Richard Leonard Kuklinski (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 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.
Beginning in the spring of 1954, Kuklinski began prowling Hell’s Kitchen as a homicidal predator searching for potential human prey. 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 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.
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.
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.
Richard Kuklinski was born in his family’s apartment on 4th Street in Jersey City, New Jersey, to Stanisław “Stanley” Kukliński (1906–77), a Polish immigrant from Karwacz, Masovian Voivodeship who worked as a brakeman on the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad, and Anna McNally (1911–72) from Harsimus, a daughter of Catholic Irish immigrants from Dublin, who worked in a meat-packing plant during Richard’s childhood. According to Kuklinski’s eldest daughter, Merrick, her paternal grandmother Anna McNally confided she had at one point lived in a Catholic homeless shelter and was repeatedly raped by a priest beginning when she was 10 years old.
Kuklinski grew up in an abusive household; his alcoholic father repeatedly beat him throughout his childhood, while 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 (1933–41) 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.”
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.
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.
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 was apparently 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.
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).
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.
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.