Monday September 9 2011
– When they finally came for him, in their unmarked cars and their helicopters, with their machineguns at the ready, Barbara Kuklinski had no idea how her husband might have broken the law.
It was a cold morning in the week before Christmas 1986 and the couple had just pulled out of the driveway of their split-level home on Sunset Street, a quiet road of middle-class houses in Dumont, New Jersey, where they lived with their three children. Barbara, a tall, delicate-looking woman Italian-American, and Richard, 51, a colossal slab of a man with a fondness for a Meerschaum pipe, had been married 26 years. They were on their way to breakfast.
But when Richard saw the column of black vehicles bearing down on them, he turned sharply into the kerb. Armed men swarmed around the car. One leapt on the bonnet, another tore open the driver’s door and held a cocked automatic at Richard’s head. “Don’t fucking move,” he said.
Barbara was pulled out and thrown to the ground by policemen. Hands cuffed behind her, she was bundled into a car for the journey to Bergen county jail in Hackensack. There, as state troopers fought to subdue her enraged husband, she struggled to grasp what was happening.
Finally, Detective Pat Kane came to her and said: “He’s a murderer.”
Abruptly, all the odd things she had noticed about Richard, tumbled into alignment. “All of a sudden it was like ‘I knew that’,” she says now. “I knew he was a murderer.”
Throughout their marriage, Richard Kuklinski had used the facade of the suburban family man to conceal a litany of killing. There were murders committed in anger, others just for fun and still more for profit. For 20 years. He had made his living as one of the most proficient and prolific contract killers in the history of organised crime, a professional hitman whose claims of freezing his victims’ bodies to outfox forensic experts led the media to nickname him the Ice Man.
Today, Barbara lives in a small flat in the basement of a white shingled house in suburban New York state, which she shares with her younger daughter Christen and her boyfriend and three dogs. At 71, she suffers from arthritis of the spine and a cluster of other chronic illnesses. She prides herself on her intelligence and strength of will. “Don’t ask my opinion,” she says, “if you don’t want the truth.”
Her husband’s arrest left her with nothing and she was forced to look to her children for support. A film broadly based on Richard’s life, The Iceman, has now been made, starring Michael Shannon in the title role and Winona Ryder as the killer’s loyal wife. But Barbara won’t receive a penny from it and has no intention of seeing it. “Never. I won’t. I don’t like anything violent.” It is also, she says, “far from the truth…and who is that Winona Ryder? Are you kidding me?”
Barbara says when the film was launched at Cannes, she was furious to hear the actress comment of the character she plays in the film: “I’m as guilty as he was.”
Recalling this, the widow of the Ice Man casts a sardonic eye around the tiny living room, her crochet and the framed family portraits clustered on the TV set. “Yeah,” she says. “Can’t you see how I’ve benefited?”
Barbara first met Richard when she was just 18, newly employed as a secretary at Swiftline, a New Jersey trucking company. Richard worked on the loading dock there. He was seven years older than Barbara, married with two young sons but, nevertheless, she agreed to go out with him on a double date.
“He was the perfect gentleman,” she says. “We went to the movies and then we went for pizza and he got up and played Save the Last Dance For Me on the jukebox.” The next morning, he turned up at her house with flowers and a gift and she agreed to a second date.
As the months passed, Barbara gradually realised she had become isolated from her friends and rarely saw anyone but Richard. Sitting in his car one day after work, she gathered the courage to tell him how she felt: that she was only 19 and wanted the space to see other people. Richard 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.
The following day, Richard was waiting for her again after work with flowers and a teddy bear. He apologised and told her he wanted to marry her. He would get a divorce. He had threatened her because he loved her so much it made him crazy. Barbara believed him.
“I don’t consider myself a fool, by any means,” she says. “But I was raised a good little Catholic girl. I was protected. I had never seen the ugly side of anything.”
Born to a violent alcoholic father and a religiously devout mother, Richard grew up in a Polish enclave of Jersey City. During prison interviews conducted by the writer Philip Carlo in 2004, he admitted he killed for the first time at 14, beating a neighbourhood bully with a wooden club and burying his body in the remote Pine Barrens of New Jersey.
Over the next 10 years, as he embarked on a criminal career, committing robberies and truck hijackings, he began murdering with increased frequency: an off-duty policeman who accused him off cheating at pool, members of his own gang, homeless men he killed simply because he enjoyed it. On the instructions of a member of the local Mafia family, Carmine Genovese, he carried out his first professional hit at 18.
A true psychopath, he frequently tortured his victims and concealed the evidence of his crimes by disposing of bodies in mine shafts or removing their fingers and teeth.
According to Carlo’s The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer, by the time he met Barbara in 1961 Richard had already committed 65 murders, most of which Carlo went on to verify with Mafia contacts or police sources.
