Richard Leonard “The Iceman” Kuklinski (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 mixedPolish 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 soldier, 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 Testaand 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 onClinton 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.
Incarceration and death
In 1988, a New Jersey court convicted Kuklinski of five murders and sentenced him to consecutive life sentences, making him ineligible for parole until age 110. In 2003, he pleaded guilty to the 1980 murder of NYPD detective Peter Calabro and drew another 30 years. In the Calabro murder, in which Sammy “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.
During his incarceration, Kuklinski granted interviews to prosecutors, psychiatrists, criminologists, writers, and television producers about his criminal career, upbringing, and personal life. Two documentaries, featuring interviews of Kuklinski by Park Dietz (best known for his interviews with and analysis of Jeffrey Dahmer) aired on HBO after interviews in 1991 and 2001. Philip Carlo also wrote a book in 2006, entitled The Ice Man.
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 actually did hurt the children.
He also confessed that he once wanted to use a crossbow to carry out a hit but not without “testing” it first. While driving his car, he asked a random man for directions, shot him in the forehead with the crossbow, and stated that the arrow “went half-way into his head.”
In a 1992 interview, Kuklinski recalled what he considered his most sadistic murder.
“It was a man and he was begging, and pleading, and praying, I guess. And he was, ‘Please, God, no,’-ing 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.”
Kuklinski died at the age of 70 at 1:15 a.m. on March 5, 2006. He was in a secure wing at St. Francis Medical Center in Trenton, New Jersey, at the time, although the timing of his death has been labeled suspicious; Kuklinski was scheduled to testify that former Gambino crime family underboss Sammy Gravano had ordered him to murder New York Police Department Detective Peter Calabro. Kuklinski had admitted to murdering Calabro with a shotgun on the night of March 14, 1980. He denied knowing that Calabro was a police officer, but said he would have murdered him regardless. At the time Kuklinski was scheduled to testify, Gravano was already incarcerated for an unrelated charge, serving a 19-year prison sentence for running an ecstasy ring in Arizona. Kuklinski also stated to family members that he thought “they” were poisoning him. A few days after Kuklinski’s death, prosecutors dropped all charges against Gravano, saying that without Kuklinski’s testimony there was insufficient evidence to continue. At the request of Kuklinski’s family, forensic pathologist Michael Badenexamined the results of Kuklinski’s autopsy to determine if there was evidence of poisoning. Baden concluded he died of natural causes.