Now playing at a theater near you--”The Iceman,” a new movie telling the story of Richard Kuklinski (1935-2006), the North Jersey mob contract killer and freelance murderer whose arrest and conviction made such a splash back in the late 1980s.
Kuklinski was a true Jersey boy--lived in Dumont, and worked for a variety of New York and New Jersey crime organizations, as well as committing murders for fun and profit on his own. It is this last part that advances Kuklinski from the category of mere hitman to the level of serial killer.
What isn’t well known about the Kuklinski story is that for a brief time he was a resident of Vernon Township.
Kuklinski’s career of crime and murder spanned nearly 40 years, from the late 1940s until his arrest in 1986. In that time he killed lots of people--somewhere between 100 and 250, though the higher number might be bragging on his part.
He got the moniker “The Iceman” because of his fondness for popping his victims in a freezer chest for up to a year or more, then dumping their bodies in various remote places. The time delay made it harder for authorities to tie him to the crime.
It was towards the end of his career that Kuklinski was hanging out with two accomplices in crime, Gary T. Smith, and his roommate Daniel Depner, both of whom lived in Highland Lakes. Kuklinski lived with them on and off for a while. Kuklinski was evidently worried that Smith was going to rat him out, so he talked Depner into helping murder him.
While they were at a North Bergen motel, Kuklinski put cyanide on a hamburger Smith was eating. Depner than finished the job by strangling Smith. They stuffed his body under the bed, where it was found on December 27, 1982.
If Depner couldn’t see what was coming, he should have. Worried that Depner too was going to become a turncoat, Kuklinski finished him off two months later in the exact same way as Smith. Depner got the deep-freeze treatment. It wasn’t until months later, in May 1983, that Kuklinski dumped Depner’s body on (appropriately enough) Clinton Road in West Milford, famed for its creepy legends.
Depner’s body was discovered by a passing cyclist a week or so later. But police knew they were onto something when they discovered that while the outside of the body was badly decomposed, the heart was still frozen solid (as any decent cook knows, you always defrost in the fridge, never on the countertop.)
This misstep on Kuklinski’s ultimately part proved fatal--they were able to trace the crime back to him, in time, and a little less than three years later, he was arrested. He spent the last 20 years of his life in prison and died there (oops, I guess I gave away the ending of the movie. Sorry.).
While “The Iceman” was not, strictly speaking, a Vernon murderer, there have been (sad to say) many other Vernon murders and Vernon murderers. What follows is an account (going backward in time) of some of the more famous Vernon murders, and I’m quite sure I’ve forgotten others.
Most recently, Ryczard Gorski of Highland Lakes was arrested and charged in January 2012 for the shooting murder of his friend Maret Lacki. A real or imagined affair between Lacki and Gorski’s wife seems to have been the motive. This sad case is currently working its way through the courts.
In August 2008, pipeline worker David Haulmark, 36, got into a fight with fellow workers, brothers Jarrod Gentry, 27, and Jacob Gentry, 30. All three were staying at the Legends Hotel in McAfee while they worked on pipeline construction up in Warwick, NY. The magic combination of alcohol and an argument involving a woman led the Gentry brothers to assault Haulmark outside the hotel. Haulmark was left unconscious on the sidewalk and later died.
Jarrod Gentry pled guilty, was sentenced to five years, but later released with time served. His brother Jacob went to trial, was found guilty, and sentenced to 30 years in state prison. He is pursuing appeals.
The 1994 case of Baby Jacob Gerard may not be a murder in the usual sense of the word, but it amounted to murder and is classified as such by the prosecutor’s department. Parishioners arriving at Holy Counselor Lutheran Church on Sand Hill Road on the cold morning of February 21st of that year were shocked to discover that a baby had been left next to a window around the corner from the entrance to the church.
Nighttime temperatures had been in the teens, and it was immediately clear that the baby had died from exposure during the night. Church members and the county prosecutor named the infant Jacob Gerard. Ongoing investigations have yet to reveal who left the infant there or why, and the case is still being actively pursued by detectives. Because they have DNA evidence to work , investigators feel strongly that this case will eventually be solved. Baby Jacob Gerard is buried in the North Hardyston Cemetry.
