For quite some time the media was all about Richard Kuklinski. During his many years as a mafia assassin for hire, the press dubbed him The Iceman. A documentary and a film were made about his life. A biography written with his input (although not from the first person) was a big seller. The media dubbed him the Iceman during his much publicized reign of terror over the state of New Jersey. Kuklinski received the moniker for his charming method of freezing a victim to mask the time of death and for his utter lack of emotion toward his victims.
Kuklinski grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey in a blue-collar family. His father Stanley, a handsome man but severely alcoholic, was a brakeman on the railroad. His mother Anna, a very attractive woman, worked as a meat-packer during Kuklinski’s childhood. Both parents were highly abusive, bitter people. Stanley beat his wife and children so severely that his eldest son Florian died of injuries suffered from a savage beating. The Kuklinski family lied to the police, saying that he had fallen down a flight of steps.
Kuklinski had a younger sister, Roberta, who was also beaten by her parents and a younger brother, Joseph, who was convicted of raping and murdering a 12-year-old girl. Although Kuklinski abhorred men who abused women and children, he seemed to have little opinion about his brother’s crime. His only comment was “we came from the same father.”
Kuklinski’s mother hit him with household objects such as broomsticks. Occasionally she broke broomsticks on her little boy, a punishment Kuklinski often recalled during interiews. His father beat him many times without provocation. Paradoxically his mother believed a strict upbringing including belief in the Roman Catholic faith was essential for raising good children. Kuklinski was forced to become an altar boy for a time.
In response to his parents’ abuse, Kuklinski acted out in the only acceptable manner he could, with the torture and killing of helpless animals. Kuklinski liked to tie two cats’ tails together, throw them over a clothesline and watch them fight to the death. “It didn’t take long,” he informed his psychiatrist, Park Dietz. He often burned cats alive in the incinerator of his building. He knew they were dead when they “stopped running around.” His early ability to torture and kill was a prerequisite to the many murders he would commit as an adult.
Small and skinny, Kuklinski was a target for neighbourhood bullies. In spite of his many beatings at home he was easily intimidated by neighbourhood toughs. One day however he decided this would change. When a small group of boys gathered to beat him, Kuklinski retrieved a metal bar from his closet and beat them mercilessly. The message his neighbourhood leaned was “not to mess with me.” After his victory very few people harassed Kuklinski but by the age of 14 he committed his first murder. The boy, Charlie Lane, was in a neighbourhood gang. He egged Kuklinski on, a fatal mistake. After shooting the boy, Kuklinski disposed of the body by removing any identifying marks. The body was never found. Later Kuklinski nearly beat the six remaining gang members to death.
Kuklinski began killing anyone who annoyed him: loud-mouths who reminded him of his father, adversaries at the pool table, among various others. He killed his pool table victim when the man angered him and he beat him mercilessly with a pool stick. Kuklinski claimed he didn’t mean to kill the man and he felt saddened by what he had done. Yet at the same time, he felt a “rush” from the experience. The west side of New York City became his testing ground. On weekends, Kuklinski roamed back alleys and shot people at random. The police thought that bums were killing each other.
Kuklinski married young. He and his first wife had two children together but the marriage was troubled. One night, Kuklinski arrived home to find his wife in bed with another man. He murdered the man, beat his wife and cut off her nipples. Needless to say, the marriage was over. While working on a New Jersey loading dock, Kuklinski met his future wife, Barbara Pedrici, a high school graduate working as a secretary at the trucking company. She discovered that he was already married with two boys, but he was romantic and persistent. He pursued Barbara with flowers and romantic dates After several months however she tried to break it off with him and he pierced the back of her neck with a hunting knife. Kuklinski told Barbara if she broke up with him he would kill her and his family. With little choice, Barbara married Kuklinski and they had three children, two girls and a boy.
Although Kuklinski doted on his daughters, he was distant and cold with his son. His own father-son relationship had distorted his perception of his relationship with his boy. However, Kuklinski enjoyed spending time with his family and was at home whenever he wasn’t “working.” He made good money with the mafia and the family lived very well. Kuklinski paid for their enrollment in private schools, provided them with trips to Disney Land and lavish Christmases. Christmas had been a desolate time in his own childhood and he was determined to make Christmas for his own children exceptional. But memories always haunted him and he suffered from depression around this time of year.
