Neighbors knew him as the quiet, unemployed landscaper who tended his mother's beautiful garden. None of them ever suspected that the foul odors coming from his garage was the stench of death hanging over a blood-soaked wheelbarrow, or that the truck he used to carry fresh soil and flower bulbs in became a hearse once night fell...
By night, he reaped a bloody harvest...
Joel Rifkin cruised lower Manhattan carefully selecting his prey of mostly young prostitutes. Once they were inside his van, the gentle guy who told them he just wanted sex turned into a deranged monster who strangled them with savage force. His lust for killing satisfied, he then stuffed his victims' broken bodies in barrels, trunks and suitcases, dumping them like trash in remote areas across three states. The only trace they left were the photographs, jewelry, and personal mementos their sadistic murderer displayed on his bureau shelf--macabre trophies of his kills.
Until the police uncovered his grim garden of death...
The nightmare might never have ended if state troopers hadn't arrested Rifkin for a minor traffic violation. Wrapped in a blue tarp in the back of his truck they found the decomposing body of a young streetwalker. Hours after the grisly discovery, horrified detectives listened as Rifkin coldly confessed to at least 17 murders, making him one of the most vicious serial killers of all time--worse than Ted Bundy, Arthur Shawcross and Son of Sam! Maria Eftimiades tells this shocking true story in Garden of Graves.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
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About the Author
Maria Eftimiades is a journalist and the author of several books, including Lethal Lolita, My Name Is Katherine, Sins of the Mother and Garden of Graves.
Maria Eftimiades is a journalist and the author of several books, including Lethal Lolita, My Name Is Katherine, Sins of the Mother and Garden of Graves.
Read an Excerpt
Garden of Graves
The Shocking True Story of Long Island Serial Killer Joel Rifkin
By Maria Eftimiades
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1993 Maria Eftimiades
All rights reserved.
IN the predawn mist, the headlights on the 1984 gray Mazda SE pickup cast an eerie glow as the truck pulled away from 1492 Garden Street. No one saw the driver as he turned down Spruce Lane and inched his way to Bellmore Avenue, heading south. If anyone had, they probably wouldn't have been surprised. In this middle-class neighborhood of East Meadow, Long Island, neighbors were accustomed to seeing the Mazda coming and going at odd hours.
The driver was tired. His face was smudged, his jeans and red flannel shirt stained. For the last hour, he'd been loading heavy cargo in the back of the pickup. He'd had to lift a bundle out of a wheelbarrow stored in the garage. A few days earlier, he'd wrapped the cargo in a blue tarpaulin, deftly fastening a heavy cord. He was getting pretty good at securing his load. Recently he'd bought a book called Ropes & Knots. Alone in his bedroom at night, he practiced.
When the tarp was prepared, the driver turned a lever to open the cap cover of the pickup and dropped the tailgate. It took a while to hoist the tarp inside. The cargo was particularly heavy that night.
The driver tried to be quiet as he went about his work. It didn't really matter. Inside 1492 Garden Street his mother and sister slept soundly. Besides, the driver suspected they would not question him if they heard him rummaging in the garage long past midnight. They seldom questioned him about anything at all.
It was 3:15 A.M. New York State Trooper Deborah Spaargaren pointed the navy patrol car with yellow stripes east on the Southern State Parkway. Spaargaren and her partner, Trooper Sean Ruane, were midway through their 11:00 P.M. to 7 A.M. shift, patrolling the parkways of Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island. Under state trooper safety guidelines, they patrolled together until dawn, then alone until the shift ended. Tonight, the patrol was relatively quiet. Sundays usually were.
Spaargaren and Ruane were among the youngest troopers on the force. Spaargaren, twenty-three, had joined the state troopers fifteen months earlier. Ruane, twenty-five, had three years on the job. Already, Ruane had earned his share of accolades. In 1991 he stopped a murder suspect on a road in Sullivan County, not far from Kiamesha Lake, where a Hasidic couple had been brutally slain. The following year the young cop apprehended two convicted killers after they'd escaped from an upstate penitentiary.
Spaargaren and Ruane were among the forty-three hundred state troopers who patrol the highways and parkways in the sixty-two counties of New York State. They were committed to law enforcement.
