We might imagine that the idea of hired assassins who murder strangers in cold blood for cash simply comes from the fevered imaginations of Hollywood scriptwriters or, perhaps, from our own nightmares. However, as disturbing the thought may be, it seems that such people really do exist.
For some, the job is an unfortunate by-product of their life in crime rather than an active career choice. Others seem to be motivated by money, and some particularly disturbed individuals find the love of the job itself to be its own reward.
No matter what their reasons for joining their profession, few contract killers seem to have any qualms about their chosen career. In the end, many of them have faced a karmic assassin’s bullet, too.
Chester Wheeler Campbell is believed to have murdered more than 50 people, all as a result of “contracts” being taken out on them.
He is unusual in that he worked freelance, carrying out hits for the Mafia and anyone else who paid him. His clients were made up largely of drug gangs and those who could afford his fees. In 1968, he charged at least $15,000 (around $110,000 in 2019 dollars) for a hit.
Reportedly, Campbell had a genius-level IQ and spent his free time wandering around museums and libraries as well as studying foreign languages. So it is not as though he did not have options.
For a time, Campbell became the “enforcer” for the Murder Row gang and their drug business. In 1975, Campbell was stopped for a minor traffic violation. Instead of pulling over, he took off at high speed. When he was eventually stopped, police found two pistols, a rifle, a sawed-off shotgun, and heroin in his car.
They also found a number of notebooks with the names and addresses of more than 300 police officers and government officials, some of whom had been the victims of recent murders. The notebooks included surveillance notes that detailed the subjects’ daily habits and a whole pile of classified police documents.
At Campbell’s trial, it was alleged that the 300 names comprised his to-do list of contract killings, which were only partially completed. After his release from prison in 1984, he went right back to making his living from contract killing and was once again arrested after a car chase.
He was convicted in 1987 and ordered to spend the rest of his life in jail.
Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, one of the most notorious mobsters during the era of Prohibition, was responsible for building the iconic Flamingo casino in Las Vegas. But his fortune was built not just on bootlegging and gambling but also on the proceeds of paid hits.
Working for Mafia bosses such as Lucky Luciano, Siegel carried out a number of Mafia hits, including one against the Sicilian mobster Joe “The Boss” Masseria in 1931.
He formed the Meyer-Siegel gang with fellow hit man Meyer Lansky, and together, they headed a new type of criminal organization. So entrenched were they in their hit men personas that they founded the “business” that was to become known as Murder, Inc.
The aim of Murder, Inc., was to “threaten, maim, or murder designated victims for a price.” Their services were available to any Mafia member anywhere in the country. Business appeared to be good. By the time the organization was exposed by a police informant, they were definitely implicated in 70 murders and suspected to be responsible for hundreds more.
Siegel was killed in the traditional hail of bullets, and it is all but certain that he was murdered by order of his partner. At the same moment that he was dying in Beverly Hills, three associates of Meyer Lansky entered the Flamingo and declared a takeover.
Charles Harrelson is famous for two things. He is the father of the three-time Oscar-nominated actor Woody Harrelson, and of course, he was a professional hit man for the Mob.
Charles Harrelson was hired by Jimmy Chagra, a Texas drug lord, in the first murder of a sitting federal judge in the US. Chagra was on trial for drug smuggling and was due to be sentenced by Judge John H. Wood Jr., who was known to give particularly harsh sentences to drug dealers. The judge was shot in his spine by a single bullet and subsequently died.
Harrelson had used a high-powered rifle and scope to murder the judge outside his home. Harrelson was convicted of the judge’s murder in 1981 and given two life sentences. Chagra, however, was acquitted of conspiracy to murder the judge and entered witness protection after making a deal with the FBI about other drug cases.
Harrelson was known to have committed many more contract killings. He had been acquitted of the murder of Alan Berg but was convicted of the 1968 murder of Sam Degelia Jr.
It is even claimed that he may have been one of the mysterious “three tramps” photographed shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Charles Harrelson once claimed to have been the trigger man in Kennedy’s assassination. However, it is unlikely that the claim had merit.
After a failed attempt at a prison escape in 1995, Harrelson was transferred to a supermax prison in Colorado where he died of a heart attack in 2007.
