The Ice Man's Greatest Hits

The life and crimes of cold-blooded hit man Richard Kuklinski.

Kuklinski Carlo
Richard Kuklinski [left] with Philip Carlo, author of “The Ice Man.” Photo courtesy of Philip Carlo.

It's probably safe to say that Anna and Stanley Kuklinski were unfit parents. Two of their three boys grew up to be convicted killers, and Stanley brutally murdered the couple's oldest son. But it's their middle son, Richard Kuklinski (1935-2006), who developed into one of the most cold-blooded and prolific serial killers in history. Over the course of 37 years, Kuklinski (a.k.a. The Ice Man), extinguished the lives of several hundred people—usually premeditated hits ordered by one of the East Coast crime families, but sometimes spontaneous stranger killings that resulted when personal conflict revealed a frighteningly bad temper. 

Now Kuklinski is the subject of a riveting, fast-paced biography entitled “The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer” (St. Martin's Press), by renowned true crime author Philip Carlo. What makes Kuklinski's story so fascinating isn't just the ghoulish, inhuman nature of his crimes—it's how he managed to live a double life and elude law enforcement for nearly four decades. Until he was arrested in 1986, The Ice Man lived in the sleepy upper middle class town of Dumont, New Jersey, with his wife and three children. Neighbors considered him a doting family man and a good provider. But unbeknownst to his wife and kids, when Kuklinski left home to do a "piece of work" anyone who crossed his path was liable to end up dead. 

Failure recently spoke with Carlo about the life and crimes of The Ice Man, and why he believes Kuklinski—who died earlier this year in a prison hospital at the age of 70—was himself the victim of a Mob hit. 

Tell me about the process of writing the book. How did you get access to Kuklinski?
I had already written “The Night Stalker” about serial killer Richard Ramirez and had a lot of experience interviewing murderers. When I watched one of the HBO specials about Kuklinski I was blown away by what he was saying—his demeanor. He was describing how he fed [live] human beings to rats. I had interviewed numerous serial killers but had never heard anything like that before. 

That same night I wrote Richard a letter saying how interesting I thought he was and that I wanted to do a comprehensive book on him. Several weeks later his wife Barbara called me and I went to meet his family. If his wife and children didn't like me I don't think it would have gone any further. But they gave me their stamp of approval and he agreed to meet with me.

When I went to the prison [Trenton State Prison] it was difficult getting him to warm up to me. He was cold, aloof, and stoic and I spent most of that first meeting talking about myself—who I was and where I came from. Little by little I developed a rapport with him that developed into a friendship. 

I took the same approach with Richard that I have with all serial killers: I asked him to talk about everything except his crimes. That takes time. Documenting Richard's childhood took ten or 12 interviews. By the time we got around to discussing the murders he was just expanding on what we had already been talking about. 

But as the door to his mind opened wider and wider I became more and more appalled. His capacity for violence and torture was absolutely mind-numbing. He killed 13 of his victims after he destroyed their lower spines with a screwdriver. They'd be paralyzed—unable to scream or move—and they had to watch as he cut their bodies apart. When I asked Richard why he killed that way he said he did it for the exercise. 

What kind of a childhood did Kuklinski have? 
He was severely abused by both his mother and father—constantly beaten for both real and imagined infractions. His father had a habit of wrapping his garrison belt around his fist, striking Richard in the head and knocking him out. When Richard was five his [violent and ill-tempered] father murdered his seven-year-old brother. By the time Richard was ten years old he was filled with anger and well on his way to no good. He committed his first murder [a neighborhood bully] when he was 14 years old. Initially he felt bad about it but he never stopped killing. 

What was Kuklinski like as a child?
Personality-wise he was very introverted, very withdrawn, and very shy. He was tall and skinny and had excessively protrusive ears, which made him a target of neighborhood bullies. He was taunted and mocked for being Polish, and for being poor. He was constantly put upon and made fun of, which stoked the fires of anger that were already burning inside of him. 

Perhaps that explains why he grew to be so intolerant of disrespect. 
He hated people putting him down. One time as he was driving across the George Washington Bridge he passed a hitchhiker with his thumb out. As Richard drove past the guy gave him the finger. That incensed Richard so much that he shot the man in the chest.

If it weren't for his home life do you believe Kuklinski would have turned out differently? 
I think bad parenting and brutality turned him in the direction he eventually walked. He had behavioral problems and learning disabilities but I think those things could have been overcome if he had received loving attention and was treated with a minimum of respect. But he never had that. Plus he grew up in an area [Jersey City, New Jersey] that was saturated with crime. It was easy for him to see it, know it, and get caught up in it. 

Didn't Kuklinski's brother also grow up to be a killer? 
His brother Joseph murdered a twelve-year-old girl. Joseph convinced the girl to come up on the roof of a four-story building with him. He forcibly raped her and then threw her and her dog off the roof into a concrete courtyard. The dog's cries were what eventually brought the police. Someone had seen Joseph talking to the girl so the police went and knocked on his door. He confessed to the crime and received a life sentenced in the same prison where Richard ultimately ended up. 

