Natural Causes or Murder?


'Bull'Rejected Plea In Cop Killing Wednesday, March 8, 2006 By KIBRET MARKOS

Former mob underboss Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano nearly confessed three years ago to the murder of a New York City detective in Upper Saddle River, according to court papers filed a few days before prosecutors abandoned the charges against him.

"Maybe I should just cop to it and move on," Gravano is quoted as saying in a brief that Bergen County prosecutors filed last week in Superior Court in Hackensack.

Gravano's statement was one piece of evidence supporting a charge that he hired notorious hit man Richard "The Iceman" Kuklinski of Dumont to kill Detective Peter Calabro in March 1980.

Kuklinski, whose anticipated testimony was the crucial part of the case, died Monday at age 70. As a result, prosecutors say they will drop the charges against Gravano.

On Tuesday, medical examiners ruled out foul play in Kuklinski's death and identified the cause as cardiac arrest. But Kuklinski's family was skeptical.

"He said to me, 'Call the media. If you don't get me out of here, I am going to die,' " Kuklinski's former wife, Barbara Kuklinski, said Tuesday, recounting her conversation with him at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton three weeks ago.

Richard Kuklinski's symptoms before his death -- sudden multiple organ failure, skin rash and a fainting spell -- suggest poisoning, Barbara Kuklinski said.

"This is a healthy man with no problems who is now dead," she said. "The next day, the charges are dropped against Sammy the Bull. It just sounds strange to me."

On Feb. 21, 2003, while serving a 20-year term on a drug conviction and awaiting transfer to a federal prison from an Arizona jail, Gravano was visited by two Bergen County detectives who wanted to talk to him about Calabro's murder, according to the brief written by Assistant Bergen County Prosecutor Wayne Mello.

The questioning took place a day after Kuklinski pleaded guilty in Superior Court in Hackensack to killing the 36-year-old Calabro as the detective returned from work on March 14, 1980.

Kuklinski, who was convicted of multiple murders in 1988, was already serving consecutive life sentences. Almost two years before his guilty plea, he had said in an HBO television special that Gravano paid him and gave him a shotgun to kill Calabro.

At the Feb. 21, 2003, questioning, the detectives asked Gravano to plead guilty to Calabro's murder and accept a 20-year term to run concurrently with the one he was already serving.

Gravano bluntly told the detectives that such a plea could affect a deal he struck with federal prosecutors in the 1990s, in which he confessed to 19 murders and received a five-year prison term in return for his cooperation.

"I told them 19 murders," he said. "To admit to 20, I am screwed."

After a brief conversation, however, Gravano agreed to cooperate with the detectives but first wanted to speak with his attorney, Mello wrote.

The next day, after speaking with the attorney, Gravano "said that he would not cooperate with the detectives, nor was he interested in taking the deal," Mello wrote.

Referring to the fact that a plea wouldn't reduce his sentence, Gravano is also quoted as asking, "Why bother?"

"[Gravano] asserted that he would have confessed to ... the Calabro murder if doing so would have helped his current situation," Mello said.

Gravano was charged with Calabro's murder the following week.

Gravano's attorney, Peter Quijano, called Mello's brief "preposterous."

"They offered him a deal," Quijano said. "He said he would think about it and turned it down the next day. That's basically what happened. He has consistently insisted that he had nothing to do with that murder."

Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli, who was forced by Kuklinski's death to drop the charges against Gravano, declined to comment on the brief but reiterated that he was sure Gravano hired Kuklinski to kill Calabro.

"Do I know he did it?" Molinelli said. "Yes. Absolutely."

Molinelli would not say whether federal authorities in Brooklyn -- where Gravano struck a deal and testified against dozens of Mafia bosses, including former Gambino don John Gotti -- tried to pressure him to drop the case against Gravano.

An autopsy performed Monday showed Kuklinski died of cardiac arrest, said Casey DeBlasio, a spokeswoman for the Mercer County Prosecutor's Office. She said the county medical examiner found no evidence of foul play.

The celebrated forensic pathologist, Dr. Michael Baden, said Tuesday that he reviewed the autopsy results with Mercer County Medical Examiner Raafat Ahmad at the request of the Kuklinski family.

"Though the timing of the death was convenient for certain people, the autopsy shows he had a lot of disease," Baden said. "Nothing is indicative that the death was unnatural other than the timing of the death."

Baden said Ahmad assured him that a complete toxicological workup would be performed on Kuklinski. He said, however, that the autopsy showed Kuklinski suffered from heart disease and inflammatory conditions, such as phlebitis.

"Over five months, he just got sicker and sicker," Baden said. "That's what happens with the kinds of diseases he had. Everybody dies of cardiac arrest. What caused it is what matters."

Kuklinski's family and others who knew him, however, remained unconvinced.

"This was a guy who was strong as an ox," said author Philip Carlo, who spent 250 hours with Kuklinski for his upcoming book, "The Iceman, Confession of a Mafia Contract Killer," slated for an early summer release. "Suddenly, he couldn't remember his family's phone numbers."

Sometime last fall, Kuklinski started passing out, getting pale and losing his appetite, Carlo said.

Barbara Kuklinski said her ex-husband weighed close to 330 pounds six months ago.

"I can tell you he weighed a lot less last week," she said.

Richard Kuklinski called his family regularly, especially for holidays, she said. When he didn't call for Thanksgiving, Barbara Kuklinski became suspicious and tried to find out how he was doing, only to learn that he was at St. Francis Medical Center in Trenton, she said.

"He was very medicated, in a room by himself, surrounded by security," she said. "He seemed tired, but he was clean and shaven."

During subsequent visits to the hospital and the medical unit at the prison, her ex-husband's health kept deteriorating, she said.

Matt Schuman, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections, confirmed that Kuklinski had been taken to the hospital four times since December. He declined to discuss the reasons, citing the confidentiality of medical records.

Barbara Kuklinski, 64, said she last saw her ex-husband Feb. 28.

"He looked ill," she said.

She and her three children are now planning Kuklinski's funeral.

"Whatever it is, it will be done very privately," she said.

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