The hitman and her: Barbara Kuklinski

Her life sounds like an episode of The Sopranos, but for Barbara Kuklinski, being married to a Mafia killer was a drama she could never switch off

BARBARA KUKLINSKI refuses to enter her daughter's bedroom. "That room is cursed; I never step in there," she shudders, indicating the closed door. Her distress is palpable. For that bedroom, from which her reclusive, elder daughter, Merrick, rarely emerges, contains something Barbara would prefer to have seen swimming with the fishes at the bottom of the ocean – her late husband's ashes.

"Merrick, who has a number of health problems, is so good hearted. She loved her father so much, she insisted on bringing his ashes home after he was cremated; I wish they weren't in my house, but unfortunately they are," she sighs.

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Barbara is the widow of one of the most notorious professional assassins in the history of American gangland crime. Richard Kuklinski was a Mafia contract killer who worked for all five New York crime families, and the two New Jersey mob families, becoming one of their premiere killers. It's estimated he murdered more than 200 people in one of the most sustained killing sprees ever recorded.

He boasted: "I beat them to death for exercise." He was called "the Ice Man" by New Jersey's Organised Crime and Racketeering Bureau investigators because he froze some of his victims, before dumping them so that forensics teams could not tell when the murder took place. For an additional price, Kuklinski would torture victims for hours, then leave them half-alive to be eaten by rats.

The true story of the Ice Man shocked America because Kuklinski led an extraordinary double life, apparently a loving husband and doting father who hosted friendly neighbourhood barbecues in suburban New Jersey, ushering at his local Catholic church every Sunday. "We were the perfect all-American family," says Barbara, her voice laden with sarcasm. "We were so perfect it would make you sick. The way we lived was surreal."

The Hoboken-based DeCavalcante crime family – inspiration for The Sopranos – hired Kuklinski as their in-house executioner on many occasions, as did crime lord John Gotti and the Gambino family, as well as many other very bad "goodfellas". Following a long and intricate police investigation, Kuklinski was finally arrested in December, 1986.

When Barbara heard the charges against her husband, she was appalled, though she knew only too well how easily he could fall into psychotic rages.

"There were two Richards, and I never knew who would be walking in the door – the good Richard or the bad Richard," recalls the 67-year-old, who was married to Kuklinski – and by implication to the mob – when she was barely 20 years old and with whom she had three children – daughters Merrick (44) and Christin (43), and son Dwayne (39).

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"I didn't want that here in my home either – but Merrick, who has never held anything her father did against him, insisted," says Barbara, pointing to a large framed black-and-white photograph. It's a portrait of Kuklinski, his wide Slavic features impassive, his eyes soulless. "Honestly, I hate that picture!" For more than 45 years she lived with a man who, behind closed doors, abused and beat her black-and-blue, despite the fact that he called her his "Lady".

"Richard was dangerous, cruel and charismatic," says Philip Carlo, who wrote The Ice Man, telling Kuklinski's awful story. Brooklyn-born Carlo, who grew up next door to one of New York's bloodiest crime families, spent hundreds of hours interviewing the killer in Trenton State Prison, where he was serving multiple life sentences. Carlo was determined to "shine light on the dark violent phenomenon that was Richard Kuklinski's life".

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He discovered that Kuklinski, who always insisted he would never harm a woman or child, had been brutalised by his father from an early age. As a boy, he killed neighbourhood cats and claimed he committed his first murder at the age of 14. Word is that Carlo's book has been bought by Hollywood, with Leonardo DiCaprio to play Kuklinski. He will, says Carlo, beef up along the lines of Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, as Jersey City-born Kuklinski – the son of an Irish mother and a Polish father – was 6ft 5in and 20 stone.

Today, Barbara, Merrick and two of her three grandchildren live anonymously – Barbara has changed her name – in a modest timber-frame house in New Jersey, hidden in lake and mountain territory, a world away from the opulently furnished North Bergen, New Jersey home she and her privately educated children shared with her husband.

"Look at me," says Barbara. "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. Now, I worry about the price of paper towels. But I've never been happier. My husband's dead and gone, thank God!" We sit on a big, cosy battered sofa and she sparks up the first of the pack of cigarettes she smokes while we talk, her hands trembling as she speaks of her regret that she ever met Richard Kuklinski.

The daughter of an Italian-American Catholic family, Barbara Pedrici met the swaggering Kuklinski, who was seven years older than her, in 1961 at the New Jersey trucking company where she was working as a secretary. The bright, only child of divorced parents, she had led a sheltered life, being raised by her mother, grandmother and aunt, while spending time in Florida with her father, who had remarried. "I was a spoilt brat. Life was a bowl of cherries. If I wanted something and my mom wouldn't give it to me, I just called my dad. I loved life!"