So when they spotted the Mazda a few hundred yards before the Wantagh exit on the parkway, they observed it with trained eyes. Its speed didn't concern the young cops. The pickup was traveling a few miles above New York State's fifty-five-mile-an-hour speed limit — hardly fast enough to inspire the troopers to issue a summons.
What caught their attention, however, was the back of the truck. Above the bumper, where the license plate should have been, there was nothing.
Driving without a license plate is a minor traffic violation. Still, it wasn't something state troopers overlooked. Especially troopers like Spaargaren and Ruane.
The partners didn't hesitate. Ruane leaned over and snapped the switch activating the red lights atop the roof rack. The lights began to flash. Spaargaren sped up slightly, positioning the patrol car directly behind the Mazda.
The driver of the pickup stole a quick glance in his rearview mirror. His hands clenched the steering wheel a bit tighter. His foot never left the accelerator.
It took a minute before the troopers realized the driver of the pickup had no intention of pulling over. He didn't go faster. He didn't change lanes. He simply continued to drive, seemingly oblivious of the swirling red lights atop patrol car No. 1L35.
Ruane tried again. He activated the siren. It fractured the deadly quiet of the late hour. But the driver showed no reaction. The pickup continued at a steady clip.
Ruane reached for the loudspeaker portion of the radio. He keyed the mike. His voice resonated along the parkway, tight with anger.
"Pull over to the side of the road," Ruane demanded.
Again, no reaction. The troopers glanced at each other, uneasy. This was turning out to be much more than a routine traffic stop. No doubt, the driver of the pickup had something to hide.
Ruane reached again for the radio. He called in a report to the sergeant on duty in the communications section of state trooper headquarters, Troop L, in East Farmingdale.
"Car 1L35 to Farmingdale," Ruane said.
The trooper gave a terse description of the situation: Driver, male. Operating a gray Mazda pickup. No plate. Refuses repeated orders to pull over. 1L35 requests backup. Ruane signed off with his shield number.
Headquarters reacted swiftly. Within minutes, three state trooper cars were dispatched to join the chase. The sergeant on duty at the command post also notified Nassau County police. They, too, sent officers to the scene.
Despite the growing police convoy behind him, the driver of the Mazda appeared nonplussed as he continued east on the Southern State Parkway. Then, without warning, he veered to the right, speeding up the off-ramp of exit 28 in Wantagh. Ignoring the stop sign at the top of the hill, the driver sailed down Wantagh Avenue, angling north.
For the next ten minutes, the driver snaked through back roads in residential neighborhoods, trying to shake the cops. It was useless; they were directly behind him. When he reached Old Country Road in Mineola, a busy thoroughfare, the driver made a choice. After a moment's delay, he swerved the truck sharply to the right, rounding the corner of Washington Avenue and Old Country Road.
He swung too wide. The Mazda crashed into a wooden light pole, knocking it to the ground and shattering glass all over the sidewalk. The driver was thrown back in his seat, his hands still gripping the steering wheel.
Behind him, at least half a dozen police cars screeched to a halt. In seconds, a team of state troopers and Nassau County cops encircled the pickup.
The driver did not move. Through the trees, in the darkness of the early morning, he could see lights blazing in front of the Nassau County Criminal Courthouse half a block away.
* * *
Trooper Ruane reached the truck first. Revolver poised, he peered into the cab. With his free hand, he opened the door.
"Get out," he barked.
Joel Rifkin did as he was told. He climbed out, hands raised. Without being asked, he lay facedown on the pavement, arms and legs spread. Troopers frisked him. They found nothing — no weapons, no drugs. It seemed odd. What did Joel Rifkin have to hide?
One trooper suspected he knew the answer. In fact, every cop at the scene did too. There was an odor emanating from the back of the pickup. A pungent odor. A familiar odor.
The cops exchanged glances. The trooper broke the silence. He motioned to the back of the pickup. He looked directly into Joel Rifkin's steel gray eyes.
"Smells like you got a body back there," the trooper said quietly.
Joel Rifkin stared straight ahead.CHAPTER 2
TROOPERS handcuffed Joel Rifkin and led him to a patrol car, ordering him to sit in the back. He showed no emotion as they arrested him and read him his rights.
