For the Polish colonel and Cold War spy, see Ryszard Kukliński.
Police mug shot of Richard Kuklinski in 1982 at the age of 47, four years before his final arrest
|Born||Richard Leonard Kuklinski|
(1935-04-11)April 11, 1935
Jersey City, New Jersey, United States
|Died||March 5, 2006(2006-03-05) (aged 70)|
Trenton, New Jersey, United States
|Other names||The Iceman|
|Criminal charge||Murder (100+ counts)|
|Criminal penalty||2 life sentences|
|Spouse(s)||1st wife unidentified;|
2nd wife Barbara Kuklinski (divorced)
|Children||2 daughters & 3 sons|
|Parent(s)||Stanisław "Stanley" Kuklinski (father) & Anna Kuklinski (nee McNally) (mother)|
Richard Leonard Kuklinski (Apr 11, 1935 – March 5, 2006) was an American contract killer, mass murderer who was convicted of murdering 6 people, though the true number of murders he committed is thought to be over two hundred (according to Kuklinski himself). Even though his body count is substantial, he is not considered a serial killer. He was associated with members of the American Mafia, namely the DeCavalcante crime family of Newark, New Jersey, and the Five Families of New York City.
Kuklinski was given the nickname "The Iceman" for his method of freezing a victim to mask the time of death. During his criminal career, fellow mobsters called him "the one-man army" or "the devil himself" due to his fearsome reputation and imposing physique of 6 ft 5 in (196 cm) and 270 pounds (122 kg). Kuklinski lived with his wife and children in the New Jersey suburb of Dumont. His family was apparently unaware of Kuklinski's double life and crimes.
By the early to mid-1980s, Kuklinski was involved in narcotics, pornography, arms dealing, money laundering, hijacking and contract killing. While his range of criminal activities expanded, he began to make mistakes. Although Kuklinski is claimed to have killed anyone who could testify against him, he got sloppy about disposing of his victims. Law enforcement began to suspect Kuklinski and started an investigation, gathering evidence about the various crimes he had committed. The eighteen month long undercover investigation led to his arrest in 1986. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1988, with an additional 30 years added on.
After his murder convictions, Kuklinski took part in a number of interviews during which he claimed to have murdered from over 100 to 250 men between 1948 and 1986, though his recollection of events sometimes varied. Some have expressed skepticism about the extent of Kuklinski's alleged murders, but law enforcement are confident in their belief that he was a serial killer who killed at least several dozen people both at the behest of organized crime bosses and on his own initiative.
Three documentaries, two biographies, a feature film starring Michael Shannon, and now a play have been produced on Kuklinski, based on his interviews and the results of the task force that brought him to justice.
Richard Kuklinski was born in the family apartment on 4th Street in Jersey City, New Jersey, to Stanisław "Stanley" Kuklinski, a Polish immigrant from Karwacz, Masovian Voivodeship and brakeman on the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad, and Anna McNally from Harsimus, a daughter of Catholic Irish immigrants from Dublin, who worked in a meat-packing plant during Richard's childhood.
Richard was constantly abused by his parents, especially by his father, who repeatedly beat him. His mother also beat him with broom handles (sometimes breaking the handle) and other household objects. She believed that stern discipline should be accompanied by a strict religious upbringing, and raised her son in the Roman Catholic Church, where he became an altar boy. Kuklinski later rejected Catholicism. He killed cats during his childhood.
Richard had three siblings. His older brother Florian died of injuries suffered from abuse by his father. The family lied to the police, saying that he had fallen down a flight of steps. He had a younger sister, Roberta, and a younger brother, Joseph (1944–2003), who was convicted of raping and murdering a 12-year-old girl. When asked about his brother's crimes, Richard replied: "We come from the same father."
Marriage and children
Before he became a contract killer, Kuklinski worked in a warehouse in New Jersey. He was married with two sons when he met Barbara Pedrici. She claimed in an interview with The Telegraph's Adam Higginbotham that once, during an argument in a car, during which she told Richard she wanted to see other people, "Kuklinski responded by silently jabbing her from behind with a hunting knife so sharp she didn’t even feel the blade go in. 'I felt the blood running down my back,' she says. He told her that she belonged to him, and that if she tried to leave he would kill her entire family; when Barbara began screaming at him in anger, he throttled her into unconsciousness.
