One evening in 2012, Merrick Kuklinski attended the premier of a film about her late father, Richard, the notorious New Jersey killer and reputed mafia hit man. The film, titled “The Iceman,” stars the rangy Michael Shannon as Kuklinski, and the waifish Winona Ryder as his wife, Barbara. As the actor depicting Kuklinski committed multiple murders on mobsters’ requests and chopped up his victims, Merrick was profoundly focused on how her home life was portrayed. Particularly, she was bemused at the movie’s gauzy depiction of domestic bliss. And so, after the screening, she walked up to Ryder, and said, “If the character you played had been my mother, my life would have been very different…Good movie. Not much reality.”
Indeed, the truth was much, much worse. Despite many opportunities over the years, however, Merrick, now in her 50s, has talked little about her painful, chaotic upbringing. Instead, filled with contradictory feelings of love and loyalty for her father and horror at his deeds, she jammed those memories into secure boxes. Even now, 10 years after his death in prison, she is still hesitant to confront life in Kuklinski’s orbit.
“If you don’t say it out loud, you don’t have to deal with it,” she tells me. “Once you say it, you have to deal with it.”
Kuklinski died in prison at age 71 in 2006. He was a bear of a man, 6-foot-4 and 290 pounds, with enormous hands and shoulders, and a volcanic temper, set to a hair trigger. He was born in 1935 to an alcoholic father and a domineering mother in the Jersey City projects. They beat him constantly, as if they were trying to create a sociopath. He channeled his rage into torturing cats. As a teen, he left home, and took to hanging in pool halls and getting into fights. He later claimed to have beaten his first victim to death in his early teens. He also boasted he poured gasoline on a man who slighted him in a bar and burned him alive.
In all, before and during his years as a mob hitman, he claimed to have poisoned, torched, shot, fatally beaten, stabbed and strangled more than 100 people. Law enforcement dubbed him “The Iceman” because he froze the bodies of victims, held them for months and then dumped them, so the time of death would be harder to establish.
He was finally caught in 1986, in an undercover sting. In 1988, a New Jersey jury convicted him of the murders of five business associates and sentenced him to life in prison. He barely missed the death penalty. Prosecutor Bob Carroll called him “one of the most dangerous criminals [we have] ever come across in this state.” He added, “We may never know how many people he killed.” When he met Kuklinski, the undercover agent Dominick Polifrone thought, “This is the devil.”
Leaving the light on
On an unseasonably warm day in early March, the day after the anniversary of Kuklinski’s death, Merrick is a passenger in a friend’s SUV driving west into New Jersey. She has agreed to take me on an impromptu tour of her past life.
The oldest of three siblings and a mother of two, Merrick is almost six feet tall. She has her father’s broad shoulders and large hands. Her striking blond mane is partially braided. She is clad in a loose fitting black dress, black tights and leather boots. Tattoos decorate her arms. She wears multiple earrings and piercings. Silver bracelets and rings festoon her wrists and fingers. Despite her imposing presence, she is mild and easy to laugh. “I’m a very private, quiet person,” she says. “I’m really more of a listener than a talker.”
The SUV arrives at a tiny, worn apartment building where Merrick lives with her daughter. Upon entering the cramped living room, the first thing that catches my eye, to my surprise, is a framed 8×10 photograph of Kuklinski, prominently placed in a bookcase at the nexus of two sofas, and surrounded by swan figurines and Elvis Presley dolls.
And then there is a second surprise. Positioned carefully behind the photo is a grey-green enameled metal urn containing her father’s cremated remains. “Do you want to hold it?” she asks. “Careful, it’s pretty heavy.”
Asked why she keeps his ashes, she pauses. “I never really thought about it. I’ll keep him until I pass on,” she says.
Merrick now produces a clear plastic shopping bag. This, she says, contains all that Kuklinski left her. Gingerly, she pulls out a black binder filled with memos from Trenton State Prison, medical reports, envelopes of family photos, and other ephemera. There are a few sheets of his prison stationary. There is a list of his favorite songs. There is also a two-page, hand-scrawled list of several dozen poisons and their fatal effects.
The bag also includes several of Kuklinski’s sketches—a drawing of rats gnawing on a corpse, a tattoo reading, “Grim Reaper Behind the Eight Ball,” a scene depicting a woman in a bikini praying to a black spider, and a self-portrait—his face, bracketed with skulls. A card from Merrick to her father reads, “Remember dad, you always left a light on for me. That warm light still shines in my heart.”
The ‘perfect’ family
On the way to her childhood home in DuMont, N.J., the SUV rolls haltingly through traffic. Merrick’s beloved roller rink, where she spent many Saturday nights, is gone, replaced by a Sears Auto Parts franchise, but Matthew’s Diner remains. The SUV rolls up to the split-level house at 169 Sunset St. in DuMont. Merrick has not visited the old house since the family moved out—a period of 28 years.
