In the annals of American murderers, Richard Kuklinski – better known as the Iceman – ranks among the most mysterious. For one thing, we still don’t know just how many people he slaughtered. While he was officially convicted of 'only' five killings, Kuklinski claimed to actually have a body count in the triple digits. The extent of his criminality is also a matter of debate. While most true crime experts agree he was very likely a small-fry thug with a psychopathically murderous streak, much of his notoriety rests on an alleged career as a Mafia hitman connected to major figures in the New York underworld.
The reason for all the hazy uncertainty is Kuklinski himself, and his habit of telling tall tales about his criminal career. Did he really shoot a random passer-by in the head with a crossbow just to test it out? Were some of his victims really eaten alive by rats while he watched and filmed the carnage? As his own biographer once said to him, 'Richard, I have a feeling if I listen to you long enough, you'll tell me you shot President Lincoln.'
So what do we know about Kuklinski for certain? Well, he had an incredibly traumatic upbringing in New Jersey at the hands of his physically abusive parents. His binge-drinking father was particularly vicious, actually murdering Richard’s seven-year-old brother Florian in a sustained, drunken assault. (Richard later claimed to have taken his first life when he was just a teenager, killing a local bully. This was just the first of a staggeringly long litany of crimes he confessed to.)
We also know that the adult Kuklinski led a double life. On the surface he was a doting husband and father, regularly lavishing his wife and kids with expensive gifts, and whisking them away to holiday spots like Disney World. When one daughter was ill in hospital, Kuklinski even turned up as Santa Claus to cheer up the kids on the ward. But, in contrast to this 'Good Richie' there was 'Bad Richie' – a volatile, angry, explosively violent presence who would beat his wife, smash furniture and emotionally abuse his children. 'I was late coming home once,' daughter Merrick later recounted, 'and he took [my dog] and broke her neck.'
'Bad Richie’s' propensity for violence went well beyond the walls of his home. Without his family realising, he had established a modest criminal enterprise making and distributing bootleg copies of films, from Disney blockbusters to pornography, as well as working alongside other criminals to steal cars and carry out burglaries. A looming, 6ft5 giant of a man, Kuklinski used his stature to intimidate and dominate the men he worked with. He also murdered them.
In Kuklinski’s world, there was no honour among thieves. He shot one associate to death after an argument got heated – Kuklinski then calmly cut the tendons in the corpse’s legs so he could be stuffed into a chemical drum. Another of his verified victims was a shady pharmacist who met with Kuklinski thinking he was going to buy a large quantity of stolen pharmaceuticals. Kuklinski shot him the face, then beat the injured man to death before taking the money and disposing of the corpse in a drum filled with cement.
A particularly brutal killing involved feeding a fellow thief a hamburger laced with cyanide, then having him throttled with a lamp cord when the poison didn’t kick in quickly enough. Still another victim was a man who brought close to $100,000 to Kuklinski, thinking he was going to buy a vast number of black videotapes. He was promptly killed and his body was stashed for years in a freezer – this was what earnt Kuklinski his nickname, 'the Iceman'.
These murders eventually drew the attention of a New Jersey task force which embarked on an elaborate sting operation to snare Kuklinski. Posing as a mobster, an undercover agent got close to Kuklinski and engineered his arrest in December 1986. Kuklinski eventually pleaded guilty to a handful of killings and was given back-to-back life sentences. But it was only after his incarceration that the legend of 'the Iceman' began to take on epic proportions, with Kuklinski claiming in media interviews that he was an enforcer for Roy DeMeo, a brutal member of the Gambino crime family, and that he had helped carry out some of the most well-known Mafia assassinations of the time. He even claimed to have been part of the hit squad which 'whacked' Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa.
There’s no real evidence for Kuklinski’s involvement with the New York crime families, with Mafia historian Jerry Capeci describing his claims as 'mostly demented ramblings', and pointing out how unlikely it would have been for a basically unknown figure being present, Forrest Gump-like, at a string of infamous Mafia murders.
All that being said, there’s no denying Kuklinski lived up to his nickname as a stone-cold killer, and his later conviction for the murder of an allegedly crooked New York police detective raised the possibility that the Iceman was a Mob hitman after all. He died in 2006, aged 70, having succeeded in establishing himself – through a brazen mixture of half-truths and brazen exaggerations – as one of the most notorious killers in American history.