One smoked crack with his victims before bludgeoning them to death in his apartment. Another was caught after a police chase that ended in a crash outside the courthouse where he was later convicted of murder.
Now, a new Long Island serial killer has dumped at least four bodies near Gilgo Beach in December while forensic scientists work to identify four more sets of human remains found recently and police continue to search for more bodies possibly hidden in the brush.
All three murderers have one thing in common: They all targeted prostitutes. But well before police started finding the remains of dead online escorts on the side of Ocean Parkway, Joel Rifkin and Robert Shulman killed a combined total of at least 22 prostitutes in the early 1990s with some overlap for three of the years each was active.
“All I can say about Mr. Rifkin is, it appears coincidental at this time that Mr. Rifkin was apparently operating at the same time as Mr. Shulman and engaged in similar activity,” Detective Lt. John Gierasch, the former head of the Suffolk County police Homicide Squad, told the New York Times in 1996.
Rifkin, an unemployed landscaper from East Meadow, had admitted to police that he killed at least 17 prostitutes between 1989 and 1993. He was later convicted of killing nine women and was sentenced to more than 200 years in prison.
Shulman, a postal worker from Hicksville, was convicted of killing five women between 1991 and 1996. He was sentenced to death for the lone murder committed after death penalty was re-enacted in New York State but was later re-sentenced to life in prison when the death penalty statute was nullified by the state Court of Appeals.
Both men were loners who dismembered their victims and scattered the remains in unsuccessful attempts to avoid apprehension.
“There is a large space in between when these serial killers start,” said Fred Klein, a Hofstra University law professor and former Nassau County prosecutor who tried Joel Rifkin, one of Long Island’s last serial killers. “They get their feet wet, see what they can get away with.”
If they don’t get caught, serial killers tend to step it up, according to Klein.
“Every time they do it again the interval tends to get closer and closer,” he said. “The urges that leads them to commit these crimes keep getting stronger and stronger.”
Rifkin, Shulman and the Gilgo Beach serial killer all came after Richard “Angel of Death” Angelo, a nurse who intentionally drugged patients at Good Samaritan Hospital in West Islip with the intention of “saving” them to boost his ego in the 1980s.
The Lindenhurst native, 26 at the time of his arrest, was sentenced to 61 years in prison after being convicted in 1989 of murder, manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and assault. He is believed to have killed 10 patients and was arrested after one of the surviving patients told another nurse he caught Angelo poisoning him.
Rifkin was apprehended after state Troopers tried to pull him over for driving his pick-up truck without a license plate. A high-speed chase ended when Rifkin slammed his truck into a utility pole.
Troopers immedeately detected a strong smell eminating from the back of his truck where they found the body of 22-year-old Tiffany Bresciani, whom he had strangled four days prior.
Shulman was arrested near his apartment after detectives interviewed prostitutes who had been there. Police were shown the way after showing the women a tattoo found on the dismembered remains of one victim, 28-year-old Kelly Sue Bunting of Hollis Queens.
Like his other four victims, Shulman beat Bunting to death with a barbell, hammer or baseball bat.
Shulman confessed to police and told reporters he felt “horrible” for killing the girls and told the families of the victims he was “sorry,” according to the New York Times. He died in prison in 2006.
Rifkin was transferred to maximum security Clinton Correctional Facility after reportedly getting into a fist fight with Colin Ferguson, the Long Island Rail Road spree killer, over who had more victims.
Since Rifkin and Shulman were caught, the dismembered remains of several other prostitutes have been found over the years—a notable few in Manorville—although investigators never publicly stated they suspect a serial killer in those unsolved cases.
Now, the hunt is officially on for the latest Long Island serial killer after the gruesome discoveries on Jones Beach Island, a barrier island with Jones Beach State Park on the west end and a series of Babylon town beach and seaside communities on the east end.
Police stumbled on the bodies when they began their search of Shannan Gilbert, a New Jersey prostitute who disappeared from one of communities, Oak Beach, in May 1, 2010. Investigators determined Gilbert is not among the eight remains found so far while medical examiners are working to identify the last four bodies found.
Detectives have repeatedly said they are not giving up the search for the 24-year-old Jersey City woman. She was last seen screaming and running into the brush after meeting a client in Oak Beach.
A neighbor said he soon after saw a man in an SUV looking for Gilbert, who met the client on Craiglist—the same website as the first four victims found late last year. The client, Joe Brewer, has been interviewed by police but has not been named as a suspect.
The four identified victims include: 27-year-old Amber Lynn Costello, last seen Sept. 2 in her hometown of North Babylon; 22-year-old single mother Megan Waterman, of Portland, Maine, last seen at a Hauppauge hotel June 6; 24-year-old Melissa Barthelemy, last seen July 12, 2009 in the Bronx; Maureen Brainard-Barnes, 25, of Norwich, Conn., last seen July 9, 2007 in Manhattan.
“He’s targeting women who are either using drugs or engaging in prostitution or both, which are the traditional victims of serial killers because they’re usually loners that are not going to be missed by their families and they’re not going to put up much of a struggle,” Klein said of the current serial killer.
“If she’s linked to this pattern, then its pretty clear that the police know where to look,” he added, referring to Gilbert.
-With Timothy Bolger