The house seems smaller than it should for the out-sized character who once lived there. The cherry blossom tree in the front yard remains, but the pool, the rock garden, the cedar shake and red window trim are all gone. Merrick leaves the SUV immediately for a nervous smoke. She stands slightly to the left of the house on the sidewalk. Why, I ask her, haven’t you ever stopped back to see the house? She shrugs. “I left it behind. I closed the chapter and moved on,” she says.
The family arrived in DuMont in 1972, and set about living the American dream. Kuklinski was already deep into his life of crime, but he presented himself as a respectable businessman. He was desperate to project the aura of a family man with a perfect wife and perfect kids. It didn’t take long for Barbara and the kids to understand that you never asked him where he went on his outings, but when he was home, there were many good times.
He called Merrick “Snuggler.” He shot hours of home movies: Merrick playing Ring Around the Rosie during an all-girl’s birthday party, a lavish Christmas, Merrick and her sister Chris in matching denim outfits decorated with smiley faces. “If dad was filming, he wanted everyone to smile,” she says. “We learned to take advantage of the happy moments.” When Merrick fell ill with a serious bladder ailment, Kuklinski was a regular visitor at the Holy Name Medical Center, and played Santa to the kids in the pediatric ward.
She describes play dates at friends’ houses, evening games of Manhunt, the block barbeques her father organized. “We were in some ways the hub of the neighborhood,” she says. Kuklinski was extremely charming with neighbors and friends. He loved to hang around the house and spend time with the kids. “He denied us nothing,” Merrick says. “He wanted his life to be like it was on television. He just didn’t know how to get there.”
Indeed, the scrim of placid home movies and matching outfits and lavish Christmases concealed a much darker reality.
Inside a life of terror and abuse
Unlike the Hollywood portrayal, Kuklinski’s rage in the home was a constant from the time Merrick was five until he was arrested, when she was 22. His furies lasted for hours, sometimes days. Anything could trigger them—some deal gone bad, some minor tiff with Barbara that metastasized.
For his stature, he was incredibly sensitive to any kind of slight. According to Merrick, Barbara had a sharp tongue and she did not back down, Merrick says. He might say, “I’m the king of the castle,” to which she would respond, “You’re the king of nothing.”
“When it came to their arguments, she wasn’t an angel herself,” she says.
Kuklinski never physically assaulted the children, but he did strike his wife on numerous occasions. He was merciless with furniture, cabinets and decorations. He also brutalized the family pets, killing at least three dogs, Merrick says. “I was late coming home once and he took Princess and broke her neck,” she says. “Princess was a Samoyed, not a small dog. He said I would never be late again, and I wasn’t.”
Kuklinski would boast, “You know who you’re messing with? I am a hit man for the mob,” Merrick says. He told his daughters if he ever lost control and killed Barbara, he would have to kill them, too. Merrick told him she understood.
The family learned to stop in place during his tirades. And so there would be this frozen tableaux—the sisters, shoulder to shoulder on the stairs, and mom, down in the kitchen, as the growling bear prowled, and china, vase and love seat exploded into shards. “He could erupt and then take a phone call and make small talk with a business associate, hang up and pick up where he left off,” she says. “One of us would whisper, ‘Is it over?’ And someone would say, ‘Don’t let him hear you.’”
When these rages subsided, Kuklinski would replace every broken object. “The garbage men loved us, we must have furnished their homes,” Merrick says.
As a result, Merrick and her sister had to be constantly on alert. She recalls physical reactions to the fear: fainting spells, trembling, vomiting, a racing heart at the sound of his car. The sisters kept emergency bags packed under their beds. They slept in hourly shifts. They carried emergency dimes for the pay phone. Merrick found it astonishing that no one intervened, even on the day that Barbara ran out of the house and down the sidewalk, and Kuklinski dragged her back. Another time, a carpenter who came to repair a kitchen obviously shattered by violence told Kuklinski, “Don’t worry. These things happen.”
The police weren’t much help either. According to Merrick, in one instance, after Barbara was hospitalized for an attempted overdose, cops patted him on the shoulder and said, “It’ll get better.” “They would say things like, ‘Tomorrow’s going to be a better day,’ but he was going to do the same thing the next day,” Merrick says.
Merrick says she once called a local precinct, but they wanted her to come in. She was afraid Kuklinski would find out and kill her. Another time, the sisters snuck to a pay phone and called a psychiatric center to see if they could get their father committed. That call also went nowhere. For Barbara and the kids, these events confirmed that they were trapped. That led to a desperate meeting in which Merrick recalls a suggestion to spike Kuklinski’s meatloaf with a fatal dose of Valium. But they all feared him too much to actually do it.