Meanwhile, Spaargaren and Ruane remained with the pickup. They unlocked the tailgate, dropped it, and peered inside, shining flashlights from top to bottom. The blue tarpaulin filled the bed of the truck. Using the tips of their flashlights, the troopers cautiously lifted a corner of the tarp. The smell grew even more potent. They lifted the edge of the tarp a little higher. Their suspicions were promptly confirmed.
Inside the tarp was the decomposing body of a woman. From the looks of the body and its stench, the cops guessed she'd been dead a few days. They shone a flashlight onto her face. For a moment, no one spoke.
The troopers didn't know they were looking at the body of Tiffany Bresciani, that she had been just twenty-two years old, a pretty, petite aspiring writer from Metairie, Louisiana. They didn't know that for the past few days Tiffany's mother, Cheryl, had been worried about her only child. Since Tiffany moved to New York City several years earlier, she'd always called home frequently.
But there had been no phone call since Thursday, June 24. Late that night, three days before police would spot the Mazda pickup on the parkway, Cheryl Bresciani's only child had made a terrible mistake: she'd climbed into a car with Joel Rifkin.
By 3:30 A.M. more than a dozen state troopers and Nassau County cops were swarming along the corner of Old Country Road and Washington Avenue. They cordoned off the area and examined the interior of the pickup, strewn with trash. Their findings were disturbing. A pair of women's shoes. Gray stretch tights with one pink sock attached. A pair of rubber gloves. A wooden handled steak knife. On the dashboard in the cab, a Grateful Dead sticker. On the back bumper, another sticker: STICKS AND STONES MAY BREAK MY BONES BUT WHIPS AND CHAINS EXCITE ME.
The troopers studied Joel Rifkin's driver's license: "Rifkin, Joel D. 1492 Garden Street, East Meadow, New York 11554. Eyes: gray. Height: 5 ft. 10. Born 01/20/59. Wears corrective lenses."
But the cops respectfully stepped aside to allow Ruane and Spaargaren to question the suspect. Joel Rifkin was, after all, caught because of the tenacity of the young cops.
The troopers asked the obvious question. Who was the woman in the truck?
Joel Rifkin answered without hesitating, his voice composed.
"She was a prostitute," he said. "I had sex with her, and then I killed her."
The troopers were stunned. A minor traffic infraction had somehow spiraled into a murder case. And the suspect didn't seem the least perturbed. Outside the patrol car, Spaargaren and Ruane consulted briefly. It was definitely time to radio headquarters with the latest developments.
News traveled fast. Troopers on overnight duty in East Farmingdale immediately telephoned several senior investigators at home. Details were still sketchy, they explained. But there was a suspect, an East Meadow man who'd confessed to killing a woman. Perhaps there was even more to this grisly story. The detectives didn't need urging. They hurried to headquarters at once.
Once the detectives were on their way, the troopers consulted a list to find out which assistant district attorney from the Major Offenses Bureau was on call for the week. Six ADAs worked for Nassau County District Attorney Denis Dillon. Each took turns manning the bureau a week at a time.
Assistant District Attorney Fred Klein's shift was due to end at 9:00 A.M. Monday morning. But five hours before it did, Joel Rifkin was apprehended with a body in his truck. Klein got the case.
Since joining the DA's office in 1978, Fred Klein had been one of the more valued ADAs on Long Island. He was aggressive and tenacious. And he'd had a good deal of experience dealing with the media.
In recent months Klein had wrapped the most infamous case of his career — the prosecution of Amy Fisher, the Long Island teenager who had shot her alleged lover's wife in the head. The assistant district attorney loathed the publicity the story had engendered. Ducking interviews, he'd tried to focus on the case. After six months, Klein had negotiated a plea bargain with Fisher's attorney. When the Long Island teen was finally sentenced to five to fifteen years in prison and sent to an upstate New York prison in December 1992, Fred Klein was relieved.
But it wasn't over. Two months later, DA Dillon had assigned Klein to an equally high profile case — the prosecution of Joey Buttafuoco, Amy's alleged lover, on statutory rape charges.
So when the telephone rang a few hours before his shift was scheduled to end, Fred Klein could only wonder what was in store for him next.
Klein listened as troopers explained the situation. A man. A body. A confession. Klein dressed quickly and drove straight to Mineola.