Kuklinski and Barbara married and had two daughters, Merrick and Christin, and a son, Dwayne. Barbara described his behavior as alternating between "good Richie" and "bad Richie." Good Richie was a hard-working provider for his family's needs, and an affectionate father and husband who enjoyed time with his family. In contrast, bad Richie would appear at irregular intervals: sometimes one day after another, other times not appearing for months. Bad Richie was prone to unpredictable fits of rage and violence; he was physically abusive mainly to his wife and emotionally abusive towards his children.
Kuklinski's family and neighbors were never aware of his activities, and instead believed he was a successful businessman. Barbara suspected that Kuklinski was at least occasionally involved in crime due in part to his possession of large amounts of cash, but she never expressed these worries to him.
Authorities described Kuklinski as unusual amongst both mobsters and killers. Apart from his violent temper, he had none of the vices common among criminals; he was not an abuser of drugs or alcohol, he was not a womanizer, he did not gamble. His motives for murder were also unusual, not fitting neatly into standard serial killer categories of lust murder, revenge murder, or "angels of mercy", for example.
Kuklinski claimed that he first killed in adolescence, allegedly using a closet clothes-hanging rod to bludgeon a neighborhood boy who had bullied and teased him. By the mid-1950s, he had earned a reputation as an explosive pool shark who would beat or kill those who annoyed him. Eventually, Kuklinski claimed his criminal activity brought him to the attention of Newark's DeCavalcante crime family, who hired him for his first gangland slayings.
Beginning in the spring of 1954, Kuklinski began prowling Hell's Kitchen searching for victims. According to author Philip Carlo:
He came to Manhattan numerous times over the ensuing weeks and months and killed people, always men, never a female, he says, always someone who rubbed him the wrong way, for some imagined or extremely slight reason. He shot, stabbed, and bludgeoned men to death. He left some where they dropped. He dumped some into the nearby Hudson River. Murder, for Richard, became sport. The New York police came to believe that the bums were attacking and killing one another, never suspecting that a full-fledged serial killer from Jersey City was coming over to Manhattan's West Side for the purpose of killing people, to practice and perfect murder. Richard made the West Side of Manhattan a kind of lab for murder, a school, he says.
Kuklinski later recalled:
By now you know what I liked most was the hunt, the challenge of what the thing was. The killing for me was secondary. I got no rise as such out of it…for the most part. But the figuring it out, the challenge—the stalking and doing it right, successfully—that excited me a lot. The greater the odds against me, the more juice I got out of it.
According to Carlo:
Richard was bipolar and should have been taking medication to stabilise his behavior, his sudden highs and lows, but going to see a psychiatrist was out of the question. He'd be admitting something was wrong with him, and he'd never do that.
In contrast to Carlo's opinion, however, Kuklinski was interviewed by psychiatrist Park Dietz in 2002 at Trenton State Prison. The two spoke at length, in a videotaped interview, about Kuklinski's upbringing, family life, crimes, and other events in his past. He told the doctor that he wanted to know what events or mental irregularities made him able to perform the acts of which he was accused. After a lengthy discussion, the doctor cited nature vs. nurture, stating that his professional opinion was that both played a part in Kuklinski's development into a hitman who could be functional in other aspects of life. The doctor elaborated that Kuklinski likely inherited antisocial personality disorder from his parents and that the abuse he claims to have suffered from his father reinforced violence, activities requiring a lack of conscience, and a lack of love. Dietz also stated that Kuklinski suffered from paranoid personality disorder, which caused him to kill people for minor slights or criticisms, often long after they occurred.
Gambinos and Roy DeMeo
Kuklinski became associated with the Gambino crime family through his relationship with the soldatoRoy DeMeo, which started because of a debt Kuklinski owed to a DeMeo crew member. DeMeo and several members of his crew were sent to intimidate Kuklinski and proceeded to beat and pistol whip him. After Kuklinski repaid his debt, he continued working with the DeMeo gang, earning their respect for continually earning cash and gradually drifting into other criminal activities.
