Murders A-Z

Woman Sentenced To Life In Prison For Axing Husband To Death After He Met Younger Woman, Asked For Divorce

"The first bag had an axe, hacksaw, a scalpel... The third bag looked like intestines to me. That's when I called for backup.”

Murders A-Z is a collection of true crime stories that take an in-depth look at both little-known and famous murders throughout history. 

Like many immigrants who come to the United States, Rita Gluzman wanted her piece of “The American Dream.” She wanted the opportunity to make something of herself and rise above the rough circumstances she was born into, under the oppressive yoke of communism.

She was willing to work hard and wanted to be rewarded with the finest goods and luxury items she could afford. She fought to achieve the life she dreamed of as a poor Jewish girl in Soviet Ukraine. And when that life seemed threatened, she would do anything to keep it, even if it meant killing her husband with an axe and chopping him to bits.

Born Rita Shapiro in 1948, she saw a good education as the only way out of her impoverished surroundings. She studied hard at school, eventually becoming a chemical engineer, and fell in love with a brilliant young scientist she met there named Yakov Gluzman. After getting married, Rita became pregnant in 1970, and the couple sought to emigrate to Israel. When their request was denied, they — along with other young Soviet Jews whose emigration requests were refused — spoke out against the government, becoming known as “Refuseniks.”

In 1971, after the birth to their son Ilan, Rita Gluzman was allowed to leave the Soviet Union. However, believing Yakov had a promising career ahead of him, the government would not allow him to accompany her. Rita then launched a one-woman crusade, meeting with Jewish advocacy groups and politicians, including future US president George Bush Senior.

Irving Silverman, co-founder of the Long Island Committee for Soviet Jewry, told The Jewish News of Northern California Rita was "a very, very assured person who knew her way around. She was a very determined person. What she wanted, she got."

Rita then announced a hunger strike in front of the United Nations, which lasted 18 days. Bowing to bad publicity and mounting political pressure, the Soviets finally granted Yakov Gluzman a visa. The couple settled in Israel and in 1977 moved to the United States, where Yakov quickly got a job as a cancer researcher at the prestigious Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York.

As their fortunes improved, Rita took to the good life as if she had born into it. While Yakov landed a lucrative new job with Lederle Labs and made money in the stock market, she spent it on BMWs, mink coats, jewelry and lavish cosmetic treatments for herself and her small dog. The family eventually moved to the upscale New Jersey suburb of Upper Saddle River, where spacious homes sit on large plots of land with immaculately maintained lawns, and the average household income hovers around $180,000 a year.

In the world of cancer and disease research, Yakov Gluzman was a bit of a rock star. His breakthroughs brought him great financial rewards, however, he was never comfortable with the wealthy lifestyle his wife pursued. Hoping to ground her and give her something to do, he purchased the small electronics company, ECI Technology for her to run. Unfortunately, she ran it into the ground.

When their adult son moved out of the house, the Gluzman’s marriage began to unravel. Yakov found solace in the company of a young Israeli microbiologist named Raisa Korenblit, and they soon fell in love. In 1995, he moved out and filed for divorce. Rita did not take the news well.

“She was incensed,” Special FBI agent Hilda Kogut told Oxygen’s "Snapped." “She was so invested in what he had become in the United States, and how dare he think that he could leave her.”  

The Gluzman’s divorce turned ugly. In court documents quoted in the New York Daily News, Yakov said, “Her condescending attitude was repulsive, her remarks insensitive, and the longer we lived in Upper Saddle River, the worse it became."

He refused to give up ECI Technology and said he wanted to move back to Israel with Raisa. In response, Rita reportedly had his phones tapped and tried to blackmail her husband, threatening Yakov and members of his family. After a year and a half of negotiations, he had enough and agreed to give Rita the bulk of their estate, valued at $1.5 million. But according to "Snapped," that wasn’t good enough for Rita.

On Easter morning, 1996, Officer Richard D. Freeman of the East Rutherford Police Department was on patrol when he spotted a tall, bearded man throwing garbage bags into the Passaic River behind ECI Technology. When he stopped to question him, the man started to tremble. He was bleeding profusely from his right hand. Inside the man’s car, there were more garbage bags.

“The first bag had an axe, hacksaw, a scalpel,” Freeman told "Snapped." “The second bag had shoes I believe, and some clothing. The third bag looked like intestines to me. That's when I called for backup.”

Police found more body parts floating in the Passaic River. The man didn’t speak much English, but was identified as Vladimir Zelenin. He was originally from Kyrgyzstan, which until 1992 had been part of the Soviet Union, and he had been in America for less than two years. The car he was driving was registered to Rita Gluzman. She was his cousin, and he worked for her at ECI Technology.