* * *
It was shortly before 4:00 A.M. The patrol car carrying Joel Rifkin, its lights flashing, sped down the Southern State Parkway. It was important to bring the accused in for interrogation as soon as possible. The patrol car raced past the spot where Spaargaren and Ruane had first signaled the pickup to pull over, less than an hour before.
In the car, Joel Rifkin responded to troopers' questions effortlessly. He told them he was a landscaper, but that he hadn't worked in some time. Now and then he did office temp work for various companies on Long Island. He was thirty-four years old, an East Meadow resident. He lived at home with his mother, Jeanne, and sister, Jan. His father, Bernard, had died six years ago.
Without much coaxing, Joel Rifkin began to volunteer details on the murder. He told the troopers that on Thursday evening he'd borrowed his mother's 1986 blue Toyota four-door sedan and driven to Manhattan. For a while, he'd cruised Allen Street on the Lower East Side, one of his favorite haunts, as well as Twelfth Street and Second Avenue in the East Village. Both areas are known to be frequented by prostitutes.
Rifkin spotted Tiffany Bresciani on Canal Street. She'd been working the street off and on for several years. She wore a simple black skirt and a green blouse. She had a couple of tattoos — one of a purple rose encircling her left wrist and an ankh symbol — the Egyptian symbol for life — on a floral background on her left hip.
Like almost every prostitute on the streets of New York City, Tiffany Bresciani was a drug addict. For several years heroin had been her drug of choice. But lately, Bresciani had been fighting her disease. She'd joined a methadone program in the city. Every day, she got her daily fix of the orange liquid.
But in a short time she was back walking the streets, selling her body to get high. It was an existence she loathed, a world away from life as Cheryl Bresciani's little girl in Metairie. But like so many others, Tiffany Bresciani felt powerless. The lure of drugs was formidable.
So when Joel Rifkin rolled down his window late Thursday night and motioned, Tiffany Bresciani willingly responded. She walked over to the Toyota and leaned in. It only took a minute to negotiate a price: forty or fifty dollars was standard. It would be enough for the evening's high. And so Tiffany Bresciani, whose grandmother called her "little lamb," got in the passenger seat of Joel Rifkin's car and pulled the door shut.
Rifkin drove just a few hundred yards, parking the Toyota in an isolated spot near the Manhattan Bridge. It wasn't unusual for prostitutes and their clients to conduct business around the bridge. Between drug sales and prostitution, the area is often jammed with cars. Now and then, New York City cops sweep the site, arresting dozens of hookers and loading them into a van.
But no one was around the night Joel Rifkin took Tiffany Bresciani under the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge. No one heard her muffled gasps. No one was there to save her. Rifkin told police that as he began having sex with Tiffany Bresciani he placed his hands around her neck. As her eyes widened with terror, he squeezed with all his force. In just a minute, Tiffany Bresciani was dead.
Joel Rifkin looked at her for a long time. She had been an attractive girl. Such lovely reddish brown hair.
Back in Metairie, Tiffany's mother and grandmother waited for a telephone call. Earlier, they'd mailed a care package to Tiffany filled with summer dresses, pictures, and a white teddy bear.
Tiffany's boyfriend, Rick Wilder, was also waiting. The two had lived together off and on for several years. Tiffany's drug problem caused a strain on the relationship. But Rick, a rock musician and aspiring actor, loved Tiffany. And she loved him.
With Tiffany Bresciani's body beside him, Joel Rifkin started the engine of his mother's Toyota. He cruised past the prostitutes and drug addicts on Canal Street. Tiffany's friends on the strip were still working. They wouldn't begin to miss her for several days.
Joel Rifkin left Manhattan and drove to Levittown, not far from his East Meadow home. He bought the blue tarp and yards of heavy cord. In a secluded parking lot he painstakingly wrapped Tiffany's body and dragged it from the car seat to the trunk.
Joel Rifkin drove home and slept for a long time. It had been a busy night.
* * *
The day after he killed Tiffany Bresciani, Joel Rifkin moved her body to a wheelbarrow in the detached garage next to his mother's home. Sooner or later, Jeanne Rifkin would need the Toyota. Leaving a body in the back wasn't a good idea.
Excerpted from Garden of Graves by Maria Eftimiades. Copyright © 1993 Maria Eftimiades. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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