Already unhappily married with a son, Kuklinski became besotted with the black-haired, hazel-eyed 19-year-old. He charmed her, at first. "He was very good looking, but I only went out with him as a favour to my girlfriend – we had a double date. He was kind, very flattering. Nice, so soft-spoken." It was to prove a fateful meeting. Kuklinski was intent on making her his, telling her repeatedly how much he loved her. "He was obsessed with me.

"He would say over and over again, 'I love you, Lady'. I would just say, 'Me too. Me, too', I never loved him and I never told him I loved him," she says flatly. "Do you want to see the scars he gifted me? Love? Never! I despised him. But he loved me until the day he died, although by then we'd been divorced many years. His last words were to say how much he loved me."

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Soon, though, she was terrified of him as he courted her, especially after he stabbed her in the back with a hunting knife when she tried to break up with him. "He said it was an object lesson for me, that I was this Italian princess, that my family thought me too good for him."

Finally, she agreed to have sex with him because she was so afraid of his Jekyll and Hyde moods. She got pregnant, escaping to her father's home in Florida. Kuklinski pursued her – by this time he was divorced from his first wife, whose nipples he claimed to have sliced off when she was unfaithful to him.

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Under great duress, Barbara agreed to marry him. He threatened to murder her father, whom she adored. "And I knew he meant it," she sighs, her hand shaking as she lifts her coffee mug. "He did unspeakable things to me." When he caught Barbara smoking, he made her sit outside on a hard metal stool all night. She lost the baby the following day, and later miscarried a second time. When she was five months pregnant for the third time, Kuklinski turned on her. He broke her nose, beating her so violently she began bleeding from her vagina. She went into premature labour – their son was born dead. "He beat those babies out of me," she says.

Everyone asks her why she didn't leave him. She says wearily, "I believed him when he told me he would hurt the people I loved the most. There was no doubt in my mind. I had no choice but to marry him. It was the most miserable day of my life. But I was young and naive. I thought I could change him, but he was a jealous, jealous man. I knew if I tried to escape, he would hunt me down and tear me limb from limb."

With his daughters, especially Merrick, who was born with bladder and kidney problems, spending a lot of time in hospital, Kuklinski was deeply affectionate, but Barbara recalls how jealous he was of their son. "Dwayne was maybe three weeks old and I was in the nursery rocking him in my arms. Richard came in and put his huge hand over my baby's face and said, 'That's how easy it'll be'.

"I scraped his face with my nails. He went and broke a number of things in the living room, so I always knew he'd be intensely jealous of my son. I was only allowed a certain amount of my time with my boy. But he never laid a hand on my children because I told him if he did, I'd kill him. My children knew how he abused me; he tried to run me down in his car and he broke my nose three times.

"If I told you the number of times I woke in the middle of the night with a pillow on my face, with him saying I was going to die . . . Then he would have a change of heart. Sick! Sick! I never said, 'Stop!' He never brought me to my knees. He was a coward; I was stronger than he was because I'm a better person."

As for his business, which gave them such a good life, Barbara knew nothing. "I rarely asked questions. He was a wholesale distributor, registered in Hackensack. He had an accountant. I didn't have a clue what his real business was. He was a good provider – we had a lot of expensive vacations, for instance. The flower truck was never away from my door. There were good times, great times with my cousin and his family. But he was always watching me. He never took his eyes off me, smothering me with love."

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Kuklinski died in prison in March, 2006, at 70. The allegation is that he was murdered, poisoned by the mob. The day after he died, charges against one Sammy "the Bull" Gravano were dropped. Kuklinski had given evidence that Gravano had ordered the killing of an NYPD cop, which Kuklinski carried out.

A number of US TV documentaries have been made about Kuklinski, including HBO's Conversations With a Killer and The Iceman and the Psychiatrist, as well as several books. Barbara hasn't read any of them, apart from fact-checking Carlo's, which she believes captures the real Kuklinski. She's never watched the TV programmes, although she listened to some audio tapes. "I can't bear it – I can tell exactly when he clenches his jaw, for instance."

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Given her straitened circumstances, she is pinning all her hopes on a film version of The Ice Man. She would like to buy a house, where she could live alone and read – something she does voraciously – but large enough for her family to share with her whenever they wish.

Nonetheless, the nightmares won't go away. Kuklinski's legacy to his family is like Macbeth's – he has murdered sleep. Barbara and her children all have nightmares. She tells me that just a few nights ago she woke in a cold sweat, convinced her arms were drenched in blood.

Barbara clings to her Catholic faith. "It's helped me so much; I'd never have survived without it. And I've survived because I had the best first 19 years any girl could have had. I was a carefree girl, much loved. Now, I give all my love to my children and grandchildren – they're the reason I'm still here. They've kept me alive. I've got good children, very good children, the kindest, sweetest daughters. I've a son who is brilliant. A genius! I was cursed in my marriage, but I'm blessed with my family." sm

The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer, by Philip Carlo, is published by Mainstream, priced 6.99.