What were some of the most common methods Kuklinski used to eliminate his victims?
He very much enjoyed using a knife. The day he was arrested he had a knife with 15 notches on it in his attaché case. I asked him if he killed 15 people with that knife. He said, “I did.” He typically carried two [.38] derringers and a knife. That's what he always went out with. But he killed with cyanide, with crossbows, with bats, with clubs, and with plastic bags. He beat people to death with his fists and feet, threw people off buildings, and drowned people. Any way that there was to kill somebody he did it. 

One man he was hired to kill had raped a Mobster's daughter. He tied the man to a tree, stripped him of his clothes, and then pulled off the guy's genitals—literally pulled them off. Then [using a knife] he began slowly slicing off pieces of flesh—like skirt steaks. While the man was still alive Richard poured a box of kosher salt over all his wounds. 

Did Kuklinski ever provide you with an estimate of how many people he murdered? 
He told me he killed more than 50 people before he was a man. I said, “What do you mean by that?” He said, “Before I was 20 years old.” I asked, “How many people all together?” He said, “Upwards of 200.” And I believed him. 

How did he get the nickname “The Ice Man”?
Richard never froze anybody. That's a big misconception. What he did do is put one of his victims in a well filled with ice-cold water. He sealed the body in that well for two years, but when the police were onto him he took the body out of the well, wrapped it in plastic, and brought it to a desolate wooded area. The perfectly preserved body was discovered shortly afterwards and when they did an autopsy there were ice crystals inside the body. That's how Richard got his moniker.

How did he get the idea of incorporating rats into his repertoire? 
He was out hunting one day [in Bucks County, Pennsylvania] and shot what he thought was a woodchuck, but it turned out to be a rat. He noticed a lot of little footprints leading to a nearby cave and when he went inside he smelled rats. Somehow he got it in his head to use the rats as his allies. As a test he went out and bought a package of chopped meat and left it in the cave. When he came back a short time later it was gone. 

The next time he was hired to do a hit that required torture he took his victim to the cave, tied him up, and left him there. When Richard returned two days later there was nothing left but bones—the rats ate the man alive. He used this method on six other occasions, and he took to videotaping [the rats gnawing on the victim]—for two reasons: To prove that the torture had taken place and to self-analyze himself—to try to understand why something like that didn't trouble him. 

When he told me this I said, "Did you learn anything?” He said, “Yeah, I found out I needed help. But what was I to do, go to a psychiatrist and say, ‘I enjoy feeding people to rats. Can you help me?’” 

Tell me about Kuklinski's sense of ethics.
He had this strange fusion of a lack of morality and an abundance of morality. He never killed a woman or a child and wouldn't. But he despised rapists and people who abused children. If he witnessed someone abusing children he would kill the abuser—just like that. And even though he produced pornographic movies he was very moralistic about sex. He would never go to the set where they were shooting the movies; he didn't want to see it. 

You said he'd never kill a woman or child, yet he abused his wife. How do you explain that? 
He viewed his wife as property. He stopped thinking of her as a woman and viewed her as something he owned. And he did abuse her terribly. He felt bad about doing it. When I interviewed him in prison he showed remorse about that. 

How did Kuklinski maintain a double life for so many years without his wife and children finding him out what he did for a living? 
He was very tight-lipped. Barbara couldn't question him and he wouldn't answer questions. He came and went as he pleased and he purposefully kept his work separate from his family life. He managed to stay off police and FBI radar for a long time because he didn't hang out with Mob guys. He did a job and then went home.

Did Kuklinski change at all during the years he spent in prison?
Richard hated prison and hated being apart from his family. The only way he was able to deal with it was to be heavily medicated [with daily doses of Ativan and Paxil]. If he hadn't been sedated he would have killed other prisoners. He nearly murdered five different people in jail; he took it right to the threshold where they were dying and stopped. So the medication calmed him down, but he wasn't the same person because of that. 

Did Kuklinski consider himself to be successful in life? 
No, he viewed himself as a failure. He told me numerous times that he should have bought property and retired when he was ahead. Instead he kept blowing the money he was making [$10,000 - $100,000 per hit] and never thought of the future. He was very regretful about that. He said he had an opportunity to move to California and get involved in the pornography business, and if he did that he wouldn't be in jail. He'd be living in a big white house with his family. 

I understand there's been speculation that he was poisoned to death. 
People in the know tell me that Sammy “The Bull” Gravano—who has a lot of money—took a contract out on Kuklinski and had him killed. Richard told me he was being poisoned; he told his wife and his two daughters that if he didn't get out of the prison hospital it was because he was murdered. In just a few months time Richard lost 100 pounds and developed dementia. 

The initial autopsy indicated there was cadmium in Richard's system. Cadmium is a very rare, highly toxic poison. Indications of cadmium poisoning are kidney and lung failure. That's exactly what Richard suffered from. As of today we still don't know exactly what killed him, but medical examiner Dr. Michael Badin is currently studying his medical records and doing more definitive tests. 

It's not for nothing that I think Kuklinski was murdered. Gravano had hired Richard to kill a cop and had been arrested for that. If Gravano were to be convicted of that murder he could have been put to death. But after Richard died the charges against Gravano were dropped. 

In his last days, did Kuklinski have any regrets? 
That's one of the last questions I asked him. After giving me a long stare he said, “Yeah, I have a regret. I regret that I didn't kill my father.” He hated his father for killing his brother and hated him for beating his mother. Richard blamed his father for everything that happened to him.

Also by Philip Carlo:
The Butcher: Anatomy of a Mafia Psychopath