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. dicky6Kuklinksi 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 dicky10began 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.

bucks7Richard 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:

dicky8It 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.

dicky4Though 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.

dicky2No one doubts that Kuklinski was killer who thrilled at hunting down his victims, all the while maintaining a real family dicky9life 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.

jonJohn 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.

Please click here to read All Things Crime Bog’s review of John’s crime novel, Telegraph Hill.



12 Responses to Cracks in “The Iceman”: Richard Kuklinski, Serial Killer and Real-Life Mafia Hit Man

  1. Chunky says:

    True or not, the book is a good read. But he was full of shit. As mark chopper read said ‘never get the truth, get in the way of a good story’

    • Ok Chunky, fair point. I read Carlo’s book as part-fiction, part memoir. And to quote (an often misquoted) TS Eliot remark:

      ” Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. ”

      Not sure Carlo (or Kuklinksi) are poets, but there are some vivid passages in the book. Often followed by utter nonsense.

      • PatrickHMoore says:

        If I may be afforded the luxury of being banal, I would say this: No doubt the Mighty Kuklinski was a legend in his own mind.

  2. DeniseL says:

    I was right in the middle of reading Philip Carlos’ book and was fascinated and believing this was a true account of what happened. Then I got the notion to search to see a picture of what Roy deMeo looked like. It was while searching for this that I segued and stumbled upon all these valid challenges as to the authenticity of this ‘true-story biography’ and now, all the motivation for me to continue reading the book has left. Strange. The fact Kuklinski nay well be a LIAR is more offensive to me than the notion he was a true life murderer to the degree and in the involvement & manner in which he claims.
    Strange. It’s still an interesting story but my feelings about being lied to and really hoodwinked into BELIEVING I was reading a true-life & death biography is so offensive.Not sure I can or even want to finish the book. Had I gone into reading this as a fictional novel, I would likely have enjoyed it. I think it is the manner in which the book was presented (as told by Kuklinski) that has offended & insulted me; like I was tricked by misrepresentation into reading it.

  3. DeniseL says:

    How many people did Kuklinski for sure kill? Is there any evidence whatsoever that he was indeed involved with or even associated with these crime families?Does anyone remember him from the crime families? I’m still surprised at my SELF that it offends me more to be lied to than the notion that he was a killer and to the degree I was lead to believe. Calls for self reflection. Strange reaction I am having. Being lied to ^tricked^ feeling more offensive than the notion of truth in horrors he presented.
    Did anyone else there feel this same ‘offended’ reaction?
    I might just finish reading it for entertainment sense and to study maybe the active imagination of the chronic jail-house fibber. LOL

    • Denise, I know the feeling; came on me as I read Carlo’s book. I felt like I was reading a decent piece of non-fiction, and then certain scenes struck me as complete fantasy. Fairly well written fantasy maybe, but still fiction. The lies feel personal when you take the time to read a book like this to understand how and why someone steps into the killing zone. In return for going there, you want to trust the guy taking you.

  4. Matt says:

    Thanks for pointing out some of the parts missing from the film. I enjoyed the movie, and agree that true or false, this is a fascinating story. But the film portrayed RK as a tragic figure, pushed into killing in order to protect and support his family. The “Hollywood” RK only kills people who deserve it, or at least go over the lines of good behavior, and only then when he is forced to.

    To find out he was a long-time spouse abuser honestly made me ill. I appreciate you adding these details. That this film left them out in order to create a character we’ll give a shit about is not surprising, but really troubling. The guy was a wife beating monster who killed people for an erection. To say “based on a true story” and then offer anything cleaner than that is bull shit and out of bounds.

  5. John Wilson says:

    There are 78 confirmed deaths over the last 3 years linking Kuklinkski to all of them with DNA. The book is very accurate. The man is a 100% telling the truth.

  6. Jason says:

    I thought the movie sucked I to read the book believing it to be true some of the people he mentions killing in his book I had already saw shows about there deaths and richards name was never mentioned I for sure think he was full of shit I probably would have went on believing him until he just took it to far hoffa castilano galante he just straight up lied

  7. Steve says:

    This is the biggest load of bulls,,,t I have ever read

  8. Richard Simons says:

    Although there are many differences in the book, the movie, and interviews he was certainly a member of Roy Demeos hit team. There was plenty of evidence presented by FBI DEA and police showing that association. You question the amount of money given for hits by Demeos’ crew. He was used in the killing of high profile hits. During the investigation by “Donnie Brasco” Joe Pis tone, the contract for killiling of 3 Capo’s was roughly 150k. The known murders by Kuklinski are documented but they only had sufficient evidence for a dozen. He plead guilty to 5 and was seen as a great corroborative witness to other cases. Was the story padded? I’m sure it was but the interviews by Park Dietz was cut for time and in his report he clearly states that Kuklinski embelished some events to gather favor of his interviewer. The rat story in particular was one that contained a part truth as one of the dumped bodies had been found unreconizable due to rats eating the flesh. It has been established that Demeos crew killed hundreds of mafia member/connected members. I like that you portray that Kuklinski was Hollywood fantasy by way of using movie drama of a member making his bones. Kuklinski would never be anything more than an associate being he was not Italian and he would be used as such. Very few mob associates are given the task of killing someone since the amount of “heat” it would put on the “families”. So your explainations of using new or novice hit men is ludicrous . As for him hailing a cab from the crime scene of Castellanos murder apparently your research is lacking since two men wearing Russian hats were seen leaving in a cab by witnesses and there was a cabbie found killed the next day and presumed that was the cab they were in. Why they took a cab was speculated that in the commotion they were left behind. I can go on but I do believe that he was an expert used and groomed by Demeo for high price hits and you can find that his income far exceeded that of of most connected guys. I will give that he definitely embellished his crimes but not as much as you say. I’ve spent years researching organized crime and there are many missing men and women that could be tied to Demeo and his crew especially the use of outsiders for hits that could not be linked to any one member of the commission.

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