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the iceman

1 october 2018

If any proof were needed, Anthony Bruno's book The Iceman confirms the adage that truth is stranger than fiction. The Iceman is a tense, novelistic narrative of the arrest of a multiple murderer in New Jersey in the 1980s.

I'd call Richard Kuklinski a multiple murderer rather than a serial killer, though what's in a name. Perhaps he was both. Kuklinski killed for kicks, but also for profit. At times, he killed just because he had a violent temper. If you put his many murders on a scale of motives, they might display a panorama from the classic mob execution, through the freelance Murder One, through felony homicide to impulse killing to maniacal bloodlust.

The classic American serial killer seeks anonymous victims and bears no traceable relation to them. He may leave clues, but back in the day (before DNA, cellphones, and ubiquitous surveillance cameras) the clues showed investigators no direction to proceed, because there was no list of suspects. The classic American hitman has all too palpable a motive, and may often be highly suspect, but covers his tracks professionally. Kuklinski was something of both. He was a professional thief and an old-school porn trafficker who, in his serial-killer mode, preyed on his partners in crime. He might kill an associate just because the associate annoyed him. When that happened, Kuklinski could take care of the sudden mess with the help of chainsaws and barrels of cement, thanks to his hitman training.

The Iceman centers on a few months in 1986 when Dominick Polifrone, an undercover federal agent, volunteered to become one of Kuklinski's criminal associates, and thus to put himself high on the potential victim list. Posing as "Dom Provenzano" – aliases are best, apparently, when they're as scanty as possible – Polifrone went through an informer to set up a meeting with Kuklinski, on the pretext of wanting to buy a large stock of weapons for the IRA. Kuklinski in turn asked "Provenzano" to get him a large stock of cyanide.

Apparently Kuklinski had a home recipe for a cyanide aerosol spray that made murder as convenient as deodorizing. This posed a problem for the cops. Dealing with drugs or weapons is dangerous enough, but you can use the real thing to prove your bonafides before moving in for the big arrest. You cannot give a serial killer cyanide. Among other things, Polifrone was never quite sure when a cozy talk about gunrunning over donuts and coffee would turn into a cyanide spray date.

The ensuing narrative is taut and quite beyond belief, except for the fact that it happened. It is the odder for me personally because I lived in New Jersey in 1986, and for several years before, sharing streets, trains, diners, and Turnpike rest stops with Kuklinski, his victims, and his pursuers. Kuklinski got the nickname "Iceman" from one of his more baroque killings, where he and an accomplice (and future victim) apparently stowed the corpse for two years in the freezer of the accomplice's icecream truck.

The street where we lived in 1986 was frequented by an icecream truck that played the unforgettable jingle that Bruno describes in The Iceman. The truck used to park outside a house a few doors down that was inhabited by a group of bikers. The guys would come out on the porch in their leather jackets, chains, and bandannas to buy icecream from the vendor. My then-wife once wanted to take a photo of the incongruous scene, the big pot-bellied bikers licking their frozen novelty items. I advised her against it. For all I know, these bikers could have been Sunday-school teachers and volunteer readers-to-the-blind at the public library, but I could not be 100% sure that icecreams were all they were buying from that vendor.

And now I wonder what else might have been stashed in his freezer.

Bruno, Anthony. The Iceman: The true story of a cold-blooded killer. 1993. New York: Bantam [Random House], 2013. HV 6248 .K75B78