After Kuklinski paid back the money he owed, he began staging robberies and other assignments for DeMeo and the Gambinos, one of which was making unauthorized copies of pornographic tapes. In 2011, former Gambino associate Greg Bucceroni alleged that Kuklinski often traveled between Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York handling a variety of concerns involving the Gambinos' pornography establishments, including trafficking illegal pornography, debt collection and murder for hire on behalf of DeMeo and Robert "DB" DiBernardo.
According to Kuklinski, DeMeo took him out in his car one day and parked on a city street. DeMeo then selected a random target, a man walking his dog. He then ordered Kuklinski to kill him. Without hesitating, Kuklinski got out, walked towards the man and shot him in the back of the head as he passed by. From then on, Kuklinski was DeMeo's favorite enforcer.
Kuklinski would claim to have killed numerous people over the next 30 years. Lack of attention from law enforcement was partly due to his ever-changing methods: he used guns, knives, explosives, tire irons, fire, poison, asphyxiation, and even bare-handed beatings "just for the exercise". The exact number has never been settled upon by authorities, and Kuklinski himself at various times claimed to have killed more than 200 people. He favored the use of cyanide, since it killed quickly and was hard to detect in a toxicology test. He would variously administer it by injection, by putting it on a person's food, by aerosol spray, or by simply spilling it on the victim's skin. One of his favorite methods of disposing of a body was to place it in a 55-gallon oil drum. His other disposal methods included dismemberment, burial, or placing the body in the trunk of a car and having it crushed in a junkyard. He also claimed to have fed living human beings to huge cave rats in Pennsylvania and recorded footage in order to collect torture contracts and for convenient disposal. Upon viewing one of these tapes, DeMeo reportedly could not finish watching and said Kuklinski "had no soul".
Kuklinski earned the nickname "The Iceman" because of his experiments in disguising the time of death of his victims by freezing their corpses in an industrial freezer. Later, he told Carlo that he got the idea from fellow hitman Robert Pronge, nicknamed "Mister Softee", who drove a Mister Softee truck to appear inconspicuous. Pronge taught Kuklinski the different methods of using cyanide to kill his victims. Kuklinski also claimed to have purchased remotely detonated hand grenades from Pronge. Pronge allegedly asked him to carry out a hit on Pronge's own wife and child, which would have been against Kuklinski's stated code against killing women and children. In 1984, Pronge was found fatally shot in his truck.
In the book The Iceman: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer, Kuklinski claimed to know the fate of Teamsters Union boss Jimmy Hoffa: his body was placed in a drum and set on fire for "a half hour or so," then the drum was welded shut and buried in a junkyard. Later, according to Kuklinski, an accomplice started to talk to federal authorities and there was fear that he would use the information to try to get out of trouble. The drum was dug up, placed in the trunk of a car, and compacted to a 4 × 2 foot rectangular prism. It was sold, along with hundreds of other compacted cars, as scrap metal. It was shipped off to Japan to be used in making new cars.
Independent experimentation and decline
By the 1980s, after 25 years of working as a hitman for the mafia, Kuklinski started his own crime ring, and devised new ways to profit from killing people. The case of pharmacist Paul Hoffman was typical of Kuklinski's methodology. Hoffman hoped to make a large profit by illegally purchasing large quantities of Tagamet, a popular drug used to treat peptic ulcers, at low cost to resell through his pharmacy.
On the afternoon of April 29, 1982, Hoffman met Kuklinski at a warehouse Kuklinski leased to buy the Tagamet for USD$25,000. After Hoffman gave him the money, Kuklinski told him that the deal was a ruse. Kuklinski placed the barrel of his pistol under Hoffman's chin and pulled the trigger. The shot did not kill Hoffman, so Kuklinski tried to shoot him again, only for the gun to jam. Kuklinski then resorted to killing Hoffman by beating him to death with a tire iron. Kuklinski then placed Hoffman's corpse inside a fifty-gallon drum and brazenly left it on the sidewalk outside a motel behind a luncheonette called Harry's Corner. Kuklinski monitored the drum for some time, sitting in Harry's Corner every day to listen for talk amongst the patrons that would indicate the body's discovery. After what Kuklinski related as a long time, he noticed one day that the drum was no longer there, but could not discern any details about its fate from listening to the patrons.
