Why So Many Serial Killers on Long Island?


Published: April 9, 2011

Some towns and counties have cancer clusters. Others have high rates of traffic fatalities or foreclosures. In New York, Long Island has been grappling with its own disturbing demographic: Three serial killers who targeted the same type of victims have operated in the same tidy suburbs in the span of 22 years.

Since 1989, when the first victim was killed, the three have been active in Long Island’s two counties — Suffolk and Nassau — in apparently unrelated cases. Joel Rifkin,  34-year-old unemployed landscaper from East Meadow, confessed to killing 17 women he said were prostitutes following his arrest in 1993. Robert Shulman a 42-year-old postal worker from Hicksville, was convicted of killing five prostitutes after he was arrested in 1996. The third killer has yet to be apprehended, but the police know that he or she exists: the bodies of eight people — at least four of them female prostitutes — have been found in the thick brush near a Suffolk County beach since December.

It is a phenomenon that, though rare, has occurred elsewhere. Beginning in the early 1980s, at least five serial killers terrorized the South Los Angeles area, including Lonnie Franklin Jr., whom the police accused of being the so-called Grim Sleeper (he took a hiatus from 1988 to 2002).

Serial-killer experts and others offered a host of theories for the cluster phenomenon. Several said it was a fluke of geography. Still others said it was, in a sense, an illusion: Other cities and regions could have just as many or even more serial killers in their midst, but their patterns have not yet been detected by the police.

Scott Bonn, a serial-killer researcher and assistant professor of sociology at Drew University in New Jersey, said the explanation was simple. Because serial killers often prefer to live in densely populated areas — for easy access to potential victims — it is not a surprise that three of them who specialized in sex workers had turned up over two decades in a place with a population of 2.8 million. “The odds that you would have these three guys in rural Mississippi in that time period are far less likely than in a densely populated area like Long Island,” he said.

Fred Klein, the former Nassau County assistant district attorney who prosecuted Mr. Rifkin, said the frequency of Long Island’s serial killers was “just an anomaly.” The Rifkin and Shulman cases, it turns out, shared strange coincidences: Mr. Rifkin and Mr. Shulman lived a few miles from one another, and they committed some of their murders at the same time, though they did not appear to know one another.

Vernon J. Geberth, an author and former New York Police Department homicide commander who has analyzed more than 300 serial killings in the United States, said popular culture, not the locale, was to blame.

“I don’t think it’s strange at all,” Mr. Geberth said. “I think that people fail to realize that we have more serial murders today than ever before. We’ve taken the most reprehensible members of society and given them star status. We’ve raised a generation of psychopaths. As a result, we have an increase in serial murder.”

Long Island’s latest serial killer could have been not the third but the fourth in recent years, if the definition of “serial killer” was looser. In 1990, Allen Gormely, 37, a carpenter, confessed to killing prostitutes. Several experts define the serial killer as someone who kills three or more people on different occasions. Mr. Gormely was convicted of killing only two.