Was Mafia assassin Richard Kuklinski full of sh**?
I’ve had Richard “Ice Man” Kuklinski’s claims on my mind for some time now, and with the FBI recently scouring Detroit for Jimmy Hoffa and a movie starring Michael Shannon as Kuklinski being released in May, this seems as good a time as any to examine what the notorious hitman had to say prior to his death in 2006.
Who was Richard Kuklinski?
Born in 1935 to an alcoholic, abusive railroad brakeman and a fanatically Catholic mother who also administered beatings freely, Richard Leonard Kuklinski dropped out of the eighth grade to become a full-time hoodlum, stealing cars and robbing houses in Jersey City and Hoboken.
At 19 he became a serial killer, murdering homeless men in the alleys of New York, Newark and Hoboken. He claimed he killed at least 50 men just for the pleasure it gave him. He experimented with different killing techniques, as he would throughout his life. He was soon working as an enforcer and contract killer for New Jersey’s DeCavalcante crime family, which would later serve as the model for the fictional DiMeo crime family in The Sopranos.
At 6’4″ and 250 pounds, with a hair-trigger temper and an array of weapons, Kuklinski was an incredibly deadly force. He was such a skilled, trusted hitman by 1960 that he began doing work for the New York crime families, earning up to five figures per job. Yet he continued to live in low-income housing in Jersey City, thanks to his penchant for gambling. (1)
He married a good Catholic girl, Barbara Pedrici, in 1962. This was his second marriage. He had two sons (the elder was Richard Jr.) with his first wife. He claims he sliced off his first wife’s nipples when he found her in bed with another man, but didn’t officially separate from her until the eve of his marriage to Barbara. (1)
Though Barbara had three miscarriages and a difficult fourth pregnancy in 1962 and ’63, and the couple had no money, Kuklinski didn’t take a single contract during this period. He worked a series of low-paying, menial “straight” jobs. The closest he came to organized crime was bootlegging copies of cartoons and X-rated movies while working in a film lab. Then, with two other guys, he reverted to stealing truckloads of merchandise. He shot two men in a fit of road rage, killed four others when a buyer who tried to renegotiate the price of a stolen load of wristwatches, and tortured and killed two men who attempted to steal a load of stolen goods from his crew.
So far as his family knew, though, Kuklinski’s only job was copying cartoons in a Hell’s Kitchen lab. They weren’t aware that he was actually copying porn movies in a lab controlled by a member of the Gambino crime family. He worked long hours, often staying in the lab through the night. When a union representative confronted him about this, he killed the man and disguised his death as a hanging in a public park. In 1971, he murdered a bouncer at the Peppermint Lounge for showing him disrespect.
It was around this time that he quit his lab job and began distributing and financing porn. One Christmas, he killed a porn producer who refused to repay a $1500 loan, even though the man’s brother was a captain in the Gambino family. (1)
In the early ’70s, Kuklinski got himself heavily into debt with a Gambino associate who was partners with Roy DeMeo, and DeMeo pistol-whipped him. But he ended up being so impressed by Kuklinski’s fearlessness – a quality they shared – that he began giving him jobs. Once again, he was a hitman and enforcer for the Mafia.
DeMeo had worked his way up in the Gambino crime family. His headquarters was the Gemini Lounge, a seedy bar on Troy Avenue, Queens. DeMeo was involved in a broad range of criminal enterprises, notably stripping stolen cars, but in the ’70s he assembled a team of hitmen and made contract killings his specialty. His outfit became known as the Murder Machine. By the early ’80s, he had attracted the attention of the Organized Crime Task Force of the Queens D.A.’s office. Detectives Kenny McCabe, Joe Wendling, and John Murphy put the Gemini Lounge under unofficial surveillance, learning the faces and names of every frequent visitor to the lounge. (2)
By 1969 the Kuklinskis had three children, two daughters and a son. In the mid-’70s Richard purchased a lovely three-bedroom split level in Dumont, New Jersey, where he and Barbara hosted neighbourhood barbecues and pool parties. They went to church every Sunday, and the kids were enrolled in private Catholic schools.
Meanwhile, Kuklinski killed one of his two partners in the porn distribution business on DeMeo’s orders. Immediately afterward, he shot a stranger in another fit of road rage. (1)
Altogether, Kuklinski killed over 100 people in at least 18 states, including Hawaii. (1, 3)
In the ’70s and ’80s, he was involved in some of the most infamous killings in Mafia history (more on those shortly). But it was his crew of relatively small-time cat burglars that brought him down; after killing no fewer than four of his associates between ’81 and ’83, Kuklinski finally caught the attention of New Jersey law enforcement. A sting operation resulted in his arrest in ’86, and in ’88 he was convicted of four murders (a fifth case against him was dropped for lack of evidence).
Between 1991 and his death in 2006, Kuklinski gave a series of chilling interviews to HBO. These were turned into three America Undercover documentaries. In the first, chewing gum and wearing a sweatshirt, he calmly ran down his crimes – the cyanide, the strangulation, the time he wore elevator shoes to infiltrate a disco. He showed a flicker of humanity just once, as he talked about his ex-wife and children.
In this first interview, he made no mention of his most dramatic claim – that he, along with three other men, had kidnapped and murdered Jimmy Hoffa.
In his second HBO interview, aired in 2001, he explicitly stated that he did not kill Hoffa (but knew who did). (3, 4)
Then, just before his death in 2006, he supposedly gave a very different story to true crime writer Philip Carlo, who documented it in his book The Ice Man.