When questioned by police, he told them who was in the bags: “It's Yakov Gluzman.”

Through an interpreter, Vladimir told police how Rita brought him over, found an apartment for his family, and hired him to work at ECI.

“He was totally dependent on her,” Rockland County District Attorney Louis Valvo told "Snapped." He said Rita talked him into helping her kill Yakov by saying if the divorce went through, it would be the end of ECI Technology and he’d lose his job.

Vladimir told police that on the night of April 6, 1996, he and Rita snuck into Yakov’s apartment in Pearl River, NY, and waited for him to return home from work. They were armed with an axe and a hatchet. When Yakov arrived home at 11:30 PM, they pounced.

Vladimir got the first blow in, felling Yakov. According to Vladimir, Rita then repeatedly hacked away at the man she had once fought so hard to save. In her fury, her axe slipped, cutting Vladimir on the hand. Finally, she sunk a knife deep into his heart.

Then Vladimir cut up the body while Rita cleaned up the crime scene. She told him to cut him into tiny pieces, 67 in all, including cutting off his nose and lips, so he couldn’t be identified.

After charging Vladimir with murder, police moved to check out the details of his story. Surprisingly, Yakov's apartment was immaculate, showing no signs of a murder or the bloody butchering of a body. However, neighbors did see a man and woman removing garbage bags at 3 in the morning on the night of the murder. They also found security camera footage of Rita buying bandages for Vladimir’s axe wound. What they couldn’t find was Rita Gluzman — or her passport.

[Photo: Oxygen]

Six days later, a cleaning woman at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory discovered Rita hiding in one of the facility’s vacant guest cottages. Ironically, it was where the Gluzmans had lived when they moved to the United States 19 years earlier. She escaped out a window, but security guards caught her and called the police after a former colleague of her husband recognized her.

“She had changed her hair color,” said Louis Valvo. “She had airline information.”

She also had a book on visiting Switzerland, which has been known to refuse US extradition requests. She was arrested and charged with trespassing.

Prosecutors and police believed Rita Gluzman orchestrated and participated in the murder of her husband, but they had no actual physical evidence linking her to the crime. All they had was the testimony of her cousin Vladimir Zelenin, who was caught disposing of Yakov’s remains.

As Rockland Country District Attorney Michael Bongiorno explained in "Snapped," this was a problem because under New York state law, “if you have an accomplice testifying against a defendant, you have to corroborate the accomplice's testimony. It is not enough just to have the accomplice say that the defendant did it.”  

Unable to charge her with murder, prosecutors instead charged Rita Gluzman with crossing state lines to abuse a spouse, a federal offense under 1994’s Violence Against Women Act. Despite its name, the statute was gender neutral, and Gluzman was the first women prosecuted under the new law.

“It fit perfectly with this case,” said District Attorney Valvo. “They went from the state of New Jersey into the state of New York, specifically to commit a crime against a spouse and that resulted in death.”

Rita Gluzman’s trial got underway in January of 1997 and became fodder for New York’s tabloids, which dubbed her “The Jewish Lizzie Borden.” Testimony revealed she had planned to plant cocaine on her husband’s girlfriend Raisa Korenblit and extort her husband, leading to additional charges.

When Vladimir repeated the gory details of the murder and dismemberment, Rita fainted and sobbed in court, leading Yakov’s mother Sonia to yell out, “When you kill, you cannot cry,” according to the Daily News.

At the end of the three-week trial, it took a jury just 10 hours to find Rita Gluzman guilty on all charges. At her sentencing three months later, her grown son Ilan asked the judge for leniency.

A statement from Yakov’s parents read, “For 25 years she gradually demolished him emotionally and in the 26th year she dismembered him physically.”

Ever defiant, Rita still insisted on her innocence.

“Your honor, I did not do not do that and still say that in front of the world,'' The New York Times reported her saying at the time. She received the maximum sentence of life in prison. Now 69 years old, she is currently incarcerated at FMC Carswell, a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas for female inmates with special health needs.

In May 1997, Vladimir Zelenin was sentenced to 22-and-a-half years in prison after pleading guilty to interstate domestic violence resulting in death. His testimony against Rita Gluzman helped shave almost eight years off his sentence, a move objected to by Ilan Gluzman,

According to The New York Times, he said, ''The murder could not have occurred without Vladimir Zelenin's hands." He was released from Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in January of 2015.

[Photo: Oxygen]

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