Gary Smith discovered
Kuklinski's first major mistake was discovered on December 27, 1982, when the decomposing body of 37-year-old Gary Smith was discovered under the bed in Room 31 at the York Motel in North Bergen, New Jersey. Smith had been a collaborator of Kuklinski's who often ran car theft scams with him and another man, Daniel Deppner. Kuklinski and Deppner killed Smith on December 23 by feeding him a cyanide-laced hamburger at the York Motel. When Smith took longer to die from the cyanide than Kuklinski expected, he grew impatient and had Deppner strangle Smith with a lamp cord. When Deppner's ex-wife, Barbara, failed to return with a car to remove the body, they placed it in between the mattress and box springs. Over the next four days, a number of patrons rented the room, and although they thought the smell in the room was odd, most of them did not think to look under the bed. According to forensic pathologistMichael Baden, Smith's death would likely have been attributed to something non-homicidal in nature had Kuklinski relied solely on the cyanide; however, the ligature mark around Smith's neck (and, presumably, the fact that the body had been deliberately hidden) proved to investigators that he was murdered.
Daniel Deppner's murder
Deppner's body was found on May 14, 1983, when it was preyed on by a turkey vulture. A bicyclist riding down Clinton Road in a wooded area of West Milford, New Jersey, spotted the bird and found the corpse. Kuklinski had put the body inside green garbage bags before dumping the body there. Investigators noted that the site of the body's discovery was just over three miles (5 km) from a ranch where Kuklinski's family often went riding. Medical examiners listed Deppner's cause of death as "undetermined", although they noted pinkish spots on his skin. He was the third business associate of Kuklinski's to have been found dead.
Louis Masgay discovered
On September 25, 1983, Kuklinski made another significant mistake when Louis Masgay was found dead near a town park off Clausland Mountain Road in Orangetown, New York, with a bullet hole in his head. Kuklinski, as he had done many times before, attempted to disguise Masgay's time of death by storing his corpse in an industrial freezer for two years. This time, Kuklinski did not allow the body to thaw completely before he dumped it. The Rockland County medical examiner found ice crystals inside the body on a warm September day. Had the body thawed completely before discovery, the medical examiner stated that he probably would have never noticed Kuklinski's trickery. This discovery helped authorities to deduce that Kuklinski used a freezer as part of his modus operandi and led them to give Kuklinski the nickname "Iceman".
Eventually five unsolved homicides, including the deaths of Hoffman, Smith, Deppner, Masgay, and George Malliband (found in Jersey City on February 5, 1980) were linked to Kuklinski because he had been the last person to see each of them alive.
State and federal manhunt
In 1985, a division of the New Jersey Criminal Justice Department created a task force composed of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, including New Jersey Attorney General's office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, dedicated to arresting and convicting Richard Kuklinski. The task force, nicknamed "Operation Iceman", based its case almost entirely on the testimony of undercover agent Dominick Polifrone and the evidence built by New Jersey State Police detective Pat Kane, who began the case against Kuklinski six years earlier.
Starting in 1985, Detective Kane and ATF Special Agent Dominick Polifrone worked with Phil Solimene, a close friend of Kuklinski, to get Polifrone close to Kuklinski. Polifrone posed to Kuklinski as a fellow hitman, Dominic Michael Provenzano. Polifrone told Kuklinski he wanted to hire him for a hit, and recorded Kuklinski speaking in detail about how he would do it. Kuklinski claims in the HBO interview that Solimene was the only friend he did not kill.
On December 17, 1986, it was arranged for Kuklinski to meet Polifrone to get cyanide for a planned murder, which was to be an attempt on a police detective working undercover. After being recorded by Polifrone, Kuklinski went for a walk by himself. He tested Polifrone's (purported) cyanide on a stray dog and saw it was not poison. Suspicious, Kuklinski decided not to go through with the planned murder and went home instead. He was arrested at a roadblock two hours later. A gun was found in the car, and his wife was charged with trying to prevent his arrest.
