A calm, controlled hunter, Rifkin cruised the night for sex—and for victims

EACH DAY FOR THE PAST TWO WEEKS, Margarita Gonzalez has sat in the front row of a Mineola, N.Y., courtroom, listening. Sometimes she weeps; sometimes she erupts in fury as the stocky, dark-haired young man is brought in wearing handcuffs and leg shackles. "Killer, killer!" she will cry at Joel Rifkin. "You killed my daughter!'' Then the court officers come and ask her to quiet down. "I want to spit on the face of the monster who took my daughter's life," Gonzalez says later, outside the courtroom, away from the pretrial hearing going on inside. "I want justice."

It may not be long in coming. Early next year, Joel Rifkin is expected to face the first of as many as nine murder trials; since his arrest five months ago the 34-year-old unemployed landscaper has confessed to killing 17 young women, including Margarita Gonzalez's daughter Jenny Soto, 23. Police have since linked Rifkin to an 18th murder. Preying chiefly on young prostitutes, Rifkin would have sex with his victims, strangle them, then dispose of their bodies in rivers, vacant lots and other places where such corporeal refuse might go undetected. While living quietly with his elderly mother and younger sister in East Meadow, N.Y.—a middle-class suburb on Long Island—he had become the most prolific serial killer in New York Slate history, eclipsing even Rochester's Arthur Shawcross, who killed 11 women between 1989 and 1990, many of whom were prostitutes. Yet it was only a matter of luck that Rifkin was caught.

The unraveling of Rifkin's unexpectedly grisly life history began early on the morning of June 28 on Long Island's Southern State Parkway. Two state troopers on patrol at 3 a.m. spotted a tan 1984 Mazda pickup with no license plates. Trooper Sean Ruane motioned for the driver to pull over, but Joel Rifkin kept driving. The chase ended 25 minutes later when he slammed the Mazda into a utility pole.

"He got out with his hands raised—he didn't even wait to be asked," says Ruane. "At that point I started to notice a very strong smell. I've smelled it before. It's not something you can forget." By then, several other troopers had arrived on the scene. One pulled down the tailgate of the truck. Under a larp, the cops found the badly decomposed body of Tiffany Bresciani, a 22-year-old methadone user from Manhattan.

In the patrol car, Investigator Dwayne Russell read Rifkin his Miranda rights, then asked him what had happened. "He said, 'Well, I picked up this hooker near Allen Street in Manhattan. We had an arrangement for sex, but things got out of hand. I strangled her,' " Russell later recalled. Rifkin seemed slightly upset, but not about killing Bresciani. He was disturbed about gelling caught because of the missing license plate. "I know I had a plate on when I left home," he told Ruane. "It's always a 25-cent part."

At state trooper headquarters in Farmingdale, N.Y., a team of detectives interrogated Rifkin further. He told them he had picked up Bresciani four days earlier and paid her $20 for sex in the back of his mother's 1986 Toyota Camry. Then he strangled her. "Why?" asked Senior Investigator C. Thomas Capers. "I don't know," Rifkin answered.

Because Rifkin seemed so calm and composed, Capers suspected Bresciani might not have been his first victim. "I asked him if there were others, and he didn't answer," Capers said. "I said, 'More than 10? More than 20?' And he said, 'One or 100, it doesn't make any difference.' " Then Capers changed his tack. "I said, 'You want these people to have a proper burial, don't you?' " Not long after, Rifkin "suddenly opened up," Capers says.

For the next few hours, Rifkin described 17 murders, drawing maps to show where he had dumped bodies and jotting down details about each victim. For several weeks forensics teams used this information to unearth and identify bodies in nine New York counties. The night of the arrest, investigators had searched the tidy house where Rifkin grew up. Inside his second-floor bedroom they found "trophies" taken from the victims: dozens of driver's licenses, credit cards, jewelry and piles of women's panties and bras. There were also sheaves of newspaper clippings concerning Arthur Shaweross and a book about Washington Stale's still-unidentified Green River killer. (Both were serial murderers who, like Rifkin, specialized in killing prostitutes.) When questioned by police, Rifkin's mother, Jeanne, 71, and his sister Jan, 31, insisted they knew nothing of Joel's horrifying secret life and had not been in his bedroom for years. Neighbors too were astonished. "Joel is simply a gentle young man," said Joy Reiter, who has lived next door to the Rifkins for 30 years.