The task of making Hoffa “disappear forever” had been handed to a childhood acquaintance of Kuklinski, identified only as “Tony P.” or “Tony Pro” by Philip Carlo (obviously meant to be Anthony Provenanzo, a Genovese caporegime who was also vice president for Teamsters Local 560 in Union City, New Jersey). (5)
Provenzano enlisted Richard and two other Jersey men to help him. Kuklinski was told only that a union guy in Detroit was making trouble for the Genovese family, and had to be killed. That was all he wanted, or needed, to know.
On the afternoon of July 30, 1975, the quartet drove to the Machus Red Fox restaurant outside Detroit, as arranged, and Tony P. conversed briefly with Hoffa in the parking lot. Then Hoffa got into the car, and Tony drove several miles before giving Kuklinski the signal to knock the mark unconscious with a “jawbreaker” and stab him to death with one powerful thrust of his hunting knife. They bundled the body into the trunk, and Kuklinski was left with the risky job of driving it back to Jersey while the other three guys caught a bus out of town.
Back in New Jersey, Kuklinski took Hoffa’s body to a Mafia-affiliated junkyard in Kearney and deposited it into a 50-gallon drum, which he then burned and buried on the property.
Kuklinski thought the man had looked familiar, but didn’t discover who he was until later.
Around 1978, one of the killers began to talk to the FBI. Kuklinski was hired to take him out. This man, according to Carlo’s book, was Salvatore Briguglio, an official in Union City’s Local 560. Prosecutors subpoenaed Briguglio and several other suspected conspirators to appear before a federal grand jury on December 4, 1975, but they could never pin Hoffa’s disappearance on them. (1, 5)
In March 1978, Briguglio was shot to death near the Andrea Doria Social Club in New York’s Little Italy. This seemingly had nothing to do with Hoffa; Briguglio had been scheduled to appear in court with Anthony Provenzano and Harold Konigsberg for the 1961 murder of Anthony Castellito. (5)
According to several people, including his wife, Hoffa had expected to meet with Anthony Giacalone of Detroit and Anthony Provenzano on the afternoon he vanished. But Provenzano wasn’t even in Detroit that day; he was in Union City. The car that picked up Hoffa was likely driven by a man Hoffa looked upon as a son, Charles O’Brien. (5,6)
The following account is drawn from the work of Dan Moldea, author of The Hoffa Wars. He has pieced together what federal investigators believe is the closest we will ever get to the truth about Hoffa’s death. Some of the information came from Ralph Picardo, a former driver for Provenzano.
Hoffa had gotten on the wrong side of Provenzano and Pennsylvania crime boss Russell Bufalino. Hoffa and Provenzano even came to blows in prison. On the morning of July 30, O’Brien picked up three of Provenzano’s henchmen at a Detroit-area airport and drove them to a house where he was staying, not far from the Machus Red Fox restaurant. These three men were Sal Briguglio, his brother Gabriel, and and another New Jersey Teamster official named Thomas Andretta. All three would subsequently be named as the suspected assassins by the federal grand jury. Moldea suspects that Frank Sheeran of Teamsters Local 326 in Wilmington, Delaware, was another conspirator/witness.
In the afternoon, O’Brien picked Hoffa up at the restaurant and drove him to the house, where the men were waiting for him. (5)
Picardo alleged that Hoffa’s killers stuffed him into a 55-gallon drum, loaded him onto a truck in Detroit, and shipped him to an unknown destination. His remains were later squashed in a car-compacting machine. This, too, was brought before the grand jury. (6)
Kuklinski claimed that after Briguglio started talking in ’78, the barrel containing Hoffa’s scorched remains was dug up, squashed in a car-compacting machine, and shipped off to Japan as scrap metal. (1, 4)
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
The thing with Hoffa’s disappearance is that isn’t as mysterious as the average person thinks it is. As you can see from the above passage, 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. (7)
In fact, you’re not going to find a single seasoned Hoffa or Mafia investigator who buys Kuklinski’s story. Yet Carlo would have us believe that this hulking maniac, who would literally murder other drivers just for looking at him funny, was so skillful and so meticulous in his work that he managed to slip past every Mafia-savvy federal agent, police officer, and investigative reporter in the nation for nearly 30 years, like Caspar on steroids.
Also, who would drive from Detroit to Jersey with a former Teamster boss in his trunk? They don’t have car-crushing machines in Detroit?
Now let’s look at three other infamous hits in which Kuklinski was supposedly involved: The murder of Bonanno family boss Carmine Galante; the assassination of the head of the Gambino crime family, Paul Castellano; and the death of Roy DeMeo.
Carmine “Lilo” Galante was a big-time narcotics trafficker, instrumental in the French Connection, and he took over control of the Bonanno family after Philip Rastelli went to prison in 1974. The other four New York families deeply resented Galante’s domination of the drug trade and its profits, so they began plotting to take him out.
On the afternoon of July 12, 1979, three men in ski masks burst onto the patio of Joe and Mary’s Italian-American Restaurant in Brooklyn and opened fire on Galante, his cousin, and three other members of the Bonanno family. Galante never saw it coming; the little man nicknamed for a cigar died with one clamped between his teeth. Only two of the men survived, and these two (Baldo Amato and Cesare Bonventre) were suspected of having some involvement in the hit. (8)
The Galante crime scene
Numerous men have been floated as suspects over the years, but Kuklinski has never been on the radar in relation to the murder of Carmine Galante; the only person to suggest he could have been one of the gunmen was Kuklinski himself. His version of the story is extremely detailed – right down to the restaurant decor and the “rubbery waves of heat” coming from the sidewalk that day – but it simply doesn’t match up with the event. Kuklinski’s claims are in bold, with the facts as they are told in Selwyn Raab’s Five Families following:
- He identified the owner of the restaurant as Galante’s cousin Mary. Joe and Mary’s was actually owned by Galante’s distant cousin, Giuseppe Turano, who was one of the three men killed that day.