Christopher Dale Flannery is believed to have been Australia’s most prolific contract killer. Nicknamed “Mr. Rent-a-Kill,” Flannery was born and raised in Victoria. There, in his teens, he received his first convictions for housebreaking, car theft, assault on a police officer, carrying firearms, and rape.
After serving seven years in prison, Flannery got a job as a nightclub bouncer. But he found the work dull and quickly moved on to contract killing. He was charged with the murder of a barrister in 1981. However, the lawyer’s body was never found, and without it, Flannery was acquitted.
As he left court, he was arrested on suspicion of the murder of a brothel owner two years earlier. Again, Flannery was charged and sent to trial. The first jury failed to reach a verdict, and a retrial was ordered.
To avoid being tried by a particular judge, Flannery “persuaded” a doctor to write a “sick note” to postpone the trial in the hope that another judge would be assigned to him. However, the doctor was arrested for perverting the course of justice. Nevertheless, Flannery was acquitted at his retrial.
By 1984, Flannery was involved in the Sydney gang wars. The police allegedly tried to negotiate an end to the gang wars, but Flannery refused to stop. He even went so far as to threaten the police by saying, “You’re not a protected species, you know—you’re not a f—king koala!”
More murders followed. It is believed that these included Tony “Spaghetti” Eustace, who was found bleeding from six bullet wounds next to his gold Mercedes. As he was being rushed to the hospital, detectives tried to interview him. In true mob style, Eustace told them to “f—k off” before promptly dying.
It was believed that Flannery was behind at least a dozen contract killings. He disappeared forever after climbing into a taxi in May 1985. It is believed that Flannery was killed, but it is not clear by whom. Some rumors even allege that the police were responsible for the death.
His body was never found. In 1997, a coroner declared Flannery legally dead and judged that he was probably murdered shortly after climbing into the taxi in May 1985.
Alexander Solonik was believed to have been a contract killer for the Russian mob. He was supposedly a former member of the Russian special forces, and it is rumored that he assassinated NATO officials during the Cold War for the Russian government, who hoped to destabilize NATO.
He joined the police but was dismissed on the grounds of cruelty toward prisoners. Soon after, Solonik was arrested for rape. But he escaped during his trial by jumping out of a second-story window in the courtroom and heading for Siberia. He was arrested again and once more escaped.
Soon after, Solonik made his first hit, killing a rival boss on behalf of a Siberian crime lord. His prowess at escaping and his habit of shooting with a gun in each hand earned him the nickname of “Alexander the Great,” among other things.
Within six months, he managed to kill two high-ranking mob bosses despite one having the protection of bodyguards and an armored vehicle. When one of Solonik’s employers refused to pay him the $1 million owed for his services, the employer and his staff were soon found dead.
Police attempted to arrest Solonik and a companion in 1994 and managed to put them in handcuffs. However, Solonik and his friend killed the four police officers and escaped while still wearing the cuffs. Although Solonik had been shot in the kidney, he ran for it and shot two security guards as he made his escape.
The injury, however, slowed him down. Though his friend escaped, Solonik was caught. He was sent to a maximum security prison under heavy guard and escaped again, climbing over the prison roof into a waiting car.
Solonik had made 43 hits for the Russian mob and decided to retire. He fled once more, this time to Greece in 1997.
However, retiring from the mob is not really an option. Another assassin was hired to strangle him beside the pool of his Greek villa. Even in death, Solonik remained elusive. His body was not discovered for two months.
Giuseppe Greco (aka “Pino”) was a notorious Mafia hit man. After his death, he was posthumously convicted of 58 murders, but it is thought that the true number of victims may have been as high as 300.
Most of his victims were mobsters, and most were killed during the Second Mafia War in Sicily between 1978 and 1983. The war claimed over 1,000 lives, including criminals, police officers, politicians, and the judiciary.
During the Maxi Trial that followed the war, Pino was convicted of the murder of several police officers and magistrates and even Italy’s chief of counterterrorism, who had been tasked with putting an end to the bloodshed. He had been shot dead in his car.
Pino was killed by the mob in September 1985 after he was thought to have become too powerful. His body was never found, but his death was confirmed in 1989 by an informant who had been present at the time of the shooting.
