Richard Leonard Kuklinski (/kʊˈklɪnski/; April 11, 1935 – March 5, 2006) was an American hitman and serial killer. He was convicted of murdering six people, but confessed to and is suspected of far more murders. 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 (120 kg). Kuklinski lived with his wife and children in the New Jersey suburb of Dumont. His family claims to be unaware of Kuklinski's double life and crimes.
Throughout his criminal life, Kuklinski was involved in narcotics, pornography, arms dealing, money laundering, collecting debts for loan sharking, 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 he thought might testify against him, he became sloppy regarding the disposal of his victims' bodies. 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 for murdering a mob-corrupted police officer.
After his murder convictions, Kuklinski took part in a number of interviews during which he claimed to have murdered anywhere from 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 a play have been produced about Kuklinski, based on his interviews and the results of the task force that brought him to justice.
Richard Kuklinski was born in his family's apartment on 4th Street in Jersey City, New Jersey, to Stanisław "Stanley" Kukliński (1906–1977), a Jewish Polish immigrant from Karwacz, Masovian Voivodeship who worked as a brakeman on the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad, and Anna McNally (1911–1972) from Harsimus, a daughter of Catholic Irish immigrants from Dublin, who worked in a meat-packing plant during Richard's childhood.
Kuklinski grew up in an abusive household; his alcoholic father repeatedly beat him throughout his childhood. Kuklinski claimed his mother beat him with broom handles (sometimes breaking the handle on his body during the assaults) and other household objects. Kuklinski later recalled during an interview with Park Dietz, an incident during his pre-teen years when his mother had attempted homicide on her husband by stabbing him with a kitchen knife. Anna was a zealous Christian, 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, however. He exhibited cruelty to animals as a young boy, killing neighborhood cats by tying their tails together with rope and throwing them over clothing lines to watch them tear each other apart, and during different times, pitching individual cats alive into basement incinerators watching through the thick glass oven doors as the terrified feline ran around in circles until consumed by the fire. Kuklinski would sometimes fantasize about murdering his father when he was torturing stray dogs he captured around his hometown neighborhood.
Kuklinski had three siblings. His older brother Florian (1933–1941) died at the age of eight from injuries inflicted by his father during a violent beating. The family lied to the police, saying that Florian had fallen down a flight of steps. Stanley abandoned the family shortly after he murdered his first son. Kuklinski, who was the second son, had a younger sister, Roberta (1942–2010), and a younger brother, Joseph (1944–2003), who in 1970 was convicted of raping a 12-year-old girl and murdering her by throwing her off the top of a five-story building (along with her pet dog). When asked about his brother's crimes, Kuklinski replied: "We come from the same father."
Marriage and children
Before he became a contract killer, Kuklinski worked at a warehouse in New Jersey. He was already married to a woman 9 years older than him named Linda and had two sons (Richard Jr. and David), at the time he met Barbara Pedrici who worked as a secretary in the same business as Richard. She claimed in an interview with The Telegraph's Adam Higginbotham that once, during an argument in a car, during which Pedrici 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 in 1961 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 and an affectionate father and loving husband, who enjoyed time with his family. In contrast, "Bad Richie" – who would appear at irregular intervals: sometimes one day after another, other times not appearing for months – was prone to unpredictable fits of rage, smashing furniture and domestic violence. During these periods, he was physically abusive to his wife (one time breaking her nose and giving her a black eye) and emotionally abusive towards his children. Merrick later recalled that he once killed her dog right in front of her to punish her for coming home late.
Kuklinski's family and Dumont, New Jersey 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. She had a “don't ask questions” philosophy when it came to his business life and never questioned where Richard was going when he said he was leaving, presumably for work-related activities.
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 alcohol or other drugs and was not a womanizer, though he did have a serious weakness for high-stakes gambling and lost a great deal of his earnings from contract killing in these regards. 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 1949 at the age of 13 or 14, 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.
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 his victims to death. He left some right 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 the craft of murder. Richard made the West Side of Manhattan a kind of street laboratory 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 stabilize 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.
