When Joel Rifkin walked into the visiting room and took a chair, he smiled politely and introduced himself.
It was the first time I had ever come face to face with a known serial killer - and it was one of the toughest interviews of my life. But, how did it happen? Let's back up a minute.
I was working feverishly on deadline last Wednesday for one of our April 16 editions when I just missed a call. I picked up the phone and immediately checked my voicemail. It was a call from an editor at Newsday, a daily newspaper based in Long Island. He was calling in regard to the rash of murders in the Long Island area, and, in particular, if I had any interest in interviewing Rifkin on their behalf. The editor wanted to know if Rifkin - who's currently serving a life sentence at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora for murders he committed from 1989 to 1993 - had any connection to any of the older human remains found during the course of the investigation there.
My reporter's instinct kicked in, and I quickly called the editor back. I was given the details for the assignment and agreed to take on the charge. The following morning, I found myself standing at the main gate of the prison. This was it.
I went through several security checkpoints and answered numerous questions before getting anywhere close to Rifkin. The experience of walking into a maximum security prison was surreal and one I was definitely glad I was doing on my own free will.
When I finally got to the visiting room, I waited for more than a half-hour until I saw the door to the prisoners entrance open. That's when Rifkin walked in on his own accord - no shackles, no guard assisting him.
He had an idea why I was there. Rifkin had been following the news on the ongoing investigation into the recent murders on Jones Beach Island and the discovery of the older remains that are potentially unconnected to the recent killing spree. Rifkin knew it was only time before someone from the media would be coming by to speak with him about the remains, which are believed to date back to the time of Rifkin's murders - and could be those of Rifkin's victims that were never recovered.
However, Rifkin denied any of his victims were dumped on Jones Beach Island, let alone the location he understands where the latest remains have been found.
My interview with Rifkin lasted more than an hour and a half, with the topic of the conversation shifting from the current murders to his own crimes against humanity. He talked about the circumstances in which he was finally caught and, more interestingly in my opinion, how he believes he got his start in his violent rampage against women, targeting prostitutes.
During the course of our conversation, Rifkin divulged he had started seeing a girl before he became the serial killer he is known for being today. He recalled how he was waiting downstairs for her to get ready for their date, when her brother came into the living room and stared at Rifkin as he began to clean the family's weapon collection. Rifkin said the girl's brother made it clear Rifkin shouldn't do anything to hurt his sister. It was from then on that Rifkin - who apparently already had thoughts swimming in his head of murdering women - said he knew if he were to act on his impulses, that he must do so with someone he had no real attachment.
Though Rifkin said he has remorse for the murders he committed - fueled mainly by more than four years in solitary confinement at Attica Correctional Facility before being transferred to Dannemora - he claims he still to this day doesn't understand the methodology behind the murders he committed or what motivated him.
What Rifkin does believe is if he had been taking Paxil - an anti-depressant used to treat social phobias - like he takes today, he may not have committed the murders he did. Rifkin said he was routinely bullied growing up and that if medication were available back then, the now 51-year-old Rifkin would be spending every day of his life in some place other than a prison cell.
Regardless if what Rifkin had to say was true or not, my interview with him gave me interesting insight into the mind of a psychopath. Don't get me wrong; there's no sympathy from me for this man - only for the victims and their families. He deserves the 203-year sentence he's serving. There's no question about that.
However, the most disturbing thing about my interview with Rifkin was sadly not how deplorable and detestable his actions were - it was how "normal" he seemed as we spoke. It makes you wonder what drives a person to such lengths and, even scarier, how many more people are out there like him?
(Editor's Note: If you have a question for him regarding the interview or have comments on this story, he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)