- Galante entered the restaurant with two guys, one of whom – Bonventre – was in on the job (as DeMeo explained to Kuklinski). Galante showed up alone that day, dropped off by a nephew. Everyone who was on the patio during the shooting had joined Galante later. Clearly, Kuklinski and/or Carlo relied on popular accounts of the shooting, which indicated (erroneously) that Amato and Bonventre were acting as bodyguards for Galante that day and accompanied him into the restaurant.
- Kuklinski arrived before Galante and behaved like a regular customer until the other two gunmen appeared. Surely, Giuseppe’s son John – who was shot by one of the three men – would have noticed an unmasked gunman moving toward the patio. Everyone agrees that all three shooters entered and exited the restaurant at the same time, wearing masks.
- Kuklinski started toward the exit as soon as the other two assassins started firing, got into a car driven by DeMeo, and was gone by the time it was all over. Again, all three gunman left the restaurant together and got into the same getaway car.
- DeMeo told him that one of the guys with Galante – Bonventre – would leave the table at some point, giving the signal. Kuklinski watched him exit the restaurant. By all other accounts, Bonventre did not leave the patio. He remained there throughout the attack and exited the restaurant shortly after the shooters did. In fact, that’s what tipped people off that he could have been involved in the hit; he and and Amato were almost literally on the heels of the three assassins, yet made no effort to stop them.
This cockamamie story serves to expose other tales Kuklinski told as bogus. For instance, DeMeo and his boss Anthony “Nino” Gaggi were supposedly so impressed by his expert handling of the Galante murders that they cut him in on a huge cocaine deal, even sending him to Rio to negotiate a shipment. But if Kuklinski didn’t kill Galante, why would Gaggi reward him in this way?
Paul Castellano was made head of the Gambino family not so much because he earned it, but because he had married Carlo Gambino’s sister. This gave him a lot of pull, but by 1985 John Gotti was plotting to take him out and replace him. Kuklinski claims he was given the contract to shoot Castellano’s right-hand man and chauffeur, Tommy Bilotti, by Sammy Gravano. Someone else would take care of Castellano, he was told. (1)
It would not be possible to overestimate the importance of this assassination in Mafia history. Gotti, a relative unknown, shot to gangland superstardom because of this hit. Ever see that A&E show Growing Up Gotti? Yeah, well, you wouldn’t have had to suffer through that if it wasn’t for this hit. 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 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 hitman hails a cab from a crime scene, anyway?
Gravano would later cut a deal and testify against Gotti, admitting to his role in the murder of Castellano. He did not mention Kuklinski. Even after Kuklinski fingered him for the murder of Peter Calabro, Gravano never explicitly stated that he knew him, though it certainly would have been to his advantage to finger Kuklinski for the Castelleno hit. “Yeah, I know that guy. I hired him to take out Bilotti.”
I will repeat that no one familiar with organized crime recognized Kuklinski after his arrest. In Selwyn Raab’s Five Families, his name is given as “Kukinski”. This might say more about Raab than it does about Kuklinski, but isn’t it curious that a journalist who followed Mafia affairs for the New York Times for a quarter of a century had never heard of the guy? Just how does a Polish hitman standing six and a half feet tall slip under the radar?
In Carlo’s book, Kuklinski never really respects Roy DeMeo. He’s grateful for the work DeMeo gives him, but he secretly nurses resentment over DeMeo’s bullying and plans to kill him someday.
In February 1983, he finally got his chance. DeMeo feared murder charges would soon be laid against him for the murders of “Jimmy Esposito” and his son (Nino Gaggi was already in jail for this crime). Kuklinski feared that DeMeo, desperate as he was, would roll over on him. So he shot DeMeo as they were parked in DeMeo’s car near Sheepshead Bay. He placed the body in the trunk and strolled away.
Even Carlo admits, in a postscript to his book, that Kuklinski probably wasn’t involved in DeMeo’s death. The generally held view is that Castellano ordered him killed because he couldn’t be trusted, and the hit was carried out by one or more of DeMeo’s own crew members. Again, several men have been named as strong suspects, and Kuklinski was never mentioned by anyone. Also, the motive he gives doesn’t make a lick of sense, and his details are again inconsistent with known facts. For instance, the Eppolito (not Esposito) murders had occurred four years earlier; Gaggi had already served his time, and the case was closed.
Anthony Bruno left the Castellano and DeMeo murders out of his 1994 biography of Kuklinski, The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer. He has explained that he simply couldn’t verify them.
Kuklinski also claimed he was in on the murder of John Favara, a neighbour of John Gotti. Favara accidentally struck and killed 12-year-old Frank Gotti, John’s youngest son, with his car in the spring of 1980. Kuklinski said Gotti’s brother Gene, a few other men and himself beat and tortured Favara to death. Several men have been named in relation to the case, and one of them was Gene Gotti, but Kuklinski has never been mentioned – except by himself and Carlo. (1)
Some of Kuklinski’s other dramatic – and unprovable – claims:
- When he was 5, his parents told him that his 10-year-old brother Florian had been struck and killed by a car, and he believed them. Years later, however, he claimed that Florian really died from one of their father’s beatings, and his parents told police Florian had tumbled down a staircase. How would he know this? It seems unlikely that either parent would ever admit to obscuring the cause of their child’s death, and Kuklinski obviously didn’t witness his brother’s demise.
