A jury found elusive contract killer Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski guilty of murder in March 1988 and sentenced him to consecutive life terms. Retired special agent Dominick Polifrone helped nab the murderer in a joint operation by the New Jersey Attorney General’s office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. He spent 18 months in guise as Dominick Provenzano, a drug-dealing career criminal who never let “The Iceman” get under his skin.
A&E True Crime spoke with Polifrone about his time undercover and the dangerous pursuit of bringing down one of America’s most prolific hitmen—one often referred to as “The Iceman” but whom he calls “Richie.”
What was your first encounter with Richard Kuklinski like? Did he strike you as an intelligent man?
He was an intelligent man, but it took me months to meet him. I was hanging out at a storefront where all the wise guys would hang out and do business. It was almost like Goodfellas. He was keeping his distance because he was meeting and setting up people from that location. Then, those people went missing, and [law enforcement] caught on. All they had was circumstantial evidence, so it took a while. One day I just happened to be at the store. The phone rang and they said: ‘The ‘Big Guy’ wants to know if he can meet you.’
We met at a Dunkin’ Donuts around the corner. He wore these orange-tinted glasses. During our meeting, Kuklinski asked if I could get pure cyanide. I almost fell out of my chair. I told him that I could, but he’d have to show me good faith. He said he’d get me an assassination kit, a silencer fixed to a firearm. We exchanged phone numbers and went our separate ways.
After the initial meeting, what were your encounters with Kuklinski like? How often did you meet?
There was an emergency [joint operation] meeting later that afternoon. [There] was a lot of brass (high-ranking members of law enforcement). They asked me to work undercover [for] all these agencies from the Attorney General’s office. Then, one of the superiors took me into a private room and told me that I’d be introducing one of his people [to Kuklinski] and leaving the case. I explained to him it doesn’t work that way. Word’s out that I’m good people and I bring somebody else in and walk away?
I walked out and the attorney general and a few others were standing there. I’m telling them what happened, and my pager goes off. It’s Kuklinski. The guy who took me aside said: ‘Get a tape right away. I want it taped. I want this conversation.’ I refused.
I worked different undercover operations for a lot of these prosecutors and attorneys general offices. They knew me and, after some back and forth, went with my instincts.
I met with Richie for months. I got direct evidence on how he put pure cyanide on food and murdered people in hotels, how he shot people and how he buried a guy for two years in a freezer and then dumped the body. He thought he could hide the time of death. When they did the autopsy, they found ice crystals in the tissues. That’s how he got the nickname ‘The Iceman.’ Richie also told me about how he’d squeeze cyanide into a nose spray. He called it a boost. He had a chemist who taught him all this.
While incarcerated, Kuklinski, a self-professed family man, claimed he murdered more than 200 people. Is there any credibility in this number?
He liked to boast about all the sh*t he was doing, but I don’t believe he killed 200 people. I don’t believe he killed 100 people. I’ll go as high as 15, maybe. I can document five. You want to add a few here and there? Okay. Still, he was the type of guy who, when he took on something or you caused something with his family, you were dead.
Do you think Kuklinski was a psychopath? Did he enjoy killing people?
He wasn’t a serial killer. He killed for money. He killed on orders from different mob people. When he used to tell me how they did it, there was a smile and the talk… I said to him one time: ‘I kill people with guns.’ He goes: ‘Cyanide is beautiful. Nobody looks for it. By the time they get an antidote, they can kiss their ass goodbye because there’s nothing they can do.’
He told me that sometimes [the mob bosses] wanted [the hits] to look bad and send a message. He said he cut a guy’s tongue out and stuck it up his rectum. Another time, he stuffed a bird in the mouth of a guy he killed. Others wanted it nice and easy—clean. That’s when he used pure cyanide. The [police] tapes [of Kuklinski talking about his murders] were unbelievable. “They [were so graphic] that [prosecutors] had to redact them for court because they were too prejudicial.
Eventually, Kuklinski got sloppy. Why?
He got into a big to-do with Roy DeMeo (of the Gambino crime family) and his crowd from New York. They told Richie they were cutting him off for a while. So Richie formed his own little crew.
At one hotel, they gave a guy a poisoned hamburger. Richie told me the guy had the constitution of a freaking bull. They were all laughing because he ate almost the whole burger. Finally, his eyes rolled back, but he wouldn’t die. So, they grabbed a lamp cord and strangled him. He had laceration marks, but they stuck him under the bed and left him there. The whole thing was sloppy.
Kuklinski was arrested in December 1986. What happened that day?
At this point, I had enough direct evidence, and [members of the task force] were concerned Kuklinski might try to kill me. So, on the day of the arrest, Richie and I were meeting at a service station to rip off some rich kid who was coming to buy cocaine from me. We were going to kill him and split $80,000. Richie would go his way, I’d go mine and he’d dispose of the body like he did other people—in a 50-gallon drum.
He showed up, and I gave him the cyanide. Then, he told me he’d be back. He said his wife needed him for something and he had to go home.
We had two teams to take him down, one at the service station and another at his residence. They took him down near his residence. During the arrest, they found three egg sandwiches. The plan was to put cyanide in one and feed it to the rich kid. Later, a lab determined that all three sandwiches had been laced with cyanide. He was going to kill me that day, too, but like he often said, ‘He who hesitates is lost.’
Kuklinski escaped the death penalty on a technicality, but your work still had a major impact on the trial and sentencing.
The undercover tapes were…so powerful that the defense couldn’t call anything. [Kuklinski’s] wife and daughters ran out of the courtroom when they played the tapes. They couldn’t believe it was him saying all this. The judge asked him: ‘Why did you do it?’ Straight-faced, he told the judge: ‘It was business.’ Man, he was an evil, evil person.
‘The Iceman’ died of heart failure on March 5, 2006, but it seems you still feel his presence. How has this case stuck with you?
I had a job to do and was dedicated to taking him down. I always had a .380 pistol in my left pocket pointing at him. I had the green light to kill him, but it never came down to that. I didn’t let him control me, but it has stuck with me for many, many years. No matter where I go, no matter what I do, it’s Dominick Polifrone or Dominick Provenzano and Richard ‘The Iceman’ Kuklinski.