Prosecutors charged Kuklinski with five murder counts and six weapons violations, as well as attempted murder, robbery, and attempted robbery. Officials said Kuklinski had large sums of money in Swiss bank accounts and a reservation on a flight to that country. Kuklinski was held on a $2 million bail bond and made to surrender his passport. In March 1988, a jury found Kuklinski guilty of two murders, but found that the deaths were not proven to be by Kuklinski's own conduct, meaning he would not face the death penalty. In all, Kuklinski was convicted of five murders and sentenced to consecutive life sentences, making him ineligible for parole until age 110.
Statements made during interviews
During his incarceration, Kuklinski granted interviews to prosecutors, psychiatrists, criminologists, the first writer known was Pavle Stanimirovic and many television producers spoke to him about his criminal career, upbringing, and personal life. Three documentaries, the last featuring interviews of Kuklinski by forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz, aired on HBO in 1992, 2001 and 2003. Writers Anthony Bruno, Michael Wells Jr. and Philip Carlo, Pavle Stanimirovic, Burl Barer each wrote a biography of Kuklinski.
In one interview, Kuklinski claimed that he would never kill a child and "most likely wouldn't kill a woman". However, according to one of his daughters he once told her that he would have to kill her and her two siblings should he happen to beat her mother to death in a fit of rage. At the same time, his wife Barbara has stated that he never hurt the children. However, she says that he frequently beat her up, breaking her nose several times. According to the New York Times, Kuklinski tried to smother her with a pillow, pointed a gun at her and tried to run her over with a car.
Attesting to the randomness of his crimes and violence, Kuklinski confessed he wanted to use a crossbow to carry out a hit, but not without testing its lethality first. While driving his car he asked a stranger for directions and used the crossbow to shoot the man in the forehead. Kuklinski described that the arrow "went half-way into his head".
In a 1991 interview, Kuklinski recalled one of the few murders he later regretted committing:
It was a man and he was begging, and pleading, and praying, I guess. And he was 'Please, God'n all over the place. So I told him he could have a half an hour to pray to God and if God could come down and change the circumstances, he'd have that time. But God never showed up and he never changed the circumstances and that was that. It wasn't too nice. That's one thing, I shouldn't have done that one. I shouldn't have done it that way.
In 2003, Kuklinski pleaded guilty to the 1980 murder of New York Police Department Detective Peter Calabro. He received another sentence of 30 years. In the Calabro murder, in which Gambino crime family underbossSammy "The Bull" Gravano was also charged, Kuklinski said he parked his van on the side of a narrow road, forcing other drivers to slow down to pass. He lay in a snowbank until Calabro came by at 2 a.m., then stepped out and shot him with a shotgun. He denied knowing that Calabro was a police officer, but said he more than likely would have murdered him anyway. Kuklinski was kept in Bergen County Jail in NJ in solitary confinement.
In October 2005, after nearly 18 years in prison, Kuklinski was diagnosed with an incurable form of Kawasaki disease, an inflammation of the blood vessels and was transferred to a secure wing at St. Francis Medical Center in Trenton, New Jersey. Although he had asked doctors to make sure they revived him if he developed cardiopulmonary arrest (or risk of heart attack), his then-former wife Barbara had signed a "do not resuscitate" order. A week before his death, the hospital called Barbara to ask if she wished to rescind the instruction, but she declined. Kuklinski died at age 70 on March 5, 2006. His body was cremated.
Michael Shannon plays Kuklinski in the 2012 film The Iceman based on Anthony Bruno's book The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer. The film also stars Winona Ryder as Kuklinski's wife (renamed Deborah), Ray Liotta as Roy DeMeo, Stephen Dorff as Richard's younger brother Joey, and Chris Evans as Robert "Mr. Softee" (renamed "Mr. Freezy") Pronge.
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- ^ abcdefghiThe Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer. 1992. America Undercover. HBO.
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- Carlo, Philip (2006). The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer. New York, New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 978-0-312-34928-8.
