Thursday, February 26, 2009

Cold Blooded Killer

Even wiseguys got hinky around Richard Kuklinski.By his own account, “The Iceman” shot, stabbed, strangled, and poisoned many of his victims. One was blown to bits by a grenade; another was stuffed into a barrel of quick-drying cement in a garage right next to my grandparents’ house.
Then there was the corpse Kuklinski kept frozen for two years in a Mister Softee warehouse down the hill from us in Hudson County to mask the time of death. It’s how he got his nickname.State investigators were stumped, though. They couldn’t even raise an assault charge against the Bergen County hit man. So they turned to Dominick Polifrone. My longtime friend knew a thing or two about coldblooded killers. With his chiseled Italianate features, bandido mustache, and speech peppered with unprintable adjectives, Polifrone had convinced countless made guys that he was one of them, while he taped conversations that sent many of them up the river.He also had the one thing ya can’t teach at the academy: a huge set o’ stones.“I used to think it was a game,” Dom told me soon after we’d met nearly two decades ago. “But as you get older, you get wiser.
A guy could blow your [expletive] brains out, just like that.“This isn’t a tennis match,” he said, during a formal interview for a North Jersey newspaper. “Bad guys today have counter-surveillance, high-tech equipment. You turn your back and you could wind up in a box.”Fortunately, the street kid from Hackensack knew how to watch his back—no matter where he was.In their silk suits and diamond pinkie rings, the ham-fisted men who lingered over demitasse along Brooklyn’s Bay Street and Bath Avenue swaggered like gentry. Many were descended from immigrants who settled there between the world wars. They belonged to—or, more precisely, worked for—families with names like Gambino, Luchese, and Genovese.Few had legit jobs. Instead, they smuggled smack and guns, harvested tribute from underlings and favor-seekers, and loaned cash at more than 300 percent interest.Into this testosterone-teeming world, driving a long black Lincoln, came Dom.A short time earlier, Polifrone had joined a 1980s meeting of investigators who were quizzing mob informant “Kenny the Rat” O’Donnell on the type of undercover agent they could plant.“Don’t look no further,” the Rat said, nodding toward Polifrone. “There’s your man.”“Kenny introduced me to a lot of people,” said Dom, who took the name Sonny Provenzano. “He must’ve known every wiseguy in New York.“He taught me how to come across - when to back off, when to hold your ground.“I used to wear a black shirt and corduroys. Kenny busted my balls about it. So I bought the Italian knit shirts, the suits, the gold.
”It worked.Although he grew up in Bergen County and attended college in the Midwest, Polifrone passed for a Brooklyn wiseguy. A former college linebacker and amateur boxer, he ingratiated himself with some of the East Coast’s nastiest mobsters.“One of ‘em took this 80-year-old guy who wasn’t making his loan payments and burnt him with an acetylene torch,” he said. “Everybody got the point.”These same goombahs brought “Sonny” home to meet their families. After dinner, the men ushered him into a garage or basement to survey the inventory.“I bought enough guns to start a [expletive] war,” he told me during a talk we had for a story that appeared in The Bergen Record.In one case, Dom bought dozens of sawed-off shotguns from a man later convicted of scheming to rob the Hummel figurine maker. In another, he copped 3,000 silencers. All the time he wore a microphone under his shirt.One time, a group of gunrunners yanked down a corrugated metal door and started all the vehicles in a Brooklyn body shop.“At first, I didn’t know what was goin’ on,” Dom recalled. “They’re gunnin’ the engines on these things, makin’ all kinds of [expletive] noise.“Then I realize what they’re doin’: They’re gonna test the guns. They start firin’ these things and it’s brrrr everywhere,” he said, spraying an arc of imaginary bullets. “Shots are bouncin’: ping, ping, ping.”You can actually hear the barrage on the wire.Then you hear Dom saying: “Holy shit! I gotta get outta here.’”Because he was with the ATF at the time, his trade was illegal weapons. But during his undercover assignment, Dom bought kilos of heroin and was hired by the makers of a Sinatra film to bust a crew member who was selling coke.The new lifestyle was straight out of Hollywood, in fact: mounds of pasta, strains of tarantella, merchandise “falling off trucks.”“One guy took me in. His wife would cook for me: steak, sausage ‘n peppers, you name it,” Dom remembers. “He showed me how he cut heroin. You get 2.2 pounds in a kilo, so you sell the two and keep the point-two. ‘There’s your profit,’ he’d say.“I’d be drinking espresso with this guy, knowing he was going down.”On Halloween Eve 1980, more than 200 federal agents and city cops arrested 47 people, seizing dynamite, submachine guns, rifles, and silencers — the largest Mafia roundup since the 60s.One of those snagged was the heroin dealer who considered himself Polifrone’s surrogate father
.Led from the courtroom in handcuffs and shackles, the old man stopped.“I loved you like a son,” he told Polifrone, sobbing.Hands clasped, standing straight as a sentry, Dom remained impassive.“Sorry, pal.”I didn’t need others to tell me Dom was a stand-up guy. He was the very first person to show up at my mom’s wake. My family nearly jumped back when he came striding down the aisle. You’d think Elvis himself had just walked in.Every time I picked up the phone at work and heard “Jerry D!” I knew there was a good story coming.The oldest of three children, Polifrone grew up in a lower-middle-class Italian enclave. As a boy, he ran numbers for a neighborhood bookie. Later, he became the family’s first college graduate.“My father worked construction seven days a week. He used to take me out to the job and say, ‘Is this what you want to do? Then get an education.’”A defensive end, Dom played on two state championship football teams at Hackensack High School, earning a scholarship to the University of Nebraska at Omaha. In 1969, he made first-team NAIAA All-America at outside linebacker. He also boxed in the Golden Gloves, winning a title despite breaking his hand during a semifinal bout.He also got into more than his share of brawls outside the ring.A police sergeant saw something, though. He dressed Dom down, then suggested he switch his major from physical education to law enforcement. Dom figured it beat a one-way trip back home.Once he was back in New Jersey, Dom became an ace at undercover work. But he also looked after his wife, Ellen, and three kids.
