by John Nardizzi
A summer film, “The Iceman”, claims that the film is “based on a true story,” namely the sordid, violent life of Richard Kuklinksi, a New Jersey man who claimed to have murdered over 100 men using almost every means imaginable: guns, knives, bow and arrow, cyanide, and even rats. He earned his nickname for his experiments involving deep-freezing corpses in order to throw off the time of death estimates during the police investigations. Some of Kuklinski’s murders were contract killings for La Cosa Nostra crime families; others were spontaneous spasms of rage that saw the powerfully built, 6’5” behemoth, kill people who looked at him cross-eyed. Hollywood directors stoop only to a mud-level standard of proof in films “based on a true story”, and “The Iceman” contains glaring errors in the telling (the film is based on one biography in particular, The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer by Anthony Bruno). Glossing over Kuklinski’s decades-long abuse of his wife to focus on his role as a (surprisingly caring) father to his children, many of the Iceman’s killings remain undocumented to this day (he was convicted on just 5 counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison). Several of the most prominent murders Kuklinski claimed credit for — Jimmy Hoffa, mob boss Roy DeMeo, and even the godfather of the Gambino crime family, Paul Castellano — have been called into question as other details have emerged from trials of other mobsters.
Kuklinski’s mother, Anna, grew up in tough Jersey City in the 1900s. His father, Stanley, was a Polish immigrant. Kuklinski’s childhood was a horror of endless beatings by his father, and cold neglect by his distant mother. He himself was knocked unconscious several times by his father, who later abandoned the family. Kuklinksi claims his father killed his baby brother by smashing his skull in a drunken rage and then made his wife lie about the death by claiming the boy fell down the stairs (how Kuklinski came to learn this is not clear). What followed was a sadly predictable pattern too familiar to those in the criminal justice system: the abuse led to the angry young man experimenting with lashing out against animals, torturing cats, classic serial killer behavior. Finally, Kuklinksi graduated to his first murder, the bludgeoning of a housing project bully. He then led a small gang, Coming Up Roses, in a series of heists until they stupidly robbed a Mafia card game, leading to Kuklinksi (who was not aware of the robbery) being ordered to kill his associates. He does so and later moves on to working in a mob-owned lab pirating pornographic films. Soon he takes on jobs, including contract murders, for Roy DeMeo of the New Jersey-based DeCavalcante crime family.
Much of Kuklinski’s infamy was solidified in a series of HBO interviews as well as another biography, Philip Carlo ’s The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer. There are entire passages in Carlo’s book where inexplicable gaps in details about certain murders simply go unexplained. In 1954, Kuklinksi allegedly began to experiment and perfect murder techniques by hunting down victims along the rotting, desolate piers off West Street in New York City. According to Carlo, the underbelly of the city became kind of a personal killing laboratory for Kuklinski. During my work as a private investigator on defense cases, I am always wary when a witness fails to provide the kind of visceral specific details of an event, or has unexplained gaps in time. Here, Carlo simply reports that Kuklinski murdered dozens of men in this era in spectacular fashion with a morbid gallery of weapons: ice picks, knives, rope (hanging one man by the neck by bracing the rope over his shoulder; Kuklinski bragged: “I was the tree”). Not once does Kuklinski provide a single name of even one victim, or a specific description of the locale. Carlo explains that these were “throwaway people”, street people without address or anyone to care. It seems an overly convenient notion that Kuklinski got off to a roaring start in his murder career by bagging dozens of corpses — all before before turning twenty years old.
Kuklinski’s recollection of other murders come off as absurd, if entertaining theater. Kuklinski tells of binding men with duct tape to the floor of a cave in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania. As he withdrew from the darkness, rats would emerge and eat the men alive as they screamed in agony. For a man who bragged about the painstaking procedures he took to facilitate a hit, Kuklinski took awful risks (according to Carlo) as he bound a mark in duct tape and left him for the rats onthe cave floor:
“Richard calmly went back to his car. He retrieved the camera and tripod and a light and motion detector that would trigger both the light and camera when the rats came out. Richard carefully set up the camera, the light and motion detector just so. Satisfied he cut the mans clothes off—he had dirtied himself—and left him there like that.”
Good thing no one stumbled on the backlit cave replete with a camera (and with finger prints probably, and maybe a tag that identified the porn lab where Kuklinksi worked). Perhaps the film footage could confirm this murder by rats? No one has ever seen a copy of it. No one has reported finding these rat-infested caves either. Could the bones of some of Kuklinski’s victims remain hidden in a cave in Bucks County? That question has come up to more than a few detectives.
“Richard Kranzel, who wrote about the county’s caves for the National Speleological Society, was interviewed about the long-closed Durham Mine, the only place large enough to hide human remains. The mine opened during the Revolutionary War before closing in 1908. The thing is, Kranzel said, a lot of people have trekked inside the mine since Kuklinski’s time. And no one has reported coming across human bones. Durham Mine, which sits on private property in upper Bucks, has played informal host to spelunkers and party-goers. … Kranzel said he’s skeptical of Kuklinski’s claims, especially those of flesh-eating rats. The only rats I have encountered in caves are ‘cave rats,’ and they are reclusive and shy creatures, and definitely not fierce as Kuklinski claims,” Kranzel said. “The fact that he states that his cave was in granite does place it on the hills though, as the valley floor is limestone.”