After his first apology, Richard continued to be as charming and attentive as before but he also flew into rages in which he struck Barbara or grabbed her around the throat. Convinced she could never leave him, she agreed to get married. Their first child, a daughter named Merrick, was born in 1964.
At first, Richard apparently tried to go straight and took work in a film lab but, after a while, he started staying late to print bootleg copies of films. Then he began making extra money hijacking trucks. His illegal proceeds allowed the couple to expand their family – they had Christen and a son, Dwayne – and move into the big house on Sunset Street. Barbara never asked where all the money came from. Richard didn’t like questions and was savage and unpredictable, even when in an apparently good mood.
It wasn’t long before Richard returned to what he did best: killing men for money. By the mid-1970s, he was kept in constant employment by the seven families of the east coast Mafia. When the organisation required that senior members die, they called him. In 1979, he was responsible for the daylight assassination of Carmine Galante, head of the Bonnano family; in 1985, he was part of the hit squad that shot down Gambino don Paul Castellano outside the Sparks Steak House in Manhattan. He even claimed to have been the man who did in Teamsters Union head Jimmy Hoffa, who disappeared without trace in 1975.
Yet he meticulously compartmentalised his life, never socialising with his employers in organised crime and taking care never to reveal anything to them about his family or where he lived. Immediately after the assassination of Castellano, Richard ditched his coat and gun, caught the bus back to New Jersey and settled down at home to watch his wife and daughters wrapping Christmas presents.
The neighbours never suspected a thing. “They thought he was great,” Barbara says. “Everybody who met him thought I was the luckiest person in the world. The flower truck there once a week, I had new jewellery, he bought me a $12,000 raccoon coat.”
Throughout their years together, Richard’s obsessive attachment to his wife never diminished and, as befitted a dedicated country and western listener, he was both feverishly jealous and mawkishly romantic.
But his mood could switch in an instant. During their marriage, he blackened her eyes, broke her ribs, shattered furniture and tore the fabric of the house apart.
Often, the rages came upon him for no reason at all. They might have a wonderful dinner together, he would bring her a cup of tea before bed “and the next thing I know it’s 2 o’clock in the morning…there’s a pillow on my face, ‘tonight’s the night you die’,”
Richard’s violence caused her twice to miscarry and the children began to intervene when they feared he might kill her.
He refused to take medication or see a psychiatrist. When Christen was 16 or 17, she and Barbara plotted to poison him. Eventually, they realised they just couldn’t do it. “I wished him dead every day,” Barbara says. “During the best of times, I wished him dead.”
Richard was finally undone by the closest thing he had to a friend: Phil Solimene, a local Mafia fence he had known for more than 20 years. In that time, Richard and Barbara had dinner with Solimene and his wife just once, but it was a mark of the degree to which he trusted him. Solimene proved instrumental in a police sting operation that trapped Richard into discussing a conspiracy to kill on tape. In the hours after he and Barbara were arrested, police entered the house on Sunset Street with a warrant, expecting to discover stashes of weapons. They found nothing. “Believe me, there were no guns in my house,” Barbara says.
The next day, Richard was charged with five murders. In 1988, he was found guilty of four of them. Later, he was convicted of two more. In interviews he gave later in prison, he claimed responsibility for 250 deaths. But Kane – who led the investigation that led to Richard’s arrest – believes he may have killed as many as 300 men before he was caught.
Kuklinski never expressed any remorse for his victims. “I’ve never felt sorry for anything I’ve done,” he said in one of the TV interviews he gave from prison. “Other than hurting my family. I do want my family to forgive me.”
But Barbara remained terrified and, for 10 years, she continued to visit Richard in prison. She took his reverse-charge phone calls at home and sent food parcels. Eight years after his arrest, she got a divorce and began dating again. Finally, during one telephone conversation with Barbara, he said something ugly about the children and she put the phone down on him. The fourth time he called back, she picked up the phone with a curt: “Yep?”
“If you ever do that again,” he began, and she cut him off. “What are you going to do about it, Richard? Do you realise now that there’s nothing you could do? If you ever say anything against my children again, I will never accept another call.”
In October 2005, when Richard was 70 and had spent 25 years in prison, his health began to decline and, diagnosed with a rare and incurable inflammation of the blood vessels, he was eventually transferred to hospital. In March the following year, Barbara took her daughter to visit him there: he told them he was the victim of an assassination plot.
As he lay in intensive care, he wanted to confide one last thing to his ex-wife. “You’re such a good person,” he told her. “You were always such a good person.”
As Barbara walked down the hallway to leave, she told her daughter. “I will regret for the rest of my life that I didn’t just tell him the bastard he is and how much I hate him.”
In the days that followed, he became conscious long enough to ask doctors to make sure they revive him if he flatlined. But Barbara had signed a “do not resuscitate” order. A week before his death, on March 5th, 2006, the hospital called Barbara to ask if she wished to rescind the instruction. She did not.
– Adam Higginbotham