- He accidentally beat a neighbourhood bully named Charley Lane to death with a clothing rod from his closet when he was just 13 or 14 years old. He stole a car and drove the corpse two hours south to a swamp in the Pine Barrens, where he removed all the boy’s teeth and hacked off his fingers to delay identification of the body. (1)
I can find no information on a Jersey City boy disappearing or being found dead in 1948 or 1949. There are at least two versions of the story; in Carlo’s book, young Kuklinski is already crime-savvy enough to steal a car, make a clean getaway, and dispose of a body, while in Bruno’s book he merely leaves the body in the courtyard of his apartment building. Carlo states the boy’s body was not found.
- Between 1955 and 1960, he killed no fewer than three people after disputes in bars. His second murder was committed outside a Hoboken pool hall about 5 years after he killed Lane. A young Irish policeman who was getting on his nerves had fallen asleep in his car, so Kuklinski set it on fire. This man is known as “Doyle” in Carlo’s book. There may be at least two versions of this story, because elsewhere Kuklinski claimed he beat a man to death with a pool cue when he was 18. In 1959 he stabbed another man and beat a bouncer to death with a hammer.
- In his late teens and early 20s, he headed a crime ring of 4 or 5 other young guys. They called themselves the Coming Up Roses. The gang was approached by a member of the DeCavalcante crime family and asked, point-blank, to “take care of” a man who was causing trouble. It was Kuklinski who walked up to the mark’s parked car outside a Hoboken bar one night and shot him in the head with a .32 revolver. Each member of the gang received $500. After that they were given many jobs, including stealing $3 million in cash and gold from an armoured-truck warehouse in North Bergen.
This robbery would have been bigger than the Great Brink’s Robbery of 1950 (which was the nation’s largest robbery at that time), yet it didn’t even make the New Jersey papers. Huh.
Later, under orders from the DeCavalantes, Kuklinski killed two of his own crew members. The names Philip Carlo gives for these two men are apparently pseudonyms.
All of this supposedly occurred before Kuklinski was 19.
- In February 1956, he killed three men who confronted him in Jersey City and dumped their bodies in a cave in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
- He was the only hitman known to have worked for all five New York crime families (plus the two in New Jersey), according to Philip Carlo’s book.
- One of the porn films he copied at the lab where he worked in the ’60s was Dogf**ker, starring Linda Lovelace. But that movie was made in the ’70s. This is just one of numerous examples of Kuklinski and/or Philip Carlo juicing up the narrative with BS details. Remember that bouncer he killed at the Peppermint Lounge in ’71? Well, that bar closed in 1965 and didn’t reopen until 1980.
- In Florida, he killed a rapist (on DeMeo’s orders) by cutting off chunks of his flesh (including his penis) and setting him adrift in the ocean to be devoured by sharks. Immediately afterward, he killed three young men at a rest stop because they had taunted him on the road.
- He blew off the head of a motorist stopped at a traffic light with a double-barreled shotgun, from a motorcycle.
- Strictly as an experiment, he shot a random pedestrian in the head with a crossbow.
- In Honolulu, he threw a man off the balcony at a five-star hotel.
- After a robbery in New Jersey, he tired of the bickering of his four cohorts and decided to feed them cyanide-laced sandwiches. All four men died within minutes. He did not dispose of the bodies. The following day, he poisoned the man who had arranged the job.
Four men being found dead in the same room would be a big deal, even in New Jersey. Yet this didn’t make the papers, either.
- On more than one occasion, he took victims to a rat-infested cave in Pennsylvania, cocooned them with duct tape, and left them there to be devoured. These murders-by-rat were supposedly videotaped, with a motion sensor triggering a light as the rats moved in to feast, and Kuklinski says he gave the tapes to his clients to prove the “marks” had suffered.
- He poisoned several people with cyanide in restaurants, while dining with his victims, yet managed to get out the door without being apprehended or questioned. Each and every one of these deaths, he claims, was attributed to heart attacks – meaning the EMTs and medical examiners somehow failed to detect any of the telltale signs of cyanide poisoning (cyanide rictus, the distinctive odour of almonds, etc.).
- He poisoned more than one victim with cyanide merely by spilling it on their clothes. He would approach the mark in a bar, “accidentally” dump his cyanide-laced drink on the guy, then walk away. The cyanide, he explained, would gradually soak through the victims’ clothing and into their skin.
Then there’s the issue of the ice cream truck assassin…
Who was Robert “Mister Softee” Prongay?
Kuklinski supposedly met Robert Prongay (spelled Pronge by Carlo) in the early ’80s, at a New Jersey hotel. He and Prongay were possibly stalking the same victim, and they quickly discovered they were fellow assassins. They enthusiastically traded techniques and war stories. Prongay claimed to be a former Special Forces member, trained in the use of explosives and poisons. Kuklinski said he was particularly impressed by Prongay’s use of a Mister Softee ice cream van as a surveillance vehicle, his ingenious use of cyanide in spray form, his remotely-controlled grenades, and his habit of freezing bodies before he dumped them to obscure the estimated time of death. Kuklinski began adopting some of Pronay’s methods in his own work. Prongay, in turn, was fascinated by Kuklinski’s use of rats.
TV Tropes has an extensive list of killer ice cream men under the label “Bad Humor Truck”. Zero points for originality, Ice Man.
Their friendship came to an abrupt end in 1984. First, Prongay asked Kuklinski to kill his wife and young son for him. Then he told Kuklinski of his plan to poison a community reservoir just to kill members of a single family. Outraged, Kuklinski shot him.
What do we really know about Robert Prongay? Basically, nothing. We are told by Carlo that he was found shot to death in his ice cream truck in 1984, but his death didn’t make the papers. Other sources state that his body was discovered hanging in a warehouse on Tonnelle Avenue. There are no known photos of him. His background is a blank. No one in the world – other than Kuklinski – has ever talked about the guy. Carlo tells us Kuklinski pled guilty to his murder in 2004.