A shocking murder occurred on Baker Road, off Drew Mountain Road, in May 1993. May Jane Dickson, 76, a retired social worker and well-known good samaritan, was murdered in her sleep. Investigation revealed the culprit to be Anthony Szadorski, 20, a troubled young man whom Dickson had tried to aid by employing him around her house to do work. Szardorski’s life had been one of mental illness, crime, and drug abuse, but he had been trying to stay clean and employed, and regarded Dickson as his “second mother.”
During a relapse into drugs and crime, Szadorski murdered Dickson, stealing money and her car. He was captured in Philadelphia, charged, and convicted. He has spent the last 20 years in East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, and will not become eligible for parole until 2025. During his prison years, he has become a chess expert, playing and winning prison tournaments. In days agone, the criminal justice system would have had other plans for him.
Few who lived here at the time can forget the case of Lisa McBride, the popular and well-liked 27 year old woman who lived in Highland Lakes. An executive secretary at a local bank, she was last seen alive on June 27, 1990, when she had gone out to a concert with friends and never returned. The exhaustive search for the missing woman consumed the citizens Sussex County for months in the summer and fall of that year. Local and State Police and the F.B.I. worked the case, and over 400 people were interviewed and 850 leads followed, all to no avail.
Sadly, the search for Lisa McBride ended on October 6, 1990, when a passing hunter found her naked and decomposed body, nearly a skeleton, in the woods way out near the Old Mine Road in Sandyston Township. Forensics indicated that she had likely died the night she disappeared. No cause of death has ever been revealed No arrest or conviction was ever made in the case, which remains open and active. Lisa McBride’s case fills two filing cabinets at the County prosecutor’s office.
A string of burglaries had plagued the community of Barry Lakes in the summer of 1979. Unfortunately for Edward Baker, a 37 year old husband and father of two, he likely interrupted such a burglary at his own house on Barry Drive North on the evening August 9, 1979. A neighbor later found him dead from a gunshot wound to the head. Sadly, no arrests were ever made in this case either, and it remains an unsolved “cold case.”
The community of Lake Wanda saw a murder in March 1970. A North Jersey motorcycle gang called “The Choppers” had set up housekeeping in a small Lake Wanda bungalow. They were, neighbors recalled, actually a quiet bunch, except for when their motorcycles came and went. That quiet ended one night when one gang member, Albert Leeper, 19, of Warwick, NY, was shot to death. Arrested and charged in his murder was fellow gang member Martin Perrera, 32.
It made a splash in the headlines at the time, with photos of the shaggy-haired Perrera being hauled away in handcuffs by State Troopers. Our county paper, however, committed the common newspaper sin of headlining a story when it was fresh and then forgetting about it. I have found no information on whether Perrera was ever convicted or not. If any of you old-timers out there know, tell me!
One of the most bizarre murders in Vernon (or Sussex County) history occurred on September 5, 1965. It was early on the morning of that day that Joseph James Hyland, 48, had taken his dog for a walk. He lived in the Sun Valley Estates development near McAfee. Returning home, he found a glass jug filled with liquid on his porch with some kind of burning wick in it; there were also sticks taped to the jug.
Hyland called to his wife and gave the jug a kick, which turned out to be the wrong thing to do: it was filled with gasoline, and the “sticks” taped to it were pipe bombs. The improvised bomb went off with a tremendous explosion and engulfed Hyland in flames. He died a few hours later. Police investigations into who might have placed the bomb came up completely empty-handed. Was it a prank gone horribly awry? Was the bomb actually meant for somebody else? These remain open questions nearly half a century later--another unsolved cold case.
A murder from the days of Prohibition occurred here in 1931. One Sunday afternoon, Robert Babcock of Echo Lake took a drive through the Vernon Mountains with his wife. He pulled off Route 515 into a little side road (we don’t know which one, exactly,but it was near where Lake Conway is now) in order (he told his wife) to pick some bittersweet berries. Hmmm. Mrs. Babcock stayed in the car while Mr. Babcock strolled around a bend in the road.
A moment later Mrs. Babcock heard a shot, and shortly after a car with two men drove by. She asked them if they had heard the shot; they did not reply. She walked to the nearby Conway farm for help, and she and Charles Conway then went looking for her husband. They found Mr. Babcock, dead, with a load of double-O buckshot in him.