Thinking back now, Merrick sees a more calculating motive behind the rages. “You would think once you lose control of your temper, you lose control, but it was more of a reminder that he was powerful,” she says.
A young confidante
Down the street from the house, there is a rusty one-lane bridge. “That bridge was our greatest nightmare,” she says. “One Sunday we were on our way to church and another car cut us off at the bridge. Dad tore the driver’s door off and beat him up pretty bad. And then we went to church as if it never happened.”
Another time, Kuklinski thought another driver was trying to race him, so he forced him to pull over, beat him severely and left him by the side of the road. “He gets back in the car, and starts singing a song on the radio,” Merrick says. “I didn’t say a word.”
The SUV now drives about 20 minutes from the house, to the duck pond. Merrick has another nervous smoke, and notes this was the one place that calmed her father. “I would try to get him here if I thought he was losing his patience,” she says. “Sometimes, he would talk about things.”
Merrick wasn’t even 10 years old, but Kuklinski began confiding in her. “I guess I was the one person he knew would never say anything,” she says. He opened up about his abusive childhood, his acidic hatred of his parents, and eventually, some of his murders. “He told me about the time he used a wooden clothing rod to beat to death another teenager who had been bullying him,” she says.
Later, he told her that he had “killed men in anger.” “He would talk about people pissing him off, people he considered scum,” she says. “He assigned a value to everyone else, but he never wanted to be judged.” At one point, Kuklinski mentioned three more men he had killed as a teenager. There was also the time he described to her the difficulty of cutting the legs off of one of his victims to make the body fit into a steel drum.
“Each time I talked to him, I was trying to make him feel better, to save other people, but I wanted to be saved, and there was no one there to save us,” she says. [Many years later, after his arrest, the police sought to interview her, but they couldn’t force her to cooperate. She never had to disclose these conversations with her father to law enforcement.]
After Merrick learned to drive, things got even worse. The mental abuse was already constant, he was dumping his toxic stories on her, and now he began using her as an unwitting assistant for his murky activities. She says he would call the house in the middle of the night and asked her to pick him up, or give her a package and tell her to deliver it to some stranger. She never questioned him. Fearing for her own life, she did what her father ordered her to do.
“One time, he calls me to pick him up in Richfield [N.J], which wasn’t far from the warehouse where he used to commit crimes,” she says. “He slips out from between two buildings, seems distracted, unsettled. I was nervous that I would drive wrong.” He would have her drive him to his rented warehouse, but tell her keep her eyes front. “There were times when he would tell me not to look in the back seat or in the trunk, and I would drive him to some garage and pop the trunk, looking straight forward as he told me to do, while he would unload whatever it was,” she says.
After high school, she went to Montclair State University, but her father’s hold on her was so strong that he convinced her to drop out so she could help him more.
“What haunts me most is the reality that my father was a very, very sick, demented man. Between his own background as an abused child and the experiences that shaped his adulthood, the die was cast. Maybe if he’d gotten treatment some or all of this could have been prevented. That thought haunts me every day,” Merrick says.
Locked up, and infamous
After successfully ducking law enforcement for decades, Kuklinski was arrested in December, 1986 while driving Barbara to a diner. A swarm of police cut off his car just outside 130 Sunset St., the home of Merrick’s babysitter.
The usual tabloid frenzy ensued. Merrick, conflicted as ever, was upset but also relieved. Reporters, camped outside the DuMont house, asked Merrick whether she helped her father kill people. The once-close relationships with the neighbors cooled, and Barbara soon sold the house.
Merrick attended her father’s 1988 trial almost every day, and often brought her newborn. After all that, she was still there to support her father. The jury deliberated just four hours before finding him guilty. She visited him regularly at Trenton State Prison. These visits could be cordial, but unpredictable. “One time, he punched the security glass so hard, he cracked it,” she says.
Meanwhile, Kuklinski turned into a kind of true crime industry all his own. In the spring of 1991, he gave 17 hours of interviews to producers with HBO, which became “The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer,” airing in 1992. A second HBO special aired in 2001, and a third—a contrived affair in which Kuklinski sparred with a psychiatrist—aired in 2002.
The story behind these specials, Merrick says, is that Barbara was paid handsomely for convincing her husband to sit for the interviews. “Dad never would have spoken to anyone if mom didn’t tell him to,”. Kuklinski gave another 240 hours of interviews to crime writer, Phillip Carlo, for his book, “The Iceman,” which came out in 2006, months after the killer died in a prison hospital.
Living with the past
Merrick, for her part, tries to live a life as separate as possible from that of her father’s. She has other priorities, especially her son and daughter, both living productive, positive lives. She has fostered or adopted over fifteen stray cats and dogs. Her relationship with her mother is guarded but they speak every day. She speaks occasionally to her sister and a bit more to her brother. She continues to live humbly, in a small apartment in New Jersey. She drove a school bus for years, until serious, persistent back problems forced her to retire. These days, she works hard, living on odd jobs and temp work..