There are several possibilities here. One is that an ice cream assassin really was tooling the streets of North Bergen in the ’70s and ’80s, stashing bodies in his freezer. Another is that Kuklinski really did know a criminal ice cream man, and created a bullshit story around the guy, transforming him from a small-time hood into a crack military-trained assassin to obscure the unimpressive truth.
The Prongay conundrum turned out to be the tip of an iceberg. The more I delved into Kuklinski’s world, the less credible he became. Nagging doubts and unresolved issues multiplied, until I was finally faced with some deeply troubling questions.
Did Kuklinski really work for Roy DeMeo?
I began to realize that there isn’t a lot of concrete evidence actually connecting Kuklinski to DeMeo. The only person besides Kuklinski to publicly declare that Kuklinski was an associate of DeMeo is another highly questionable character by the name of Greg Bucceroni. This fellow crawled out of the woodwork a couple of years ago, telling Dr. Phil and any journalist who would listen that he was a Gambino associate at the same time as Kuklinski, that he had been a teenage prostitute for the Gambino family, that the Mafia tried to hire him to kill Mumia Abu-Jamal prior to his arrest, and that Philly businessman Ed Savitz once tried to pimp him out to disgraced Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky. Bucceroni alleges that Kuklinski often traveled between Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York on behalf of DeMeo and Robert DiBernadino, trafficking in illegal porn, working as an enforcer, and of course murdering people.
To date, there is no solid evidence that supports any of Bucceroni’s stories. Not even the Philadelphia Daily News, a glorified tabloid, really bought into him. In fact, reporter William Bender essentially called him out as a liar. The Patriot-News reporter who broke the Sandusky story, Sara Ganim, said when she first spoke to Bucceroni, he presented her with fresh allegations against the coach and other members of what he said was a vast pedophile ring, but couldn’t or wouldn’t provide any details. He said he didn’t know the surnames of his abusers. Later, however, he gave a laundry list of prominent names to other media outlets. When Ganim decided not to run with his unverifiable accusations, Bucceroni resorted to sending her harassing emails and naming her in profanity-laced tweets. Other writers who have had dealings with Bucceroni report similar experiences. Check out Kyle Scott’s posts on Bucceroni at Crossing Broad for more info.
So what we seem to have here is one conman propping up the stories of another conman. Interesting stories? Sure. Convincing evidence? Nope.
Bucceroni is the one and only person who has ever named Kuklinski as a close associate of DeMeo, though several members of DeMeo’s crew became informants.
In their 1992 book Murder Machine, Jerry Capeci and Gerry Mustain didn’t mention Kuklinski at all. Capeci does not buy his stories about Hoffa, Castellano, and DeMeo, and refers to him as “heretofore unknown”. In other words, while intensively researching DeMeo and his crew, Capeci and Mustain didn’t hear squat about a gigantic Polish hitman.
In The Ice Man, Carlo explains that informant Freddie DiNome tipped off investigators to Kuklinski’s work for DeMeo. I can find no evidence for this. If you come across some, kindly let me know.
On the other hand, the film lab where Kuklinski copied porn was linked to the Gambino family; it was owned by Robert DiBernardi, and one of the theatres he sold stolen porn to was owned by DeMeo. And Kenny McCabe of the NYPD allegedly confirmed to author Anthony Bruno that Kuklinski’s vehicle had been parked at the Gemini Lounge in Brooklyn on several occasions in the early ’80s, when DeMeo was under surveillance. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean he worked for DeMeo outside the film lab.
Was he a hitman?
Six of the seven murders that can be linked to Kuklinski are those of his own associates, people who worked with him on relatively minor jobs involving theft, or people who owed money: Robert Prongay, George Malliband, Louis Masgay, Gary Smith, Paul Hoffman, and Daniel Deppner. Then there is the case of Peter Calabro, which is rather questionable. All seven murders were committed within a short timespan (198o-1984). Kuklinski was convicted of two of them in 1988, pled guilty to two others, and (according to Carlo) pled guilty to the murders of Pronge and Calabro in 2004.
The first murder that can be definitely linked to him was committed in 1981. Louis Masgay, 44, purchased a lot of stolen merchandise from Kuklinski’s buddy Phil Solimene to stock a little store he owned in Paterson, and one day Phil and Kuklinski decided to rob and kill him. Richard wrapped the body in plastic and tipped it into a cold-water well near a warehouse in North Bergen. He wanted to try freezing a body, as Mister Softee sometimes did.
George Malliband was killed in the first week of February, 1982. A small-time hustler from Pennsylvania, friendly with Kuklinski, Malliband supposedly owed DeMeo $35,000. He tried to weasel his way out of paying on time by hinting that he could harm Kuklinski’s family…and Kuklinski, though brutally abusive to his wife, was so protective of his daughters that he would actually spy on them during parties. He was instantly enraged. He shot Malliband five times, shoved his body into a barrel by removing one leg, and dumped the barrel on the grounds of a chemical plant.
The plant owner found the barrel almost immediately, and it didn’t take police long to learn that Richard Kuklinski was the last person to see Malliband alive.
Meanwhile, DeMeo had decided to switch coke suppliers, and had no intention of paying for the last shipment he received from his original suppliers, a pair of Brazilian brothers. He wanted Kuklinski to travel to Rio a second time and take out both brothers. That’s how Kuklinski became an international assassin. It would not be his last overseas job, he claimed. (1)
One murder that has been linked to Kuklinski serves as the strongest evidence that he was, in fact, a Mafia-linked hitman. Yet this case is extremely problematic. The hit was allegedly ordered in 1980 by Gambino underboss Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, and the mark was a crooked NYPD detective by the name of Peter Calabro. The exact reasons for the hit aren’t known, but it has been alleged that Calabro’s former in-laws suspected him in the 1977 drowning death of his wife, Carmella, and turned to Gravano for “help” (in the Carlo/Kuklinski version of the story, Calabro hired DeMeo himself to kill Carmella).
