Joel Rifkin's birth parents were both young college students, his biological father an army veteran. On February 14, 1959, when he was three weeks old, Rifkin was adopted by an upper-middle class Long Island couple. His adoptive father, Bernard Rifkin, was of Russian Jewish descent and his adoptive mother, Jeanne (Granelles), of Spanish descent, 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 classes at Nassau Community College and State University of New York's Brockport and Farmingdale campuses, but left before earning a degree. After leaving college, Rifkin became self-employed as a landscaper.
On February 20, 1987, his father Bernard committed suicide by overdose after suffering from prostate cancer for several months.
On August 22, 1987, Rifkin was arrested during a prostitute sting in Hempstead, New York, after offering an undercover female police officer money for sex.
Rifkin committed his first murder in 1989, killing Heidi Balch in his home in East Meadow. 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 golf course in Hopewell, New Jersey, her legs farther north, then dumping her remaining torso and arms into the East River around New York City. On March 5, 1989, Balch's severed head was discovered on the seventh hole of the golf course. On April 8, 1989, Balch's legs were found in Pequonnock Creek near Jefferson Township, New Jersey. A blood test just a few weeks later revealed the presence of the AIDS virus. Balch's remains were not identified until 2013.
Over the next four years, it is presumed Rifkin killed sixteen more women. After his arrest in 1993, he was implicated in Balch's murder. In 2013, investigators determined that Balch and the same woman he described as his first victim were the same person.
On June 24, 1993, Rifkin picked up Tiffany Bresciani, a prostitute who was working on Allen Street in Manhattan. Tiffany was with her boyfriend, punk rock musician Dave Rubinstein at the time and told Rubinstein that she would return in 20 minutes. After failing to return, Rubinstein called the police with a description of the 1984 Mazda pickup truck driven by Rifkin.
On June 28, 1993, two troopers with the New York State Police were patrolling Long Island's Southern State Parkway when they noticed the pickup truck. A high-speed chase ensued which ended when Rifkin crashed into a utility pole in Mineola, directly in front of the courthouse where he would stand trial. Troopers arrested Rifkin and after detecting a foul odor stemming from the back of the truck, found Bresciani's decaying body under a tarp.
During his trial, Rifkin was represented by attorney John Lawrence. He was found guilty of nine counts of second-degree murder in 1994, and sentenced to 203 years up to life in prison.
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 the former was using a prison phone. The Daily News reported the fight escalated after Ferguson told Rifkin, "I killed six devils and you only killed women," to which Rifkin responded, "Yeah, but I had more victims." Ferguson then punched Rifkin.
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 twenty-three 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 his constitutional rights by housing him in isolation. His lawsuit sought $50,000 for each of his 1,540 days in solitary confinement (totaling $77 million). 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.