Richard Leonard "The Iceman" Kuklinski (Polish: Kukliński; April 11, 1935 – March 5, 2006) was an American contract killer. The 6'5" (196 cm), 300 pound (135 kg) Kuklinski worked for Newark's DeCavalcante crime family and New York City's Five Families. He claimed to have murdered over 250 men between 1948 and 1986. He claimed to have committed his first murder at the age of 13. Richard Kuklinski spent the last years of his freedom living with his wife and three children in suburban Dumont, New Jersey.
Kuklinski was born in a housing project in Jersey City, New Jersey, to a family of mixed Polish and Irish-American descent. His father, Stanley Kuklinski, was an alcoholic who frequently abused his wife and children. He had a brother, Joseph Kuklinski (1944–2003) who was convicted of raping and murdering a 12-year-old girl.
Kuklinski spent the remainder of his life fantasizing about murdering his father. When asked about his brother Joseph's crimes, he replied: "We come from the same father." His mother, Anna McNally Kuklinski, was also abusive to Richard, hitting him with broom handles and other household objects to stop him from stealing.
In 1940, Stanley Kuklinski beat his son, Florian, to death. In the aftermath, the Kuklinski family lied to the police, saying that Florian had fallen down a flight of steps.
By the age of 10, Richard Kuklinski began acting out against the priests and nuns at the Roman Catholic parochial school that he attended.
In 1949, Kuklinski, 14, ambushed and beat Charley Lane, the leader of a small gang of teenagers known as "The Project Boys," who had bullied him for some time. Following a particularly bad beating Kuklinski sought revenge, attacking Lane with a thick wooden dowel, eventually beating him to death, although he denied wanting to kill Lane. Kuklinski then dumped Lane's body off a bridge in South Jersey after removing his teeth and chopping off his finger tips with a hatchet in an effort to prevent identification of the body. He then went on to savagely beat the remaining six boys in Lane's gang. He later joked that "Giving is better than receiving."
By the mid-1950s, Kuklinski had earned the reputation as being an explosive pool shark who would beat or kill those who annoyed him. Eventually, his criminal acumen brought him to the attention of Newark's DeCavalcante crime family, who employed him in his first gangland slayings.
Beginning in the spring of 1954, Kuklinski began prowling Hell's Kitchen in a search 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."
Gambinos and Roy DeMeo
Kuklinski became associated with the Gambino crime family through his relationship with the soldato, Roy DeMeo, which started due to a debt Kuklinski owed to a DeMeo crew member. DeMeo was sent to 'talk' with Kuklinski and proceeded to beat and pistol whip him. Although Kuklinski was carrying a pistol at the time, he decided against using it; this earned him DeMeo's respect.
After Kuklinski paid back the money he owed, he began staging robberies and other assignments for DeMeo and the Gambino family, one of which was pirating pornographic tapes.
According to Kuklinski, DeMeo took him out in his car one day and they 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.
According to Kuklinski, he killed numerous people over the next 30 years. Lack of attention from law enforcement was partly due to Kuklinski's 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, 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 left bodies sitting on park benches.
Despite Kuklinski's claims that he was a frequent killer for DeMeo, none of DeMeo's crew members who later became witnesses for the government admitted that Kuklinski was involved in the murders they committed. He was only photographed on one occasion at the Gemini Lounge, having reportedly visited the club to purchase a handgun from the Brooklyn crew. Kuklinski claimed to have been responsible for DeMeo's murder, although the available evidence and testimony points to the murderers being fellow DeMeo crew associates Joseph Testa and Anthony Senter, as well as DeMeo's supervisor in the Gambino crime family, Anthony Gaggi.
According to Kuklinski, at the same time he was allegedly a career hit man, he met and married Barbara Pedrici, and later fathered two daughters and a son. His family and neighbors were never aware of his activities, instead believing that he was a successful businessman. Sometimes he would get up and leave the house at any time of the day or night to do a job, even if it was in the middle of dinner.
Kuklinski earned the nickname "Iceman" following his experiments with disguising the time of death of his victims by freezing their corpses in an industrial freezer. Later, he told author Philip 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. In 1984, Pronge was found shot to death in his truck.