Here’s how the murder went down, according to Kuklinski: He waited in his van near Calabro’s home in Saddle River, New Jersey, maintaining radio contact with Gravano, who was tailing Calabro. When Calabro attempted to drive around the van, Kuklinski fired the shotgun given to him by Gravano through the windshield of his Honda Civic, killing him with a single shot. (1, 4)
The murder remained unsolved for over two decades. In 2003, Gravano was charged with soliciting Calabro’s murder. Why? Because Kuklinski took credit for the hit and told the feds it was Gravano who hired him. Beyond that, there is no evidence connecting Kuklinski to Calabro’s murder. Kuklinski had kept this murder under his hat until 2001, when he was interviewed by HBO for the second time.
He agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence (rather than a death sentence), and he also agreed to testify against Gravano. The young state police detectives who questioned Kuklinski claim he provided details that only the killer would know. (1) Just what those details are remains a mystery. And no one has answered a rather obvious question: Why would Gravano, one of Mafiadom’s most prolific hitman himself, hire Kuklinski to do a job like this? He had to hire someone else for the Castellano hit because it was done on a street crawling with Christmas shoppers and steakhouse patrons who could recognize him, but he could easily have pulled off a covert nighttime hit like the Calabro shooting himself. It doesn’t make much sense. Several jailhouse informants have stated that Gravano bragged about killing Calabro himself, for whatever that’s worth.
At any rate, Kuklinski died before Gravano went to trial. The murder charges were dropped for lack of evidence.
The third and fourth murders for which Kuklinski was convicted in ’88 were those of Gary Smith and Daniel Deppner. In late 1981, Percy House, one of the members of a small burglary ring Richard ran, was arrested, and fingered Kuklinski as the boss, though he knew Kuklinski only as “Big Rich”.
Later, the ex-wife of missing crew member Danny Deppner provided state police detective Patrick Kane with Richard’s full name. This woman told Kane that Kuklinski was a hitman, and that he and Deppner had murdered crew member Gary Smith in December 1982 by giving him a poisoned hamburger, then strangling him. Sure enough, Detective Kane learned, Smith’s body had been found stuffed beneath a bed at the York Motel in North Bergen two days after Christmas in 1982. Several people had rented the room without noticing it.
Worst housekeeping ever.
In May 1983, Deppner’s body was found near a reservoir in West Milford. He had been poisoned with cyanide, then shot. It would later emerge that he had been killed in the apartment of Richie Peterson, boyfriend of Kuklinski’s elder daughter, Merrick. Peterson had even helped Richard dispose of the body. Kuklinski told young Richie that Deppner had died of a drug overdose, and Richie believed him.
Then came the discovery that gave Kuklinski his nickname, the Ice Man. In August 1983, Louis Masgay’s partially defrosted corpse was found in Rockland County, New York (by other accounts, he was found in Palisades Interstate Park near Orangeburg, New Jersey). Though the corpse appeared fresh, an autopsy revealed shards of ice in his chest cavity, indicating he could have died much earlier.
It was Percy House who broke the case open, finally admitting to Detective Kane that he knew “Big Rich” had killed Masgay, Smith, and Paul Hoffman. Then Kane learned that a fourth guy, George Malliband, had an appointment with Kuklinski on the day he ended up in a barrel. Kukinski’s attorney would try to pin everything on House.
The Masgay case contains a mystery: How did Kuklinski freeze the body? Carlo claims it was kept in an ice-cold well, while the authorities seem to believe it was kept in an industrial freezer. So far as we, though, Kuklinski didn’t have access to a freezer large enough to hold a man’s body.
Pat Kane worked obsessively on the Kuklinski cases for over four years. Initially, his bosses didn’t think there was anything to them because the MOs were so different in each murder: Strangulation, shooting, poisoning. How could they possibly be the work of one individual, a family man? Kuklinski was a “film distributor” on paper, and had a clean record (with just two complaints for road rage incidents).
Nonetheless, Kane was certain he was on to something. And he kept hearing rumours that Kuklinski was not only a killer, but a hitman with Mafia ties. Given the body count, that wasn’t hard for Kane to believe. So he cooked up a plan to lure Kuklinski with a decoy client, an undercover cop. The man selected for this job was an enthusiastic ATF agent, Dominick Polifrone. In early 1985, Phil Solimene agreed to introduce him to Kuklinski as a weapons dealer.
It wasn’t until September 1986 that Polifrone finally met Kuklinski face-to-face. Kuklinski asked him to acquire some cyanide, and Polifrone asked for some firearms. Unaware that their phone conversation was being recorded, Kuklinski presented one of his associates (identified as “John Spasudo” in Carlo’s book) as an arms dealer who could get Dominick some “metal” for an IRA client. The two men then chatted about cyanide and all the interesting ways there are to kill people. Kuklinski was admitting, for the record, that he had murdered people.
They arranged to meet at a rest stop on October 2 so Kuklinski could hand over a “hit kit” consisting of a gun and silencer. As they hovered over the trunk of Kuklinski’s car, Dominick floated the idea of poisoning a wealthy young client by cutting his cocaine with cyanide. Kuklinski took the bait, telling Polifrone it could be done. Again, the conversation was recorded.