Kuklinski was interviewed by renowned forensic psychiatrist Dr. 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. In one of the video taped segments, where Dietz questioned whether a prior incident of murder over a trivial slight was justified, Kuklinski experienced a flushed moment of subdued homicidal rage. 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, Dietz 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. Dietz 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 soldato Roy 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. DeMeo is said to have been impressed because Kuklinski took the beating "like a man". After Kuklinski repaid his debt, he continued working with the DeMeo gang as an associate (but not a soldier), 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, saying "alright, take this man down." 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. He also claimed to have shot Carmine Galante. Lack of attention from law enforcement was partly due to his consciously ever-changing methods which did not establish a modus operandi: he used guns, knives, explosives, tire irons, fire, poison, asphyxiation, feeding people to cave rats, 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, wasn't blood-messy 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 cave rats in Pennsylvania and recorded footage in order to collect contracts for torture and safe disposal of a body. Upon viewing one of these tapes, DeMeo reportedly could not finish watching and said Kuklinski "had no soul". Kuklinski described that the rats would dispose of a human body in about 2 days, including the bones, leaving not even a trace.
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 in his truck, fatally shot by Kuklinski.
In the book The Iceman: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer written by Philip Carlo, 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.
Killing of DeMeo
Contrary to other accounts of Roy DeMeo's death, in the same book, author Philip Carlo writes that it was Kuklinski himself who eventually killed DeMeo on January 10, 1983. During their longstanding criminal relationship, DeMeo threatened Kuklinski's life no less than three times and humiliated Kuklinski in front of others including DeMeo's Gemini Lounge crew. As a result, an angered Kuklinski had vowed to himself to one day take revenge and kill DeMeo for what he felt were personal insults. As it has been written, once Gambino boss Paul Castellano ordered DeMeo to be killed because the FBI was closing in on him, the Gotti brothers (John Gotti and Gene Gotti) were approached to perform the hit to which they reluctantly declined. Their fear was DeMeo had too many loyal soldiers around him for protection, and they would not be successful. Eventually, DeMeo's own crew was then ordered to do the killing, but before they could do it, a last minute business meeting between Kuklinski and DeMeo occurred first. Kuklinski then shot DeMeo in his own Cadillac, and stuffed him in the trunk, along with a lamp from the back seat of DeMeo's car. It was one week before DeMeo's body was found. It is unknown if Kuklinski ever took any payment for killing DeMeo, as there were reports that he was unaware a contract was on DeMeo's life at the time.
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 sell 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 in South Hackensack, New Jersey. 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 spring. 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 pathologist Michael Baden, Smith's death would likely have been attributed to something non-homicidal in nature (like drug overdose for instance) 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 cyclist 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 horseback 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 the back of 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, namely 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 known 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 the 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 long-time friend of Kuklinski, to get Polifrone close to Kuklinski. Polifrone posed to Kuklinski as a fellow hitman named Dominic Michael Provenzano. Polifrone told Kuklinski he wanted to hire him for a hit against a wealthy Jewish associate in a cocaine deal robbery, 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, using a hamburger as bait, 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 he would be age 110 (the year 2045).
Statements made during interviews
During his incarceration, Kuklinski granted interviews to prosecutors, psychiatrists, criminologists, and writers. Several television producers also spoke to Kuklinski about his criminal career, upbringing, and personal life. These talks culminated in three televised documentaries which aired on HBO in 1992, 2001 and 2003, the last of these featuring interviews of Kuklinski by renowned forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz. Writers Anthony Bruno and Philip Carlo have also written biographies of Kuklinski. He turned down interviews by Oprah Winfrey and Geraldo Rivera.
Attesting to the randomness of his violent crimes, Kuklinski confessed that he once wanted to use a crossbow to carry out a hit, but not without testing its lethality first. While subsequently driving his car, Kuklinski asked a stranger for directions before using the crossbow to shoot the man in the forehead. Recalling its effectiveness, 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' and 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 NYPD Detective Peter Calabro, in which he received another sentence of 30 years. In the Calabro murder, Gambino crime family underboss Sammy "The Bull" Gravano was also charged, and Kuklinski said that he parked his van on the side of a narrow road, forcing other drivers to slow down to pass. He lay in a snowbank behind his van until Calabro came by at 2 a.m., then stepped out and shot him in the head with a sawed-off shotgun, decapitating Calabro. He denied knowing that Calabro was a police officer at the time of the assassination, but said he more than likely would have murdered him anyway had he known.
In October 2005, after nearly 18 years in prison, Kuklinski was diagnosed with Kawasaki disease (an inflammation of the blood vessels). He 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 loosely 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")