonation point.

All he required now was a target.