Or so it had seemed. Joel was adopted by Jeanne, a home maker, and her husband. Bernard, a structural engineer, when he was 3 weeks old. Three years later the couple adopted Jan. Bernard Rifkin was active in the community, serving on the local school board and as a library trustee. Jeanne Rifkin spent hours lending her garden. Although Joel was bright, with an IQ of 128, he did poorly in school. He was dyslexic and had no social skills. Nicknamed the "Turtle" for his hunched, slow gait, Rifkin never seemed to fit in.

One former classmate recalled Rifkin's years at East Meadow High School. Rifkin was pushed into the showers fully dressed, tripped in the halls and regularly called nerd, dooms and oddball. "You got the order of life—jocks, class A's, freaks, burnouts—Joel was on the bottom," he said. "He was an abuse unit." Mark Vangasteren, another class-male, put it more simply: "He was easy to make fun of."

After graduating, Rifkin began frequenting prostitutes, sometimes three or four limes a week. He drifted between colleges (including the state universities at Farmingdale and at Brockport, and Nassau Community College) and various jobs, working at record stores and flower shops, taking horticulture classes and trying to start a landscaping business. But he dropped many classes and lost the jobs, and his business never got off the ground. He had no close friends and no girlfriends.

His family too was coming apart. When Rifkin was 28, his father, dying
of prostate cancer, committed suicide. After his death, Jeanne Rifkin grew withdrawn and depressed—and Joel Rifkin retreated even more deeply into a dim, private world. Two years after his father's death, Rifkin murdered his first victim, whom police have never found. He picked her up in a desolate moonscape section of the East Village near the East River, where he usually cruised for prostitutes. He says he dismembered her body but isn't sure where he dumped the parts. "There's a blend of hatred and sexual desire" in men who prey on prostitutes, says Robert Ressler, a former FBI criminologist who is an expert on serial murder. "It's misdirected anger. [The killer] doesn't appreciate the victim as a human being at all."

Prostitute "Charlotte Webb" survived two encounters with Rifkin. The 27-year-old heroin addict says he picked her up in lower Manhattan in April 1993, two months before he was caught, and paid her $40 for sex. "Some guys get rough, but I never had an inkling with him," she said. "He was just a mellow, nerdy guy. We talked about photography. He said he could get me a discount on a camera." Rifkin, Charlotte says, told her his name was Jimmy and that he was going through a divorce and struggling to support two kids in college. "He seemed lonely, like me," she recalled. "I told him, 'Well. You have a friend.' "

For now, Joel Rifkin awaits his trial for the murder of Tiffany Bresciani —whose body was found in the pickup—in a 6-by-9-foot cell in the Nassau County Correctional Center. So far, he has been indicted for seven murders, with more counts pending. To date, police have identified 14 of the 18 victims.

Rifkin's attorneys are preparing an insanity defense, possibly focusing on his adoption and arguing that unresolved anger toward his birth mother was the reason for his violence. They will also need to prove that Rifkin didn't understand his actions were wrong and therefore was not responsible for them. Yet since his arrest, Rifkin's behavior has seemed anything but disengaged. He fired his first attorney and is participating actively in his own defense. He has even filed his own legal papers, against his attorney's advice. According to Nassau assistant district attorney Fred Klein, who will prosecute the Bresciani case, Rifkin's detailed descriptions of his acts to police will make insanity difficult to prove.

That's a small comfort for Maria Alonso, mother of Anna Lopez, a 33-year-old Brooklyn woman who was killed in May 1992. "He's not insane," she says. "If he remembered exactly where he threw my daughter's body 13 months ago and the details of what he did to those other girls, no one can convince me he is insane. He's just plain evil."

As the trial grows closer, Alonso and the other victims' families are bitter that Joel Rifkin's bloody rampage continued unabated for so long and that the victims have been made to seem somewhat less than human because they were prostitutes. Alonso knows better. "He did not kill 17 prostitutes," she says. "He killed 17 daughters. May he rot in hell."