Rifkin's birth mother was a 20-year-old college student, and his biological father was a 24-year-old college student and army veteran. At three weeks old he was adopted by an upper-middle class Long Island couple, on February 14, 1959. His adoptive father Benjamin Rifkin, was of Russian Jewish descent, and his adoptive mother, Jeanne (Granelles), of Spanish descent, who converted to Judaism when she married.
Rifkin performed poorly in school due to learning disabilities and was unpopular with classmates due to his poor social skills. He graduated from East Meadow High School in 1977, then attended Nassau Community College, State University of New York, Brockport and State University of New York, Farmingdale, but left before earning a degree. After leaving college he found work as a landscaper.
Rifkin committed his first murder in 1989, killing a woman in his home in East Meadow, Nassau County, Long Island, New York. He then dismembered her body, removing her teeth and fingertips, putting her head in a paint can and then leaving the paint can in the woods of a southern New Jersey golf course and her legs farther north in New Jersey and then dumping her remaining torso and arms into the East River around New York City.
Over the next four years, it is presumed he killed 16 more women. After his final arrest in 1993, Rifkin was implicated in the murder of a woman whose severed head was discovered on a Hopewell, New Jersey, golf course on March 5, 1989. In 2013, investigators determined this victim, a sex worker named Heidi Balch, was the same woman that he described as his first victim.
Police finally caught up to Rifkin on June 28, 1993, when state troopers spotted him driving his pickup truck without license plates on the Southern State Parkway. A high-speed chase ended in Mineola, New York when he crashed into a utility pole directly in front of the courthouse where he eventually stood trial. Troopers detected a foul odor from the back of the truck. It came from the corpse of his final victim: sex worker and dancer Tiffany Bresciani, 22, the girlfriend of Dave Rubinstein (a.k.a. Dave Insurgent, a member of the 1980s punk rock band Reagan Youth), Rifkin had picked Bresciani up in his Mazda pick-up truck on June 24, 1993, where she was working on Allen Street in Manhattan, New York City.
During his trial, Rifkin was represented by Mineola, New York–based attorney John Lawrence. Rifkin was found guilty of nine counts of second degree murder in 1994 and sentenced to 203 years to life in prison. His first possible parole date is February 26, 2197.
In early 1994, it was reported that Rifkin had engaged in a jailhouse scuffle with mass murderer Colin Ferguson. The brawl began when Ferguson asked Rifkin to be quiet while Ferguson was using the telephone. The New York Daily News reported the fight escalated after Ferguson told Rifkin, "I wiped out six devils and you only killed women," to which Rifkin responded, "Yeah, but I had more victims." Ferguson then punched Rifkin in the mouth.
Prison officials decided in 1996 that Rifkin was so notorious that his presence in the general prison population could be disruptive. He was confined to his cell at the Attica Correctional Facility for 23 hours a day. He spent more than four years in solitary confinement before being transferred to the Clinton Correctional Facility in Clinton County.
Rifkin sued, arguing that his solitary imprisonment was unconstitutional. In 2000, a state appellate court determined that prison officials had not violated Rifkin's constitutional rights by housing him in isolation. Rifkin's lawsuit sought $50,000 for each of his 1,540 days in solitary confinement (totaling $77 million). Had he received any money, it would have been subject to state laws that earmark most of the award for the families of his victims. Corrections officials say that Rifkin is now imprisoned with more than 200 other inmates at Clinton who are not allowed into the general prison population.Rifkin was mentioned in the Criminal Minds episode "Charm and Harm" (120) as an example of a criminal who used the ruse of being an amateur photographer.In the Seinfeld episode "The Masseuse," Elaine's boyfriend is named Joel Rifkin and references to the serial killer are made throughout the episode. The crowd's reaction when his name is announced over the loudspeaker at a New York Giants game they were attending prompts Joel to agree to Elaine's suggestion to change his name. Ironically, one of the names she suggests is "O.J." while leafing through a football magazine. "The Masseuse" aired a year before O.J. Simpson was arrested for the murder of his ex-wife.