Richard Kuklinski, the “Iceman” by Bradley Harper MD, FCAP

September, 1983, a police officer stops to examine a woman’s blouse he finds along the side of the road beside a stone wall. Beneath the blouse he finds what appears to be a decomposing human body wrapped in several layers of trash bags. When Dr. Frederick Zugibe, the medical examiner in Rockland County, New York, opens the bags up he finds the body of a middle-aged white man, around six feet tall and weighing about two-hundred pounds, with a single bullet wound to the back of the head.

Based upon his initial inspection he believes the victim to have died two-to-three weeks before, but as he continues his examination several things stand out to make him reassess his initial impression.

First: As a body decomposes bacteria feed upon the tissue, creating gas that bloats the body. There was no bloating in this case.

Second: The skin was an odd shade of beige—something he had never seen before.

Third: Since bacteria are the engines of decomposition, the body breaks down from the inside out, as the gut is the major microbial reservoir. This body was breaking down in the opposite manner, while the skin was sloughing off the corpse, the internal organs were relatively pristine.

Zugibe suspected the body’s discovery was staged. The draping of a woman’s blouse over the bag, for example, declaring the killer’s desire for the body to be found within a specific time frame after it had been left there. He also believed that the body had been frozen for some time in an attempt to derive an erroneous conclusion as to time of death, probably to help support the killer’s alibi.

Dr. Zugibe examined the internal organs under a microscope, and sure enough, the cellular structure was distorted consistent with prior freezing.

The hands were mummified, but after injecting the fingers with a solution that allowed fingerprints be taken it was identified as belonging to Louis Masgay, a Pennsylvania man missing for the past two and a half years.

The FBI had been investigating a Richard Kuklinski, suspected of being a Mafia hit man, and when a police informant tipped them off that he had seen a body in an industrial freezer owned by Kuklinski, he was finally brought to justice.

Once confronted with the evidence, Kuklinski was not shy about his avocation, and was convicted of five murders, though he admitted to killing around two-hundred. His details were not always consistent but police experts do believe he murdered over one-hundred people, some on mob-ordered hits, and some people who he felt had slighted him in some way. At six-feet four inches tall and weighing over two-hundred and forty pounds, he was a powerful and skilled killer who would sometimes pummel his victims to death if he felt they didn’t deserve a rapid demise.

Kuklinski was able to kill so many people yet escape detection because he delighted in varying his methods, and was not psychotic or prone to the vices associated with most criminals, not doing drugs or chasing women, and lived a fairly quiet life as a married man with children. He related that his “audition” to be a hitman for the mob consisted of him riding in a car with his future employer, Roy DeMeo. DeMeo took them to a park and when the mobster saw a man walking his dog, instructed Kuklinski to kill him. Kuklinski walked behind the man, shot him in the back of the head, and climbed back into the car. He was hired.

HBO did a special on him around 2003, and a movie, The Iceman, was made in 2012, with Michael Shannon playing the killer.

Despite the brutality of some of his killings, he had an odd sort of honor code in that he never killed a woman or a child. Perhaps the Iceman wasn’t entirely cold-hearted, after all.

Bradley Harper is a retired US Army Colonel and pathologist who has performed over two-hundred autopsies and some twenty forensic death investigations. A life-long fan of Sherlock Holmes, he did intensive research for his debut novel, A Knife in the Fog, which involved a young Doctor Conan Doyle in the hunt for Jack the Ripper, including a trip to London’s East End with noted Jack the Ripper historian Richard Jones. Harper’s first novel was published in October 2018 and was a finalist for a 2019 Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America for Best First Novel by an American Author and is a Recommended Read by the Arthur Conan Doyle Estate.

Knife went on to win Killer Nashville’s 2019 Silver Falchion as Best Mystery. The audio book, narrated by former Royal Shakespearean actor Matthew Lloyd Davies, won Audiofile Magazine’s 2019 Earphone award for Best Mystery and Suspense. The book is also available in Japan via Hayakawa Publishing.

His second novel, Queen’s Gambit, involving a fictional assassination attempt on Queen Victoria, Won Killer Nashville’s 2020 Silver Falchion Award twice, once for Best Suspense, and again as Book of the Year.