The Killer & the Cop

Written by C.J. Sullivan on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.



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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