On June 28, 1993, the residents of Westbury, a small suburban town in Long Island, New York, were shocked over the arrest of thirty-four year-old local Joel Rifkin. A decomposing body had been found in the back of his white Mazda truck, after he led the police on a full speed chase when failing to stop for a missing rear license plate. He crashed into a telephone pole at 3:36 a.m., and this is when officers discovered a horrible smell. Upon investigating, they uncovered the remains of a New York prostitute named Tiffany Bresciani, a twenty-two year-old from New Orleans. Rifkin, with Noxzema smeared underneath his nose to mask the smell of the rotting body said to the arresting officers, “Do you think I need a lawyer?”
Rifkin shared a home with his mother and sister on a quiet residential street in close proximity to the video store where I worked at the time. There were a row of stores, with a nail salon, doctor’s office and pizza parlor all in one strip, the video store being tucked away in a corner. I managed the store, and was often alone by myself with no problems, except for the occasional obnoxious customer, screaming about late fees and rowdy teenagers.
Rifkin had been in the store more than once, and was easy to remember, because he always wore the same white overalls, and often ate his slice of pizza from the pizza parlor while browsing the video boxes. Rifkin had a strange way about him, one could tell he was anti-social just by how he avoided coming to the counter, but would look over, peering strangely at whoever was working at the time.
He had been in the store when I was there four or five times, pizza always in hand, white overalls on, which made one think he was a handy man of sorts, not that unusual, considering he did in fact own his own landscaping business. There was something unusual about Rifkin though. Call it female intuition or a premonition, but one day when he came in and looked at me, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I knew something was seriously wrong. The way he was staring made me feel like a target, and somehow instinctively I knew I had to humanize myself in his eyes, so I said loudly, “Mom, do you need any help back there?” My mother had stopped in on occasion to keep me company, and was in the back part of the store at the time. He turned around and walked out.
It wasn’t too long after this that Rifkin’s face was all over the news, for killing seventeen prostitutes. Customers that came into the video store were stunned that a member of their community had committed these horrendous acts. A pal of mine who worked at the pizza parlor was amazed. He remembered Rifkin coming in to get his slice of pizza and how mild-mannered in appearance Rifkin seemed.
Then I remembered the smell. Rifkin’s white truck was often parked in the parking lot, and I remembered walking past the truck one day, and smelling the most horrendous odor. I thought it was a skunk, and that someone had been too lazy to wash their truck (not knowing it was Rifkin’s). I never would have thought in a million years that what I was actually smelling was the rotting body of an unfortunate victim.
Around the time of the beginning of his incarceration, Rifkin was interviewed on camera in jail, and he said that once he made up his mind to kill a woman that was it. “There was no going back.” I often wondered if by humanizing myself in his presence caused him to snap out of any ideas he may have had about striking close to home. If anything, this is a lesson learned to always trust one’s intuition in regard to other people. No matter how silly it may seem, intuition is something that should be used as a defense mechanism, and never ignored.