Kuklinski's method was uncovered by the authorities when he failed to let one of his victims properly thaw before disposing of the body on Clinton Road on a warm summer's night, and the coroner found chunks of ice in the victim's heart.
State and federal manhunt
When the authorities finally caught up with Kuklinski in 1986, they based their 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. The investigation involved a joint operation with the New Jersey Attorney General's office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Kuklinski claims in the HBO interview that there was only one friend he did not kill (Phil Solimene). He believed this was the reason for his being arrested.
ATF Special Agent Dominick Polifrone had undercover experience specializing in Mafia cases. The New Jersey State Police and ATF began a joint operation. Detective Kane recruited Phil Solimene, a close friend of Kuklinski, who introduced undercover agent Polifrone to the killer. Polifrone acted as if he wanted to hire Kuklinski for a hit, and recorded him speaking in detail about how he would do it.
On December 17, 1986, Kuklinski met with a federal agent to get cyanide for a planned murder. 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. He was charged with five counts of murder and six weapons violations, as well as attempted murder, robbery and attempted robbery.
Throughout their marriage, Richard Kuklinski had used the facade of the suburban family man to conceal a litany of killing. There were murders committed in anger, others just for fun and still more for profit. For 20 years, he had made his living as one of the most proficient and prolific contract killers in the history of organised crime, a professional hitman whose claims of freezing his victims' bodies to outfox forensic experts led the media to nickname him the Ice Man.
Today, Barbara lives 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 prides herself on her intelligence and strength of will. ''Don't ask my opinion,'' she says, ''if you don't want the truth.''
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. When the financing fell apart, a rival project broadly based on Richard's life, The Iceman, went ahead, starring Michael Shannon in the title role and Winona Ryder as the killer's loyal wife. But Barbara won't receive a penny from it 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?''
Barbara says when the film was launched at Cannes, 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 Richard when she was just 18, newly employed as a secretary at Swiftline, a New Jersey trucking company. 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.
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.
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. Barbara believed him.
''I don't consider myself a fool, by any means,'' she says. ''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 Richard, 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, he 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 he killed simply because he enjoyed it. On the instructions of a member of the local Mafia family, Carmine Genovese, 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 Richard had already committed 65 murders, most of which Carlo went on to verify with Mafia contacts or police sources.
After his first apology, Richard continued to be as charming and attentive as before but he also flew into rages in which he struck Barbara 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 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 sold for $12,000 - he bought a new car, a TV set and things for the house. His 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.
''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.''
It wasn't long before Richard returned to what he did best: killing men for money. By the mid 1970s, he was kept in constant employment by the seven families of the east coast Mafia. When the organisation required that senior members die, they called him. 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 that shot down Gambino don Paul Castellano outside the Sparks Steak House in Manhattan. He even claimed to have been the man who did in teamsters union head Jimmy Hoffa, who disappeared without trace one afternoon in 1975.
Yet he meticulously compartmentalised his life, never socialising with his employers in organised crime and taking care never to reveal anything to them about his family or where he lived.
Immediately after the assassination of 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 who 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 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 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 … there's a pillow on my face, 'tonight's the night you die'.''
Richard's violence against his wife caused two miscarriages and the children eventually began to intervene when they feared he might kill her.
''I used to call it anger - it was way beyond anger,'' she says.
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.
''I wished him dead, every day,'' Barbara says. ''During the best of times, I wished him dead.''
Richard was finally undone by the closest thing he had to a friend: Phil Solimene, a local Mafia fence 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 he trusted him. Solimene proved instrumental in a police sting operation that trapped Richard 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.
The next day, Richard 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 Kane - who led the investigation that led to Richard's arrest - believes he may have killed as many as 300 men before he was caught.
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 terrified and, for 10 years, she continued to visit Richard in prison. She took his reverse-charge phone calls at home and sent food parcels. Eight years after his arrest, she got a divorce and began dating again. 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.''
In October 2005, when Richard 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.''
In the days that followed, he became conscious long enough to ask doctors to make sure they revived him if he flatlined. But 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.