Winona Ryder as Barbara Kuklinski in 'The Ice Man'. Credit: Anne Marie Fox
Today, Barbara Kuklinskilives in a small flat in the basement of a white shingled house in suburban New York State, which she shares with her younger daughter Christin and her boyfriend, and three dogs. At 71, she suffers from arthritis of the spine and a cluster of other chronic illnesses she believes stem from the years she spent living in the shadow of her husband. A nurse visits once a week. Outspoken and direct, Barbara prides herself on her intelligence and strength of will: “Don’t ask my opinion,” she says, “if you don’t want the truth.”
Once accustomed to the expensively upholstered trappings of suburbia, her husband’s arrest left her with nothing and she was forced to look to her children for support. Until recently, her story was being developed as part of a film scheduled to star Mickey Rourke as her murderous former husband; but when the financing fell apart, a rival project broadly based on Kuklinski’s life, The Iceman, went ahead, starring Michael Shannon in the title role, and Winona Ryder as the killer’s loyal wife. The film will be released this June, but Barbara won’t receive a penny from the production and has no intention of seeing it. “Never. I won’t. I don’t like anything violent. And I understand it’s extremely violent.” It is also, she says, “far from the truth… and who is that Winona Ryder? Are you kidding me?”
When the film was launched at Cannes, Barbara says she was furious to hear the actress comment of the character she plays in the film, “I’m as guilty as he was.” Recalling this, the widow of the Ice Man casts a sardonic eye around the tiny living room, her crochet and the framed family portraits clustered on the TV set. “Yeah,” she says. “Can’t you see how I’ve benefited?”
Barbara first met Kuklinski when she was just 18, fresh from high school and newly employed as a secretary at Swiftline, a New Jersey trucking company. A clever, popular girl with a sarcastic sense of humour, her idea of living dangerously was taking a flask of rum out on a Saturday night so she and her friends could spike their Cokes before going for Chinese food and a movie. Barbara had wanted to go to art school, but when she accompanied a friend to an interview at Swiftline and ended up being offered a job herself, she took it. Richard worked on the loading dock there. He was seven years older than Barbara, married with two young sons but, nevertheless, she agreed to go out with him on a double date.
“He was the perfect gentleman,” she says. “We went to the movies and then we went for pizza, and he got up and played Save the Last Dance for Me on the jukebox.” The next morning he turned up at her house with flowers and a gift, and she agreed to a second date. “And that was the end,” she says now.
Barbara had never really had a boyfriend before, and she was flattered by the attention: when she left work in the evenings, she would find Richard waiting for her with flowers; he was charming and courteous, constantly at her elbow. And although he wasn’t Italian, her family came to like him. Yet as the months passed, Barbara gradually realised she had become isolated from her friends, and rarely saw anyone but Richard. Sitting in his car one day after work, she gathered the courage to tell him how she felt: that she was only 19 and wanted the space to see other people. Richard responded by silently jabbing her from behind with a hunting knife so sharp she didn’t even feel the blade go in. “I felt the blood running down my back,” she says. He told her that she belonged to him, and that if she tried to leave he would kill her entire family; when Barbara began screaming at him in anger, he throttled her into unconsciousness.
Barbara Kuklinski. Credit: Mark Mahaney
The following day, Richard was waiting for her again after work, with flowers, and a teddy bear. He apologised, and told her he wanted to marry her. He would get a divorce from his wife. He had threatened her because he loved her so much it made him crazy. Young, inexperienced and credulous, Barbara believed him.
“I don’t consider myself a fool, by any means,” she says now. “But I was raised a good little Catholic girl. I was protected. I had never seen the ugly side of anything.” In fact, by the time Barbara had caught her first glimpse of true darkness in Kuklinski, he had already done things more terrible than she could possibly have imagined.
Born to a violent alcoholic father and a religiously devout mother, Richard grew up in a Polish enclave of Jersey City. During prison interviews conducted by the writer Philip Carlo in 2004 Kuklinski admitted he killed for the first time at the age of 14. He beat a neighbourhood bully to death with an improvised wooden club and buried his body in the remote Pine Barrens of New Jersey.