Among the most notorious killings Kuklinksi claimed responsibility for involve those of Gambino godfather Paul Castellano. As recounted on the Swallowing The Camel website, which challenges popularly held assumptions:
It would not be possible to overestimate the importance of this assassination in Mafia history. …It was a seismic event, and once the dust settled, the terrain of the Gambino family was never the same.
The plan was cooked up by Gotti, Robert DiBernardo, Joseph Armone, and Sammy Gravano. Their people allegedly broached the idea with three of the five New York families, and received unofficial sanction for their hostile takeover. Frank DeCicco provided vital inside information; Castellano would be meeting with a trusted group of capos – himself included – at Sparks Steakhouse in Manhattan at 5:00 PM on December 16, 1985. Gotti chose eleven assassins for the job. Four of them would wait near the entrance to Sparks and take out Castellano and Bilotti as they approached.
The hit went off precisely as planned. The four gunmen swarmed Castellano’s Lincoln Town Car and fired a hail of bullets into the two men. All team members escaped in getaway cars. (8)
Again, Kuklinski’s account deviates significantly from the known details of the event.
His claims are in bold:
- Gravano told him straight out that Bilotti was his target. The eleven guys handpicked by Gotti were not given their targets until just hours before the hit.
- He walked to Sparks by himself, window-shopping along the way. He did not know who the other assassins were, or where they were. The assassins met in a nearby park for a “dress rehearsal” shortly before 5:00.
- He chose a spot across the street from Sparks. The gunmen had already selected their positions by the time they arrived. This would not have been left to chance; it was a tightly coordinated hit.
- He fled on foot and hailed a cab. The assassins had getaway cars waiting for them on Second Avenue. What kind of hit man hails a cab from a crime scene, anyway?
Kuklinski claimed a part in the Jimmy Hoffa disappearance as well (although he never mentioned his involvement with Hoffa until years after a series of interviews on HBO made him a homicide superstar). Kuklinski said he gutted Hoffa in the back of the neck with a hunting knife and then drove back to New Jersey with the body.
Though he had talked about his work at great length with the HBO crew years earlier, Kuklinski waited over 20 years to publicly confess his role in Hoffa’s disappearance. I don’t know how you feel about all this, but my response was basically skeptical.
The thing with Hoffa’s disappearance is that isn’t as mysterious as the average person thinks it is. ….the feds had a pretty good idea who was involved, and who was connected to those guys. Kuklinski’s name did not come up once. Former FBI agent Robert Garrity, one of the investigators of Hoffa’s disappearance said, “I’ve never heard of him, and I’ve never heard of the writer [Carlo].” Bob Buccino, the former head of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice’s organized crime division and a member of the task force who ultimately brought Kuklinski down, was reportedly also skeptical of the claims in Carlo’s book.
Other gangsters have mocked the idea that Kuklinski was making up to $50,000 per hit, noting that younger members of the Italian Mafia take on contract murders to cultivate a reputation and “make their bones” so they progress up the hierarchy. No mobster would subcontract out work to one man for 50 grand when he can order three young men, fiercely loyal, to do the job for free.
No one doubts that Kuklinski was killer who thrilled at hunting down his victims, all the while maintaining a real family life and trying to be a solid father to his children (but paradoxically, assaulting his wife repeatedly over decades of marriage). As the aging murderer rotted in a New Jersey prison in the late 1990s, a cable TV show about a New Jersey mobster called The Sopranos began its epic run into pop culture mythology. To pass the gray years, was Kuklinski tempted to grossly exaggerate his murderous impulses to paint an Impressionist view of a real life Mafia hitman, full of whirl and color but impossible to pinpoint any hard lines? If you have ever entered a prison, the sense of marking time is unlike anything on the outside. Kuklinski flashed a weird upturned grin to that outside world, smirking at his final hit—the tragic truth of the Iceman, who left a legacy of wasted time, senseless violence and the terrible deception of his family.
John Nardizzi is an investigator, lawyer, and writer. His writings have appeared in numerous professional and literary journals, including San Diego Writers Monthly, Oxygen, Liberty Hill Poetry Review, Lawyers Weekly USA, and PI Magazine. His fictional detective, Ray Infantino, first appeared in print in the spring 2007 edition of Austin Layman’s Crimestalker Casebook. In May 2003, John founded Nardizzi & Associates, Inc., an investigations firm that has garnered a national reputation for excellence in investigating business fraud and trial work. His investigations on behalf of people wrongfully convicted of crimes led to several million dollar settlements for clients like Dennis Maher, Scott Hornoff and Kenneth Waters, whose story was featured in the 2010 film Conviction. He lives in the Boston area and supports AS Roma and Barcelona.
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