true crime

'It took 26 years to realise I was married to a monster.'

Barbara Kuklinski had been happily married to her husband Richard for 26 years when policemen spilled out of unmarked police cars, threw open her car’s doors, and thrust guns at her husband’s head.

It was a flurry of inexplicable, unrelenting chaos. It was the week before Christmas in 1986, and their sleepy street in Dumont, New Jersey, had erupted with foreign noise. The couple was on their way to breakfast; the cafe they frequented every week.

“If he never had to leave the house he would have loved it. He hated to travel, he hated to go away. He came back as soon as he could, he wanted to be home all the time, he wanted to be with us all the time,” she would explain to the Conversations With A Killer documentary crew five years later.

“We were perfect. My children were never in trouble – we were perfect… I mean, we had what seemed to be the perfect life, they were wonderful times.”

Well, not everything was perfect. The lives the pair led with their three children – daughters Merrick and Christin and son Dwayne – were gentle and quiet, except in the moments the patriarch was challenged. Richard’s volatile temper was something Barbara referred to as “Jekyll and Hyde”; when he wasn’t a doting dad, he transformed into a cold and hard man. Another decade would pass before Barbara would tell journalists her husband broke her nose on several occasions.

His career as a businessman had seen them transition from a life of endless bills and struggle to one of middle-class affluence. While the details of his work were never shared – Richard strictly kept the office and family separate, never introducing a colleague to his wife – Barbara knew not to ask questions.

“I never questioned him. And you just knew, don’t do it. Don’t ask. If he got up at two in the morning, or during dinner and put on his shoes and walked out the door, you said ‘bye’, you didn’t say ‘where are you going’ or ‘why are you going?’. It was just understood that that’s the way it was. You only knew what he wanted you to know.”

Still, on that December morning, when Barbara’s rather ordinary life evaporated into blaring sirens and screams, she never would have guessed what her husband’s job actually entailed.

“Richard’s a murderer,” detectives told her simply.

Barbara and Richard Kuklinski.

That morning's interrupted breakfast date was the culmination of an 18-month-long undercover investigation into her husband.

Despite her disbelief, the moment Barbara heard those words, the little things - the things she ignored for decades - all started to make sense.

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The man Barbara knew and loved - her Richard - was notorious in dark and dodgy circles by another moniker entirely: "The Iceman."

Richard Kuklinski's career as a "businessman" was a guise. Really, his days and nights were spent carrying out the dirty work of the American Mafia as a hired hit man. Once behind bars, The Iceman claimed that, between 1948 and 1986, he killed over 100 men on the job.

His application to work for the mob required the completion of one, simple task: Walk out onto the sidewalk and shoot the next man who walks past in the head. Only then, they told him, you'll be hired.

Kuklinski was 18 at the time. He passed the test with flying colours; the stranger was motionless and bleeding out onto the pavement, and he had a full-time job.

Towering over most at 195cm, The Iceman earned his menacing nickname for his method of freezing his victims to mask their time of death. After claiming their lives he would chill their bodies in an industrial-sized freezer. Years later, he would let them thaw out, and dispose of their remains in nearby rivers and parks.

But it was The Iceman's ever-changing methods for murder that meant he went undetected by law enforcement agencies for decades.

Most often, he says, he used guns or cyanide. But on occasion, he would dabble in knives, explosives, tire irons, fire, poison, asphyxiation, and even bare-handed beatings "just for the exercise".

Listen: Why are we all so obsessed with True Crime? Is it the gore? Or the simple attraction of a good story? We deep dive, on Mamamia Out Loud.

The thread that tied the murders together was that they were methodical and heartless.

“It probably would offend a lot of people… but [once] it was a man who was begging, and pleading, and praying I guess. And he was saying 'please god' all over the place, so I told him he could have a half hour to pray to God, and if God could come down and change the circumstances, he’d have that time. But God never showed up, and he never changed the circumstances, so that was that. It wasn’t too nice. That’s one thing I shouldn’t have done, that one. I shouldn’t have done it that way.”

Across his long-running and extensive criminal career, Kuklinski was also involved in narcotics, pornography, arms dealing, money laundering and hijacking.

While Barbara will never forgive her former husband for his inhumane and vile crimes, she says his loveless upbringing under a devout Catholic mother and violent, alcoholic father conjured an evil soul.

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“Richard had a very, very sad childhood. You got the impression that he was abused, and that there was no love, he grew up absolutely without any love, without a doubt."

In March 1988, Kuklinski was found guilty of six murders and was handed consecutive life sentences, making him ineligible for parole until the age of 110.

Three years later, in a maximum security prison, Kuklinksi reflected:  “I enjoyed [my family] life, I felt like I had achieved something. I felt secure in the house, I felt very secure. I tried to provide the best for them as I knew how. It might not have been the right way to go, but it was, for me, the only way. I tried to never let anything touch the house. I bought nobody there, my family was not exposed to anybody. I wanted to show them the good side of life, not the bad side...

“I’ve never felt sorry for anything I’ve done, other than hurting my family. It’s the only thing I feel sorry for. I’m not looking for forgiveness and I’m not repenting. I know I’m wrong. I do want my family to forgive me. I feel for my family."

 “I’ve never felt sorry for anything I’ve done, other than hurting my family."

That forgiveness never came.

“What Richard has been accused of, and found guilty of, goes against God and man," Barbara said in a 1991 documentary. "I have very strong feelings, I am totally anti-violence, as are my children, and I can’t make those wrongs right. I can’t make them right in my own mind. We are Richard Kuklinski’s family and we aren’t ourselves anymore. We are Richard Kuklinski’s family."

Richard Kuklinski died on March 5, 2006, after being diagnosed with an incurable form of Kawasaki disease. Despite asking doctors to revive him in the event of a cardiac arrest, in the week before Richard died, his former wife issued a 'do not resuscitate order'. He was 70 years old. As of 2013, his ashes were kept in the bedroom of his eldest daughter.

“I was married to a monster and I didn’t know it," Barbara said years later.

"Once, I shopped at Bloomingdales. We had a pool. I had the best of everything; I had a cleaner and a housekeeper. I wanted for nothing. If I wanted it, Richard saw that I got it," she told The Scotsman.

"Now, I worry about the price of paper towels. But I've never been happier. My husband's dead and gone, thank God!"

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