Interviewing Merrick these weeks, I kept asking her how life inside a tabloid horror story shaped her, and how she has been able to cope with it and move forward. As we know, life doesn’t stop, but the past never disappears.
Well, she tells me, she has never lost that alert watchfulness, honed in those tense years on Sunset Street. She will bend over backward to avoid confrontation. She is adept at answering a question without answering, at smoothly changing the subject. But she can also walk away when the moment demands. She can make a crisis seem normal. One night, for example, a police SWAT team seeking a fugitive insisted on searching her daughter’s basement bedroom. “I gently woke her up and said, ‘Don’t worry babe, these gentlemen just need to search your room, as if it was the most normal thing in the world,” she says. “I expect chaos to break out and I’m prepared for it.”
Her upbringing clearly colored her romantic relationships, however. Her first serious boyfriend, Richie, was actually well liked by her father, to the point where Kuklinski used his apartment to drug and strangle one of his victims. Merrick wasn’t aware of that until later. Though she cared for him, she broke it off because she wanted to protect him from one of her father’s murderous rages. Eventually, Richie was granted immunity and testified against Kuklinski at trial.
And then there was Mark. She married him in Alpine, N.J., when her father was in prison. “Mark struggled with a lot of demons,” Merrick says. Merrick stayed with him through the birth of their two children, but their relationship gradually deteriorated and they grew apart. The turning point came for Merrick when one night, looking out at their large 5,000-acre backyard, he told her, “Wow, I could kill you and bury you back there, and no one would ever find you.”
“That’s a two-way street,” Merrick replied, and left him the following day.
Sometime later, Mark severed his spine in a car accident. Though she was no longer with him, she spent years visiting and caring for him. He eventually died of an infection 13 years later; medicine could no longer defend his wrecked body.
After her marriage, Merrick, who has always identified as bisexual, began to date women. She thought things would be more peaceful, she says. But she learned that chaos can be just as much a part of a relationship between two women as between a man and a woman. “I came into it thinking that they would be my best friends, and I was really caught off guard,” she says. “With men, I always expected the craziness. I let my guard down, and for the first time in my life, I wasn’t prepared for it.” But I’m trying to make better choices and to forgive myself and others for mistakes.” Merrick is currently single.
When it came to her kids, however, she made sure she wouldn’t repeat her parents’ mistakes. She wanted peace in the home, so she insisted there would be no slamming of doors. When they butted heads, she insisted on cooling off periods. At the same time, she wanted them to feel like they could speak up. “I always wanted my kids to feel they had freedom of expression, which I never had,” she says.
She is acutely sensitive to parents who mistreat their kids. On a number of occasions, she says, she has intervened with parents verbally abusing their children in public. “I believe you should get one chance with kids, and if you mess it up, you’re done,” she says.
Scars remain, yet hope for the future
Now having opened those secure boxes, Merrick talks about using her experiences for a positive purpose. She would like to perhaps counsel victims of domestic abuse, give speeches about the long-term effects of abuse, and maybe even write a book. “I feel with what I’ve been through, I might be able to help others get through it, too,” she says.
The scars remain. She has had nightmares for decades about her father’s victims, about her father. She takes sleep medication so she doesn’t dream. “They are so vivid, his victims, nobody helping them, no one helping us, and there’s no way out of it,” she says. “It’s guilt in that I couldn’t love him enough to make him stop killing people.”
Merrick pauses and tears roll down her face. Choked up, she continues, “I’m sorry. In this very moment, saying these things out loud for the first time in my life, I just realized my dad was the one who didn’t love me enough. He was the adult and I was the child. He put this on me and knew how it hurt me and how hard I tried to obey and please him. I loved him blindly, unconditionally, but he didn’t do the same. That realization has made me sadder but also maybe a little lighter.”
Sitting with her, it is striking that it took her to the shores of middle age to finally really confront her experiences. “One thing that’s been occurring to me lately is how unresolved and uncomfortable I was over the years,” she says. “I had never given a lot of thought about what I carried with me. I couldn’t while trying to raise healthy children I was determined to shield from the violence and sickness I grew up with. Right now, I am struggling. A part of me is sad, alone, a bit trapped in it. I am supposed to be the strong one. But I see the light at the end of this tunnel. I am trying to forgive the sins my father committed again me and others. I’m learning to focus on what I can do to help other victims of violence and abuse, like encouraging others to tell their stories and turn the shame and guilt and pain into something constructive. I’m learning to focus my whole soul on love.”
When a friend suggests, during the course of the interview, that she might seek therapy to explore her past further, she looks at me, and says, “I thought this was therapy.”