When someone put out a contract on him after the mob roundup, Dom convinced his bosses not to relocate him.“It’s like a rope - you keep letting it out and letting it out,” he confided one day. “I kept wondering: Where is the give? When’s my turn? But I’ve been very fortunate. My rope never gave out.”A series of assignments after the mob case included sinking a conspiracy to ship 10 kilos of cocaine and 10,000 machine guns from Santo Domingo to Puerto Rico, and heading a task force that took guns off the streets of Washington, D.C.But these were tuneups for the biggest—and longest —case of his career.It was the mid-Eighties. State police were focusing on a string of murders in Passaic and Hudson counties. At the same time, investigators at the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office were trying to piece together three local killings that bore an assassin’s signature.A former Gambino family enforcer, the 6-foot-4-inch, 270-pound Kuklinski killed for cash—only it was the victims’ money. He’d find ways of threatening to extort them, convince them to bring huge sums with them, and then kill them.“It was clear only one person stood a chance of getting close to this guy,” said then-State Police Detective Paul Smith. “Kuklinski was smart enough that he didn’t trust anybody. But he looked at Dominick as someone on his par, someone comparable. That was the attraction to him.”Posing as an arms dealer, Dom elbowed his way into the right circle. For months, he hung out in a Paterson storefront, where a few pieces of window-dressing merchandise masked back-room prostitution, joker-poker, and who knows what else.It took more than a year, but the Iceman finally called.“Can you get the white stuff (cyanide)?” he asked Dom during their first meeting. “I need to take care of a couple of rats.”Sure, Dom said, over coffee and danish at a Paterson Dunkin’ Donuts.He was surprised when Kuklinski called the next day.“That’s when I knew I was over the hump,” Dom said. “I could feel it in my bones. I told the guys, ‘I’m in.’”Somehow, Dom got The Iceman to talk, on tape, without ever having to produce “the white stuff.”“I’ve done it on a busy street where they thought the guy had a heart attack,” Kuklinski says on one recording. “I walked right up to him, made like I was sneezing into my handkerchief to protect myself, and sprayed him in the face.”Once investigators had enough to make their case, they devised a robbery-murder sting involving a “rich kid” drug buyer. Kuklinski would give the fictitious victim a cyanide-laced egg sandwich, then take $85,000 in cash he was supposed to be carrying.Kuklinski bought it.During a December 1986 meeting at the Vince Lombardi Rest Stop on the New Jersey Turnpike in Ridgefield, Dom gave Kuklinski the egg sandwich and the “poison” - actually quinine prepared in a state police lab.Later that day, a squadron of police vehicles converged on Kuklinski’s house as he and his wife pulled from their driveway. In the trunk, they found the sandwich.The Iceman, as many know, made a cottage industry out of giving a series of interviews with HBO before he died in March 2006 while serving two life sentences.“I hope he rots in hell,” Dom said at the time.Now in his early 60s, The ex-cop who brought the Iceman down does humbler work, work that’s closer to his heart—and to the streets: He heads a drop-in center for troubled youth in Bergen County.
It’s not as demanding or dangerous as matching wits with wiseguys, but it can be just as effective.Now and then, he also grabs a glass of Chianti and a Cuban cigar, stretches out, and reminisces. There are few who can tell a story like Dom does. The guy’s still got the stones, something that may have come to him by inheritance.At Dominick’s going-away party nearly 10 years ago, I elbowed my way through hundreds of guests and sidled up to his mom at the hot buffet.“Hi, Mrs. Polifrone. How you doin’?”“I’m OK,” she said.Then she pointed her fork at me.“When you gonna do another story about my son?”Here ya go, Mrs. P., wherever you are.A Good Credit Score is 700 or Above. See yours in just 2 easy steps!