Over the next 10 years, as he embarked in earnest on a criminal career, committing robberies and truck hijackings, he began murdering with increasing frequency: an off-duty policeman who accused him of cheating at pool, members of his own gang, homeless men whom he killed simply because he enjoyed it. On the instructions of Carmine Genovese, a member of the local Mafia family, he carried out his first professional hit at 18. A true psychopath, he frequently tortured his victims before killing them, and concealed the evidence of his crimes by disposing of bodies in mine shafts or removing their fingers and teeth. According to Carlo’s The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer, by the time he met Barbara in 1961 Kuklinski had already committed 65 murders, most of which Carlo went on to verify with either Mafia contacts or police sources.
But if Barbara initially stayed with Richard out of naivety, that ignorance was soon overwhelmed by fear. After his first apology, he continued to be as charming and attentive as before, but also flew into rages in which he struck her or grabbed her around the throat. Convinced she could never leave him, she agreed to get married. Their first child, a daughter named Merrick, was born two years later, in 1964.
At first, Richard apparently tried to go straight and took work in a film lab, but after a while he started staying late to print bootleg copies of films, first Disney cartoons and later pornography. Then he began making extra money hijacking trucks. With one of his first big scores – a shipment of stolen jeans he fenced for $12,000 – he bought a new car, a TV set and things for the house. Kuklinski’s illegal proceeds allowed the couple to expand their family – they had Christin and a son, Dwayne – and move into the big house on Sunset Street. Yet Barbara never asked where all the money came from. Richard didn’t like questions and was savage and unpredictable even when in an apparently good mood. The idea that he was involved in anything illegal never occurred to her, or, if it did, she won’t admit it.
“I’ll be the first one to say, maybe I was naive, because I never saw anything like that,” Barbara says. “My family never did anything like that.” And it wasn’t long before Richard returned to what he did best: killing men for money. By the mid-Seventies, his reputation for cruelty and efficiency had spread across the United States, and he was kept in constant employment by the seven families of the East Coast Mafia: including the DeCavalcantes in New Jersey and the Gambinos, the Luccheses, and Bonannos in New York. He claimed that he would never harm either women or children, but otherwise murdered those who owed the mob money, and others who had slighted or insulted its soldiers and lieutenants, or simply become inconvenient. When the organisation required that senior members die, they called Kuklinski: in 1979, he was responsible for the daylight assassination of Carmine Galante, head of the Bonanno family; in 1985, he was part of the hit squad who shot down Gambino Don Paul Castellano outside the Sparks Steak House in Manhattan. Kuklinski even claimed to have been the man who did in Teamsters union head Jimmy Hoffa, who disappeared without trace one afternoon in 1975.
Yet Kuklinski meticulously compartmentalised his life, never socialising with his employers in organised crime, taking care never to reveal anything to them about his family or where he lived. This isolation from the daily relationships of the Cosa Nostra both helped him avoid detection for his crimes, and to maintain his hometown identity as the hearty paterfamilias.
Richard Kuklinski with daughters Merrick and Christin. Credit: Courtesy of Barabara Kuklinski/ Mainstream Publishing
Here was a man who could never do enough for his children – who sent them all to expensive private schools; who enjoyed feeding the ducks on the pond in nearby Demarest; who charmed the guests at the family’s weekly barbecues, to which everyone on the block was invited. Immediately after the assassination of Paul Castellano, Richard ditched his coat and gun, caught the bus back to New Jersey and settled down at home to watch his wife and daughters wrapping Christmas presents. The neighbours never suspected a thing: “They thought he was great,” Barbara says. “Everybody that met him thought I was the luckiest person in the world. The flower truck there once a week, I had new jewellery, he bought me a $12,000 raccoon coat…”
Throughout their years together, Richard’s obsessive attachment to his wife never diminished, and, as befitted a dedicated country and western listener, he was both feverishly jealous and mawkishly romantic. He nicknamed Barbara “Lady” and, when they went out to dinner together, often phoned ahead to ensure that the Kenny Rogers song of the same name would play in the restaurant as they walked in.
