To his family and neighbors, Richard Kuklinski was the all-American man. To the mafia and his victims, he was the "devil himself" known as the Iceman killer.
“Do you liken yourself to an assassin?”
“Assassin? It sounds so exotic,” said Richard Kuklinski with a hint of amusement and a small smile. Then his face turned serious. “I was just a murderer.”
That was an interaction between Kuklinski and a reporter interviewing him. And his use of the word “just” may just be the biggest understatement.
Richard Kuklinski, also known as the “Iceman,” was convicted of murdering five and, a little later, a sixth person. However, he claimed to have killed hundreds, and the prosecutors didn’t doubt it.
Kuklinski liked killing. Sometimes he did it for fun, sometimes he did it when a person angered him. What he was best at was murdering for money.
Richard Kuklinski was born on April 11, 1935, in Jersey City to an aggressive alcoholic dad and a religious mom. He said he got a kick out of killing neighborhood cats and in the eighth grade, Kuklinski dropped out of school.
Kuklinski reportedly committed his first murder at age 14 when he beat the town bully to death. He’d go to carry out his first professional hit when he was age 18.
A young misanthrope turned into a giant of a man. Richard Kuklinski grew to be 6 ft. 5 in. tall and weighed around 300 pounds.
In the 1950s, Richard Kuklinski got involved with the mafia, and initially, he felt stifled by them because they’d relegate him to lesser crimes. So he fulfilled his own personal lust for murder on the side.
Starting in 1954, Kuklinski would make periodic trips from New Jersey to New York City, prowling the streets for people to kill. It could be someone who he sought out or just a random person who minorly annoyed him.
His methods of killing were just as random as his victim selection as he would most often shoot, stab, or bludgeon. His weapon selection also depended on his mood with him using everything from ice picks to even hand grenades. According to a statement he once made, a nasal-spray bottle filled with cyanide was his favorite.
Kuklinski’s reputation eventually spread to the elite of the organized crime world, particularly the notorious DeCavalcante family, who hired him for his first major gang killing.
He also became associated with high ranking member of the mob Roy DeMeo. It started out as an indebtment to DeMeo. But Kuklinski’s knack for criminal activity and his ability to consistently gain cash while working for the DeMeo crew earned him the respect of Roy. By association, it also earned him the respect of the Gambino crime family, of which DeMeo was a part of.
Kuklinski continued to carry out assignments for DeMeo and the Gambinos. Kuklinski’s willingness to murder anyone without hesitation made even members of the mafia refer to him as the “devil himself.”
Richard Kuklinski took whatever steps he needed to not get caught. He’d remove the fingers and teeth of his victims and sometimes he’d throw them in the Hudson River or dispose of their bodies in mine shafts.
At the time, the police thought it was homeless people attacking and killing each other. They didn’t suspect that there was a ruthless and impeccable killer from New Jersey coming into the city to murder randomly.
They say you never know what goes on behind closed doors. In the case of Kuklinski, that couldn’t be truer. Although, even the people on the other side of the closed doors, his family, didn’t know what was going on either.
In 1961, Richard Kuklinski married his wife, Barbara. She didn’t know by the time they met he had allegedly already committed about 65 murders. They had three children together and Kuklinski described them as the “all-American family.”
And to their New Jersey suburban neighbors, that’s exactly what the Kuklinski’s were. They lived an affluent life with Kuklinski even sending his kids to expensive private schools. They’d host barbeques in their backyard by the pool and take trips to Disneyland. Kuklinski was also an usher every Sunday at Mass.
Eventually, when the police did wind up finding and surrounding him, armed in unmarked police cars, Barbara would have no idea what her husband did to break the law.
He was, however, abusive to Barbara. She said that he had hit her many times. “I used to call it anger – it was way beyond anger. He was sick,” she said. Still, she claimed to be oblivious to the extreme criminal life he led on the side.
In an interview that would happen later on, Barbara said, “I’ll be the first one to say, maybe I was naive, because I never saw anything like that, my family never did anything like that.”
Though she may not have seen it, it was happening. All throughout their marriage, Kuklinski continued to murder. He was kept in constant employment by the families of the Italian mafia. Whoever owned the mob money, or insulted them, or just became a nuance. He took care of it.
But Kuklinski was unlike other members of the mafia. He reportedly wasn’t prone to drinking or gambling. Despite his admission that he had killed hundreds of people, he said he would never murder women or children.
Most notably, he was able to keep up the family man facade by thoroughly compartmentalized his life. He didn’t tell members of organized crime anything about his personal life, his family, or where he lived. He looked at them as his employers, never socializing outside of work.
And for a quantified psychopath, Richard Kuklinski had random recollections of specific moments. In one case, after he was caught, he spoke of a man he was about to kill who was begging and praying. Kuklinski told the man he could have 30 minutes to pray to God to see if God could come and change the circumstances.
“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 said.
By the 1980s, after 25 years of working as a hitman for the mafia, Kuklinski started his own crime ring. This was when a trail of mistakes leading to his arrest began.
The biggest mistake that led to his undoing was Phil Solimene, a local Mafia man and the closest thing Kuklinski had to a friend. Solimene helped in a sting operation, during which he recorded a conversation with Kuklinski about a conspiracy to kill.
The manhunt operation that began in 1985 concluded in 1986, on that day when the unmarked cars surrounded Richard and Barbara Kuklinski. The cops pointed guns at their heads. The couple was on their way to breakfast. Pat Kane, the lead investigator, approached Barbra in the midst of her confusion over what was happening and said plainly, “He’s a murderer.”
He was charged with five murders the following day and in 1988 was found guilty of four of them. He was later convicted of two more and given consecutive life sentences.
Pat Kane believed he killed as many as 300 men saying, “He killed who he wanted, whenever he wanted.”
After his arrest, it became evident that Kuklinski’s love of being in the public eye was on par with his love of killing. He gave interviews to prosecutors, psychiatrists, reporters, criminologists, and newscasters.
“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.”
He participated in two documentaries about his life and spoke candidly about the things he did and why. He claimed to have killed the notoriously corrupt Jimmy Hoffa, for which he was paid $40,000.
In a TV interview done from prison, he said, “I’ve never felt sorry for anything I’ve done,” before adding, “Other than hurting my family. I do want my family to forgive me.”
After 25 years in prison, Kuklinski’s health started deteriating. In 2005, he was diagnosed incurable inflammation of the blood vessels.
Richard Kuklinski was eventually transferred to the hospital where Barbara would go to see him one last time. In and out of consciousness, in a moment of wake, he asked doctors to revive him if he should flatline.
However, on her way out, Barbara signed a Do Not Resuscitate form. A week before he died, they called her to see if she had changed her mind. She hadn’t.
Richard Kuklinski died on March 5, 2006.
If you enjoyed this story about Richard Kuklinski, the Iceman killer, you may want to read about the real-life mobsters behind Goodfellas next. Then check out these photos that capture life in the 1980s mafia.