On Halloween, they arranged to meet up at the rest stop for a third time. This time, Dominick would bring the young coke buyer he supposedly wanted Richard to kill. Detective Paul Smith posed as the buyer. Kuklinski didn’t show. He was too busy conducting business in South Carolina and Zurich, according to Carlo’s book. The team waited tensely until another meeting was set up for December 6. This was a key meeting, because Kuklinski finally named two of the people he had killed: Deppner and Smith. During and after a fourth meeting, on December 12, he and Polifrone made arrangements to meet up again five days later and poison the coke buyer with a cyanide-laced sandwich; Dominick said he could supply the cyanide and the sandwich, which seemed to suit Kuklinski just fine.
On December 17, Polifrone handed Kuklinski a bagful of egg salad sandwiches and a tiny vial of white powder that looked like cyanide. He would pick up their mark and bring him back to the rest stop in about half an hour, he said. Kuklinski said he would swap his car for a van (a safe place to poison the buyer) and return to the rest stop in twenty minutes.
It didn’t take him long to realize the cyanide was fake. He pulled his car over and tested some of it on a stray dog – to absolutely no effect. (1)
State police detectives were staking out his house in Dumont. They watched him return home around 10:00 AM with a load of groceries. Deputy Chief Bob Buccino gave the order for Kuklinski to be arrested there, and fifteen police vehicles rapidly converged on the scene. Oblivious, Kuklinski bundled a sick Barbara into the car, planning to take her out for breakfast, and drove directly into a solid line of cop cars. It took several men to subdue Richard once he was out of the car.
Busted by a sammich.
It seems clear, in hindsight, that Kuklinski at this point in his life was like a scared animal, frantically defending his small amount of turf by recklessly killing anyone who could conceivably pose a threat to it. But his own account of these last years of freedom paint a much different picture, of course; in his own mind, and in Carlo’s book, he was a jet-setting mastermind with his fingers in firearms, foreign currency, and Swiss bank fraud. He committed scores of contract murders, killed a few more people in fits of road rage, freed a dozen trafficked children from the dungeon of a pot dealer in New Jersey, and took down an Arab blackmailer in Zurich with a quick spray of cyanide.
In addition to the murders of Masgay, Malliband, Smith, and Deppner, Kuklinski was charged with the April 1982 murder of Paul Hoffman, a crooked pharmacist who supposedly supplied him with cyanide for many years. This was another profit-motivated killing; Hoffman was willing to pay a large sum of cash for a stolen load of Tagamet, and Kuklinski again conspired with his good buddy Solimene to simply bump him off and take the money. He shot and bludgeoned the man to death, stuffed his body into a 55-gallon drum, and brazenly deposited the drum near a Hackensack diner he frequented, Harry’s Luncheonette. He claimed that even though the barrel was in plain sight, no one discovered what was in it. One day when he dropped by for lunch, the barrel was gone. (1, 3)
Hoffman’s body has never been found.
There is very little doubt that Kuklinski committed this murder, but the charges were ultimately dropped for lack of evidence.
In his second HBO interview, it is stated that Kuklinski became a hitman only after meeting Roy DeMeo. Prior to that time, he had never killed for money, and told DeMeo he thought he could do it. This story changed later, when Carlo interviewed Kuklinski. Suddenly, Kuklinski had been a teenage hitman, so proficient in the art of contract killing that he was already in demand at the age of 19. No one except Carlo accepts this. Even the makers of the movie The Iceman rejected it completely.
How accurate is the movie The Iceman?
The film makes no mention of Kuklinski’s more outrageous claims (Hoffa, DeMeo, etc.). This is because the script was based on Anthony Bruno’s book, rather than Carlo’s book. Even so, it relies on Kuklinski’s own accounts of his crimes, so it is probably not even remotely accurate. This is one of those films in which “inspired by a true story” is stretched to the outermost limits.
Son Dwight is left out of the picture. Barbara is “Deborah”. Murders of non-Mafia associates are transferred to powerful Mafia-linked figures. For instance, the Christmastime murder of Kuklinski’s associate “Bruno Latini” becomes the murder of a character based on Anthony Gaggi and Paul Castellano, Roy DeMeo’s bosses in the Gambino family. In reality, as we have seen, Kuklinski played no role in the assassination of Castellano.
The names of DeMeo’s closest associates are altered, and the name of “Mr. Freezy” (Mister Softee) isn’t given at all.
In The Iceman, Kuklinski is drawn into the Mafia through his work in the film lab, and Roy DeMeo essentially forces him to become a hitman. Kuklinski claimed just the opposite; he was an expert contract killer by the age of 19, and his stint at the labs was just a way to make ends meet. It was not DeMeo who introduced him to the Mafia.
The bizarre sneezing-in-the-disco scene in Iceman was actually even weirder in real life, according to Kuklinski. He had decided to kill a Bonanno family lieutenant inside a popular New York disco – a spectacularly risky move that doesn’t seem at all like his usual style. He had recently learned about poisons and acquired some cyanide from Paul Hoffman, and one night he showed up at the mark’s favourite disco in an absurd “gay” getup: elevator shoes (remember, he was 6’4″), a red hat, wildly coloured clothes. Instead of spraying cyanide on his mark, Kuklinski jabbed him with a syringe as he scooted past him on the dance floor. The man was dead before Kuklinski left the club.
Kuklinski didn’t start using cyanide in spray form until the 1980s, after he befriended ex-military assassin Robert Prongay (Mr. Softee). (3)
Kuklinski did not save a teenage girl from a sexual predator. That story, it seems, was created out of whole cloth just for the film.