Harry “Happy” Maione was a hit man for Murder, Inc., the murder arm of the Mafia that Bugsy Siegel had set up with Meyer Lansky. Nicknamed “Happy” because of his permanent scowl, Maione was born in 1908 and raised in Brooklyn during the 1920s. By 1931, he is said to have committed his first hit, killing the three Shapiro Brothers who belonged to a rival gang.
Reportedly, Maione killed at least 12 men while working for Murder, Inc., including prosecution witnesses and suspected informants. He went to great lengths to get his man. On one occasion, he was even said to have dressed as a woman, “painted and powdered,” to kill two men.
Under the guise of a blind date, he approached the hotel room of the two men, who had reputations as playboys. Maione hid his gun under his fur coat. The unfortunate victims realized their mistake seconds after the door was opened, but it was too late.
Maione was through the door, followed swiftly by an accomplice. The two “playboys” and their dog were shot dead. Members of the underworld were apparently ticked off about the death of the dog. It is okay to kill a man, but it appears to be bad form to touch his dog.
In May 1940, Maione was convicted of murder, but the verdict was overturned on appeal. A second trial was ordered, and he was convicted a second time. In February 1942, Maione was executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing.
James Bazley was nicknamed “Machine Gun”—not because of his profession but apparently due to his rapid-fire speech patterns. Bazley, a hit man for the Australian mafia, was believed to have murdered the liberal politician and anti-drugs campaigner Donald Mackay in 1977.
Supposedly, a hit had been ordered on the politician after he discovered and reported a large crop of marijuana. Despite a huge investigation, Mackay’s body was never found. Bazley was convicted of conspiracy with regard to the death, but without the body, no murder charges could be brought.
In 1986, Bazley was finally convicted of the double murder of a pair of drug couriers. He had also been ordered to kill their pet dog but apparently refused. Although sentenced to life in prison, he was released in 2001.
Despite being offered many inducements to reveal the whereabouts of Donald Mackay’s body, Bazley steadfastly refused and took the secret with him to his grave. He died of natural causes in 2018.
Jorge Ayala was said to be a hit man working for the notorious Colombian drug lord Griselda Blanco during the cocaine epidemic of the 1980s in Miami. Blanco (aka “The Godmother”) is believed to have contracted with him to kill at least 35 people.
In 1993, he was caught. He pleaded guilty to three murders and was given a life sentence. Ayala was a key witness for the prosecution after the arrest of Blanco. But his evidence was tainted when he was caught engaging in phone sex with three women.
He claimed that they were procured by the state’s attorney with the instruction to “keep him happy.” As a result, Ayala’s evidence was unusable and Blanco received a much-reduced sentence at the end of which she was deported to Colombia. Shortly after arriving home, she was gunned down in the street.
To date, Ayala is still incarcerated, though he is eligible to apply for parole this year. If granted, he is also likely to be deported to Colombia.
Richard Kuklinski (aka “The Iceman”) has been called the most prolific hit man in Mafia history. The number of his hits is estimated to be as high as 300 or even more.
Unlike some hit men, Kuklinski enjoyed his line of work. He simply found a way to turn his hobby into his business. When asked if he would describe himself as an assassin, he supposedly replied, “No. I’m just a murderer.”
If you don’t include his childhood hobby of torturing cats, he appears to have claimed his first victim at age 14. He beat a local bully to death. When Kuklinski was 18, he received his first contract from a New Jersey crime family and a career was born.
Even when he wasn’t working, he would seek out people to kill. He devised a number of creative ways to do it, including cyanide decanted into a nasal spray. He worked largely for the Gambino crime family, where he was nicknamed “The Devil Himself.”
He never socialized with his employers and thus escaped much of the surveillance that was lavished on people who associated with the New Jersey mobsters. He was only caught after a Mafia member snitched on him and agreed to wear a wire while discussing a contract killing. Arrested in 1986, Kuklinski was found guilty of several murders and given a life sentence.
After his conviction, Kuklinski gave a number of interviews about his career. He claimed to have killed Jimmy Hoffa for $40,000. He confessed to killing over 100 people, including the 1980 slaying of a police officer.
Kuklinski died in 2006 at age 70. Foul play was suspected because Kuklinski was about to testify against a former Mafia member. However, his death was eventually recorded as being from natural causes.