The Killer & the Cop

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The Killer & The Cop

Two boys grew up out on Long Island; they didn't know each other then, but one was a victim of some vicious bullies while the other was a bit of a bully himself. Both boys became loners, pursuing solitary pursuits like photography and writing. They left Long Island and enrolled at SUNYBrockport in upstate New York, where they met and worked together briefly. They liked each other and knew they would meet again.

Though they both moved on, they never forgot each other. One went on to a career with NYPD. The other became a serial killer. And they did meet again.

I met with Det. Robert Mladinich recently in a closed courtroom during lunch-hour recess. Mladinich is a big man, 6-5 and sturdy, and looks every inch a cop. He has had quite a run with the force, and at 44 is getting ready to put his papers in for retirement. Interestingly, Mladinich has worked up a side-career as a boxing journalist and he's ready to go at that full-time.

We sat and talked about his childhood out in Huntington.

"As a kid I was never comfortable with my own power. I was strong and I did bully a kid, but early on I saw how that hurt people so I stopped. I realized at a very young age I was capable of hurting people. So early on I retreated from that to being a loner and got into writing. I always related to other loners because I was socially awkward."

Mladinich jokingly refers to Brockport as Jockport because of its propensity for turning out phys-ed majors. He majored in journalism. After graduating in 1980 he scored an internship with The New York Times.

"I thought I was on top of the world. I came to Manhattan to live and was ready to take on the world of New York journalism."

The dailies weren't ready for Mladinich, however. After his internship he languished as a freelancer and drove trucks for a living. In 1983 he became a cop, figuring that if nothing else it would be interesting.

"I started at the 34th Pct. in Washington Heights, which back then was considered one of the battlegrounds of the city. My first arrest was when I pulled over a car and I bagged three illegal Cubans with five guns. They were definitely on their way to rob someone, so that was a good one."

Mladinich left there for a tour in the South Bronx, and told me a harrowing tale. A Vietnam veteran was drinking in a car with a friend when a group of teenagers walked by and goofed on them. The vet jumped out of the car and let off a few rounds from his gun. He hit no one, but the cops were called. Mladinich showed up and pointed his gun at the man, ordering him to drop his weapon. The man stood with his gun drawn, staring Mladinich down.

"This was before the term 'suicide by cop' came into vogue, but that was what the guy was doing. The kids down the block were yelling for me to cap him."

Somehow Mladinich held his fire and rushed the man. He got him in cuffs while Mladinich's partner pulled the drunk out of the car. The drunk tumbled to the ground. He had no legs.

"The man's sister thanked us for not shooting him?which we had every right to do, but something told me to hold my fire. I'm glad I did. I feel better about that than anything else in my career as a cop."

I asked Mladinich what he thought about his years in the South Bronx.

"I really grew as a person there. On a daily basis you saw how small actions could make a big difference. There are truly some decent people living there in a very dangerous place."

Mladinich moved on to working narcotics in Manhattan North, and earned his detective shield. In 1995 he took a job at 1 Police Plaza, where he was one of the editors and writers of the in-house magazine, Spring 3100.

"It's called that because in the 1930s it was police headquarters' phone number. I took the job because writing is my vocation and I'm actually putting my journalism degree to good use. But I have to say it is the hardest work I have ever done as a cop." He's also written for boxing and men's magazines.

In June 1993, Joel Rifkin was arrested and the sordid tale of his killing 17 prostitutes came out. That night Mladinich was in the station house and saw Rifkin on tv. It was then he realized that he knew Rifkin.

"I met Joel Rifkin in 1979, up at Brockport, on the first story I ever did that I got paid for. He was my photographer."

As a junior in college Mladinich had pitched a story on a local boxing match to a national boxing magazine. He was hired and told to take photos. He didn't even have a camera, so he went to the journalism department and met Rifkin. They covered the fight. Mladinich got his story printed; Rifkin's pictures, which Mladinich showed me, were good. After college they lost touch, but the cop never got the photographer.

"All during my police career, when I would get depressed being a civil servant I would imagine that Rifkin was traveling the world as a photojournalist, living the life I missed."

What Rifkin became was a failed landscaper, and a hunter and killer of hapless prostitutes. In 1999 Mladinich went to visit Rifkin up at Attica and did a series of interviews with him, which was the basis for a book published last fall, From the Mouth of the Monster (Pocket Books).

I asked Mladinich what he thinks turned Rifkin into a killer.

"I refuse to believe that Joel Rifkin was born evil. I think the brutal bullying he received in school led to his murderous development. All the kids who bullied Rifkin said, 'Ah, he was always fucked up.' They take no responsibility for having had something to do with his sickness.

"I don't exonerate Rifkin. I think his main problem was that he had some sense of entitlement. Rifkin didn't fit the profile of a serial killer. He didn't kill small animals as a kid, he never participated in antisocial behavior when he was young. Even when he was killing women he had a normal family life and regular friends. Look, I am used to interviewing criminals. Some cops called me Father Bob because I can always get them to talk. But when I interviewed Rifkin I would leave the prison and view him as a normal guy with an unusual proclivity. Then I would catch myself and say, How could I view him that way, how could he fool me?"

Mladinich paused and leaned back in his chair. "My burning question is, if it could happen to him, could it have happened to me?"

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