But his mood could switch in an instant. During their marriage, he blackened her eyes, broke her ribs, shattered furniture and – with almost superhuman strength – tore the fabric of the house apart with his bare hands. Often, the murderous rages came upon him for no reason at all: they might have a wonderful dinner together, he would bring her a cup of tea before bed, “and the next thing I know it’s two o’clock in the morning,” she explains, “there’s a pillow on my face: ‘Tonight’s the night you die!’” Kuklinski’s violence against his wife caused two miscarriages, and the children eventually began to intervene when they feared that he might otherwise kill her.
“I used to call it anger – it was way beyond anger. He was sick. And there were times when I begged him to seek help,” she says. Unsurprisingly, he refused to take medication or see a psychiatrist. When Christin was 16 or 17 she and Barbara plotted to poison her father. Eventually, they realised they just couldn’t do it. For one thing, Kuklinski often handed scraps of his food to the family’s beloved Newfoundland to eat; but it gave them both hope for a while. “I wished him dead, every day,” Barbara says. “During the best of times, I wished him dead.”
Kuklinski was finally undone by the closest thing he had to a friend: Phil Solimene, a local Mafia fence whom the hit man had known for more than 20 years. In that time, Richard and Barbara had dinner with Solimene and his wife just once, but it was a mark of the degree to which Kuklinski trusted him. Solimene proved instrumental in a police sting operation that trapped Kuklinski into discussing a conspiracy to kill on tape. In the hours after he and Barbara were arrested, police entered the house on Sunset Street with a warrant, expecting to discover stashes of weapons; they found nothing. “Believe me, there were no guns in my house,” Barbara says, with something like pride.
Richard Kuklinski being escorted by police from a court room, Dec. 17, 1986. Credit: AP Images
The next day, Kuklinski was charged with five murders. In 1988 he was found guilty of four of them. Later, he was convicted of two more; in interviews he gave later in prison he claimed responsibility for 250 deaths. But Pat Kane – who led the investigation that led to Kuklinski’s arrest – believes he may have killed as many as 300 men before he was caught. “He killed who he wanted, whenever he wanted,” says Kane, at 64 now retired from the state police. “He didn’t have a full-time job. That was what he did.”
Kuklinski revelled in his infamy and never expressed any remorse for his victims. “I’ve never felt sorry for anything I’ve done,” he said during one of the TV interviews he gave from prison. “Other than hurting my family. I do want my family to forgive me.”
But Barbara remained terrifed he would reach her, her children or other relatives and for 10 years she continued to visit Kuklinski in prison. She took his reverse charge phone calls at home and sent food parcels. But as the children grew up, her personal visits became less frequent. Eight years after his arrest, she got a divorce and began dating again. And when a pair of cable TV documentaries made Kuklinski a kind of celebrity, she had his calls patched through the film production office. Finally, during one telephone conversation with Barbara, he said something ugly about the children and she put the phone down on him. The fourth time he called back, she picked up the phone with a curt, “Yep?”
If you ever do that again – he began, and she cut him off. “What are you going to do about it, Richard? Do you realise now that there’s nothing you could do? If you ever say anything against my children again, I will never accept another call.” “But that,” she says now, “took a long time.” In October 2005, when Richard Kuklinski was 70 and had spent 25 years in prison, his health began to decline and, diagnosed with a rare and incurable inflammation of the blood vessels, was eventually transferred to hospital. In March the following year, Barbara took her daughter to visit him there; he told them he was the victim of an assassination plot. As he lay in intensive care, he wanted to confide one last thing to his ex-wife.
“You’re such a good person,” he told her. “You were always such a good person.” Barbara left the room without replying. But as she walked down the hallway to leave she turned to her daughter. “I will regret for the rest of my life,” she said, “that I didn’t just tell him the bastard he is and how much I hate him. I wish the last words he’d heard had been how much I hated his guts.”
In the days that followed, as Richard Kuklinski’s life finally slipped away, he became conscious long enough to ask doctors to make sure they revived him if he flatlined. But before she left, Barbara had signed a “do not resuscitate” order. A week before his death, in the early hours of March 5 2006, the hospital called Barbara to ask if she wished to rescind the instruction. She did not.
The Iceman is released today
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