It a quiet Easter Sunday, April 7, 1996, as police officer Richard Freeman cruised along the Passaic River in East Rutherford, N.J.
Then Freeman noticed a blue Ford in a parking lot with its trunk opened and a man climbing up the embankment from the river. The man had blood on his hands, and the car was packed with trash bags.
Some held gloves, a shower curtain, kitchen knives, a hatchet, ax, and hacksaw, all with blood on them. Others contained lumps of flesh, splintered bones, and a human skull. More body parts were in the bags that the man tossed in the river and in another car parked a few feet away in the same lot.
A registration check showed that the owner of the car was Vladimir Zelenin, 39, a Russian émigré who worked at one of the businesses, an electroplating company, connected to that parking area.
“Are these parts of a human body?” Freeman asked.
The man said yes.
Zelenin quickly told police the identity of the victim, who had been sliced and sawed into 65 pieces. It was what was left of a respected cancer researcher, Yakov Gluzman, 48.
“We killed him in Pearl River,” Zelenin told police. His accomplice, he said, was Rita Gluzman, the victim’s wife. Zelenin was her cousin, and he said she forced him to kill.
Tabloids dubbed her the “Jewish Lizzie Borden.”
It was a gruesome end to a story that 25 years earlier was held up as a triumph of love over adversity.
Yakov Gluzman met Rita Shapiro growing up in Ukraine. Both their families were Jewish and were oppressed under Soviet rule. They married in 1969, but just after the wedding, Rita’s family was allowed, after 15 years of trying, to emigrate to Israel.
It did not include her husband, who stayed behind. Although he had a degree in virology, he took work as a carpenter.
In Israel, Rita gave birth to a son, Ilan, earned a degree in chemistry, then came to the United States in 1971 and began a campaign for her husband’s release. She toured the country and went on a hunger strike in front of the United Nations.
On a rainy day in October, she marched with a group of Long Island Jewish people to the Russian mission in Glen Cove.
“In Israel, I gave birth to a son, who will be celebrating his first birthday Wednesday,” the pretty 23-year-old told the Daily News. “My child will soon be old enough to speak, and I’m afraid he will be asking, ‘Where is Poppa?’”
In November 1971, she won. “It was exactly like a dream … a man and a woman separated and finally somehow finding each other again,” she told a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution after being reunited with her husband in Israel.
Six years later, they moved to the United States, where Yakov was hired as a virology researcher at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, on Long Island. She opened an electroplating business, ECI Technology. Yakov later moved on to a position as head of biology at Lederle Labs, in Pearl River, Rockland County.
Over the years, their marriage disintegrated. In 1996, Yakov filed for divorce. In his complaint, he described his wife as “single-minded and uncompromising.” The divorce grew increasingly bitter and violent. He accused her of wild spending. She said that he was carrying on with a young bacteriologist in Israel.
“Butchered scientist’s wife a big spender,” was the Daily News headline a few days after Zelenin was picked up tossing the dismembered body into the river.
In custody, Zelenin told a harrowing story of the murder. He said that he emigrated from the former Soviet Union with his sons. His cousin Rita had given him a job at her company. With her marriage unraveling, she decided to kill her husband and made Zelenin into an unwilling accomplice, threatening him with deportation if he refused to cooperate.
Rita and Zelenin, armed with murder weapons they had purchased at Home Depot, broke into Yakov’s apartment in Pearl River and waited.
When Yakov opened the door at around 11:30 p.m., the pair attacked him. “I hit him with the ax to the head,” Zelenin would later say at Gluzman’s trial. He could not remember who took the first whack.
By morning, they had cut up the body in the bathtub, stuffed the pieces into garbage bags, cleaned the apartment, and packed the bags into two cars, Zelenin’s Ford and the victim’s Maxima.
Rita drove the Maxima and Zelenin drove the Ford to the parking lot behind her company’s building. Then she had Zelenin drive her home and ordered him to return to the parking lot and dispose of the evidence.
Police found no sign of Rita at her home in Upper Saddle River, N.J. They tracked her down days later, hiding in a cabin at the Cold Spring Harbor Lab, and arrested her for trespassing.
Other than Zelenin’s testimony, there was scant physical evidence to link her directly to the crime.
So she was charged under a law that made it a federal crime to cross state lines to attack a spouse. Gluzman was found guilty under the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, designed to protect women from domestic violence. She was sentenced to life and is still behind bars.
Zelenin pled guilty to murder, but received a light sentence, 22 ½ years, and left prison in 2015.