In the film, Kuklinski is just as he described himself; a Jekyll and Hyde. But the dividing line between the upright family man and the raging sociopath was not clearly demarcated between his work and his home life, as it is in the movie. Michael Shannon’s Kuklinski controls his temper around his wife and daughters, for the most part. In reality, Kuklinski was physically abusive to Barbara, and so controlling with his three children that one daughter, Chris, claims she lost her virginity to a stranger at age 12 just to feel she finally had control over something – her own body. Kuklinski blackened Barbara’s eyes, caused her to miscarry, shattered furniture, destroyed mementos. He told his daughter Merrick that he would have to murder the entire family if he accidentally killed her mother, so she and her sister carefully packed a bag and worked out a plan to run for their lives, just in case.
Why I don’t believe Kuklinski, in a nutshell
1. He was a prolific liar. Even people who believe most of his story, like Bruno, acknowledge that not all of his stories are true.
2. There is simply no concrete evidence that he was a hitman.
Here’s what I think happened: Kuklinski was a minor-league criminal running a B&E gang, bootlegging porn, selling stolen merchandise, etc. In the early ’80s he lost control of his crew, and some members starting getting into trouble, so he began picking them off one by one, just like Jesse James did in the twilight of his criminal career.
He had long been telling people he was a hitman, and after his arrest he decided to pass himself off as a world-class Mafia hitman. An avid – but not very careful – reader of true crime lit since boyhood, he used famous crime scene photos and twice-told gangster tales to piece together an impressive life story, inserting himself into some of the Mafia’s most notorious murders. Many people bought it.
I do believe that Kuklinski and his siblings were severely abused as children, because the Kuklinski clan spawned two remorseless killers. His younger brother, Joseph, served 33 years in Trenton State for the rape and murder of a 12-year-old neighbour.
I believe that he did work, in some capacity, for DeMeo (perhaps merely as a porn supplier).
I believe that he killed at least six of his associates. The fact that he was busted for nearly all of them indicates he was not a professional killer.
I believe that he was a career criminal. He had very few legit jobs in his lifetime, yet his income was steady and he was able to maintain a comfortable lifestyle.
In my opinion, the rest is bullshit.
How did Kuklinski pull off one of the biggest hoaxes in criminal history?
First of all, he chose the right profession. Hitmen often work alone, are crazy paranoid about surveillance, and kill people to whom they can’t be connected – usually without even knowing their names. If a Mafia hitman tells you he killed 100-200 people over three decades in two countries and at least 18 states, that’s a tough thing to refute. I cannot conclusively say that Kuklinski never worked as a contract killer. I can only cast doubt on his claims by pointing to the lack of corroborating evidence for them.
Kuklinski was a serial killer. There’s no question about that. His real killing experiences may have enabled him to spin plausible-sounding tales about contract murders.
Secondly, Kuklinski was a sociopath. He was a convincing liar, and a reasonably intelligent man. He knew how to fill the credibility gaps in some of his stories. He was smart enough to know that DeMeo’s Gemini Lounge was under surveillance, and to make up the story about always meeting DeMeo near the Tappan Zee Bridge. As DeMeo’s “secret weapon”, he supposedly didn’t have to rub elbows with the other killers in DeMeo’s crew very often. This would explain why he wasn’t known as a Gemini Lounge regular.
He was also smart enough to come up with an excuse for living in a nice, but hardly extravagant, 3-bedroom house in New Jersey when he was pulling in millions every year: Gambling. Sure, he could send his kids to private schools and buy lovely furniture for his wife, but he pissed away several grand on a regular basis in poker games and casinos. This lie unraveled when the man who prosecuted him, New Jersey Deputy Attorney General Bob Carroll, said to HBO, “He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t gamble.” (3)
Thirdly, he stuck to a principle that liars and hoaxers throughout history have found extremely useful: Go big or go home. By seeding his stories with some of the biggest names in modern Mafia history, Kuklinski effectively armored himself against accusations of trickery. Who would pretend to kill people for Roy DeMeo, or finger Sammy Gravano for a murder, unless he was legit? No one would be so bold. No one would be so foolish.
Paradoxically, it was this name-dropping that made me start questioning Kuklinski in the first place. Like most everyone who watched the HBO interviews, I was mesmerized and appalled by Kuklinski, and had little reason to doubt he was a hardcore contract killer. Then his Hoffa story hit the news, and I suddenly realized that not all of his stories were necessarily true. This ultimately led me to what I believe today – that Kuklinski was not a contract killer and did not work for the Mafia outside of the porn-bootlegging business.
Maybe Iceman is the perfect name for him – he pulled off an amazing snowjob. In fact, he wins the second posthumous Pants Afire Award. Irony.
It’s nearly impossible to dig into any subject without bumping into conspiracy theories these days. Here’s one about Kuklinski, courtesy of Ed Chiarini (the Texan who believes John Stossel is Freddy Mercury, Winston Churchill was also Lionel Barrymore, etc.): Richard Kuklinski did not die in prison in 2006, but became the chief medical examiner of the state of Connecticut, Dr. H. Wayne Carver. In Chiarini’s view, Kuklinski/Carver was a key player in the Sandy Hook massacre hoax.
Chiarini is losing his touch. Sure, I could believe that Robert Blake was the Pope, but the resemblance between Kuklinski and Carver is extremely slight (they’re both large and bald, basically).
1. The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer by Philip Carlo (St. Martin’s Press, 2006)
2. Roy DeMeo episode of Mobsters (originally aired on the Biography Channel October 24, 2008)
3. The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer (1992)
4. The Iceman Confesses: Secrets of a Mafia Hitman (2001)
5. The Hoffa Wars by Dan E. Moldea (Paddington Press, 1978)
6. “My Afternoon With Jimmy Hoffa’s Alleged Killer” (1999) by Dan E. Moldea, Moldea.com
7. “Man’s claim that he killed Hoffa is dismissed as a hoax“. Detroit Free Press. April 18, 2006.
8. Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires by Selwyn Raab (Thomas Dunne Books, 2005)