The subsequent State Police investigation revealed that two local men had been operating a still in the area (this was the days of bootlegging, remember) and Babcock had previously had a run-in with them. Was he going to complain about a bad jug of hooch? Or to buy some more on credit? In any event, he wasn’t the first guy to discover the perils of messing with trigger-happy moonshiners.
Once again, our county paper put this case in the headlines and then abandoned it. I have found no further information on it turned out. The two local men were arrested and questioned, but at least one of them was still a free man in 1940 (according to the census) so the final disposition of the case remains a mystery--thus far.
A rather pathetic case of murder occurred during the construction of Canistear Reservoir in 1896. The East Jersey Water Company, in charge of building the reservoir, had a team of 1,500 workers housed in a shantytown near the dam construction site. Almost 70 percent of the workforce was Italian immigrants, who worked 24 hours a day in two shifts. The work was hard, dirty, and dangerous, the pay was poor, and the living conditions squalid. This, combined with the fact that most of the workers carried weapons of some kind, made for a volatile situation.
One day in August 1896, two workers started feuding. The Water Company did not bother with the real names, but assigned them numbers, like prisoners. Workers 2,828 and 2,570 (later determined to be Joseph Morello, 45, and Joseph Lugrippo, 22) had been arguing for days, and it finally reached a boiling point. Morello pulled out a revolver and shot Lugrippo three times, killing him.
There was almost no case to be tried: Morello’s guilt was clear, and as he claimed it as a “fit of passion” and was remorseful, he was sentenced to only 13 years in state prison. His victim, Lugrippo, was buried in the Stockholm Methodist Church cemetery.
For sheer notoriety however, few murders can compare to the one that occurred in Vernon on June 5, 1879. Frederick Crill, in his 60s, with his wife Elizabeth was living with their daugher and son-in-law, Eliza and William Babcock. The Babcocks were tenants on the farm of Stephen Smith on Pochuck Mountain, south of Hamburg, and the Crills, Mrs. Babcock’s parents, had lived with them for four years.
Fred Crill had been a small-time lawyer in his day--what they used to call a “pettifogger,” back in the days when you didn’t need a law degree to argue certain lesser cases in front of a judge. In this capacity he was held in some respect. But he was also known for his volatile temper and disturbing eccentricities. By modern psychological standards, it could be that Crill was actually paranoid delusional or even schizophrenic.
Crill and his daughter had a prickly relationship, arguing frequently. One day in June, 1879, the extended family sat down for their midday meal. Afterward, Crill got down his shotgun to go hunting. His grandchild was playing with a half-bushel measure (a large, potentially fragile ceramic vessel for measuring). Crill took the measure away from the child, saying he might break it, and then headed out the door to hunt.
As he went to leave, Crill’s daughter Eliza took the measure and gave it back to the child, and said he could play with whatever he wished. Crill turned, leveled the gun at his daughter’s head, and from a distance of three feet pulled the trigger.
Most of Eliza Babcock’s lower jaw and much of the back of her head was blown away, and death was instant. Crill initially tried to claim his daughter had been seized with a fit and died, but this shallow lie fooled no one. He was arrested and jailed, and in no time at all every newspaper in the region (including the New York Times) was covering this sensationalistic and lurid crime. After a trial, Frederick Crill was found guilty. He was hanged at Newton on April 24, 1880.
During his incarceration at Newton, Crill had a peculiar habit. While in his cell, he would pace in a circle around the room, stopping at each cycle to open the door to the little stove that heated the room, then closing it (in addition to his other oddities, he seems to have had a pretty good case of O.C.D.)
In later years, after his hanging, a number of prisoners in that same cell reported that during the night, in the dark, they could hear the footsteps of someone walking in circles around the cell, stopping to open and close the stove door every so often. That Fred Crill’s ghost thus haunted the county jail was convential wisdom for the next twenty years, until the old jail was torn down.
And if, after this grim recital of bloodshed and tragedy here in Vernon Township, you are tempted to pack up, sell the house, and head for safer ground, well, don’t bother. Because the reality is that for the last decade (and for many, many decades prior to that, I would bet) Vernon Township has in fact been one of the safest places in the United States.
During the last ten years, Vernon’s violent crime rate has been 79 percent lower than the New Jersey average, and 84 percent lower than the national average. I am betting those figures have been right about there for the last century-plus. In other words, there’s a lot of violence out there, and thankfully, most of it ain’t around us. Stay safe and play nice.