His relationship with Barbara was tumultuous. He beat her frequently over the years and although she couldn’t hit back, Barbara verbally taunted him, further incurring his wrath. These fights took place in front of their terrified children. At times, Kuklinski sat his oldest daughter, a 14-year-old and favourite child, on his lap and wept, telling her that if necessary he would have to kill the family if he accidentally killed her mother. He explained to her he would have to kill her first because he loved her the most. She said she understood. To his daughters, Kuklinski was two separate personalities: the doting father and abusive husband.
Kuklinski’s criminal career made him wealthy. Kuklinski confessed to being a gambling addict. Some weekends he lost as much as $400,000.00 at casinos. Early in his career, he committed robbery, hijackings and pornography, but soon graduated to murder. He earned Mafia respect at age 18 by efficiently and unquestioningly killing a random man selected for him on the sidewalk. He soon became the Genovese crime family’s indispensable hitman, known for thoroughly disposing of his victims. He removed teeth and fingers, or dumped them off bridges, in rivers or down mine shafts. Kuklinski was a sadist. He enjoyed killings where he watched a pack of rats devour a live victim and sometimes filmed it or his hires, however the mafia men were so sickened they couldn’t remain in the room to watch it. He once drew a sketch of a victim who was eaten alive by rats. Kuklinski also worked for Newark’s DeCavalcante crime family and New York City’s Five Families, including the Gambinos.
At a towering 6’5″, weighing 300 pounds and covered in tattoos, Kuklinski had an imposing and fearsome bearing. His resume for killing included guns, ice picks, hand grenades, crossbows and chainsaws, but his favorite method of murder, he’d later proudly confess, was a nasal-spray bottle or hypodermic needle filled with cyanide. Kuklinski would later say that he learned many of these tactics from fellow hitman Robert Pronge, also known as “Mister Softee” because he drove an ice cream truck as his cover. Eventually Pronge annoyed Kuklinski in some manner and Kuklinski shot him in the head six times.
Kuklinski often froze the bodies of his victims in order to confuse police and coroners as to the date of the victim’s death. This made it impossible to trace the killings to Kuklinski. Kuklinski talked about other methods for disposing of bodies. He claimed that on occasion he left corpses sitting up on park benches. He placed bodies in the trunk of cars at wrecking sites and they were crushed along with the cars. Kuklinski refused to kill women or children.
When Kuklinski was told to kill a man’s wife and 8-year-old son because he refused divorce and pay alimony, Kuklinski shot him in the head with a shotgun. On another occasion after completing a job, Kuklinski went to the hire’s house where Kuklinski discovered the man kept abducted children and used them as sex slaves. Kuklinski shot and killed him then instructed the children to call 9-1-1 after he left the house.
Richard Kuklinski was caught in December 1986, at age 51, by an undercover police officer, Special Agent Dominick Polifrone. Polifrone’s task force was afraid Polifrone would become Kuklinski’s next victim and they moved quickly. Kuklinski claimed there was “no honour among thieves,” and that the only time he made a friend in his circle of criminals was with the cop who turned him in. Kuklinski was incarcerated for life in 1988. Occasionally he encountered his own brother in prison but they seldom acknowledged one another. He granted interviews with writers, psychiatrists and criminologists, talking about the men he killed and appearing in two HBO documentaries. He first denied then claimed involvement in the death of teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance and death. Kuklinski was grief-stricken that he wasn’t allowed to visit with his children and grandchildren and wept about it in a documentary. After 19 years in prison Kuklinski was found dead in his cell. Some people speculate the mafia organized a murder as he was scheduled to testify in a murder case against Sammy Gravano. Charges were dropped after Kuklinski’s death due to lack of evidence.
Is it any surprise that Richard Kuklinski became an abusive husband, a sadist and an assassin without empathy for others? His childhood was a nightmare. He lived in the projects, surrounded by crime and poverty. He was terribly abused by his parents. From an early age he learned that human life was worthless. Some people may be born psychopaths. I don’t believe Kuklinski was one of them.