Miami Beach, Murder, Mayhem, the Mafia, Models, and the Madonna Connection

The violent rise of the New York THUG who became a high-fashion pretty boy.

Miami Beach—Like the South of France, the American Riviera has long been a sunny place where shady characters go to reinvent themselves. But talk to the beautiful people along palm-tree-lined Ocean Drive about transplanted Staten Island tough guy Chris Paciello, and you'll think they're describing Cary Grant with a bit of a bad temper. 'He has the purest heart of anybody I've ever met,' gushes a local gossip columnist; 'He has a noble disposition,' proffers a former employee. And here's a prominent insider in Miami's nightclub scene: 'He's one of the few guys his age who always stands up when a lady enters the room.'

Paciello, along with his partner, Madonna pal Ingrid Casares, owns three of the town's most successful nightspots—the fashionable Italian restaurant Joia, the world-famous dance club Liquid, and the deluxe lounge Bar Room (he and Casares also recently opened Liquid Room in nearby Palm Beach)—which attract droves of celebrities, who in turn attract even bigger droves of tourists, who shop at local stores, eat at restaurants, and fill up hotel rooms. All of which fuel the seasonal economic ecosystem of this offshore pastel pleasure zone. Paciello also hosts fundraisers, and hosted Mayor Neisen Kasdin's reelection ball; he donates considerable sums to charities like the Health Crisis Network, the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and the Muscular Dystrophy Association. No wonder Miami Beach residents persist in calling the 28-year-old businessman a "community leader."

So imagine the shock last month when the FBI pounced on one of South Beach's favorite adopted sons, charging him with racketeering, robbery, and murder. Could the celebrated man-about-town—who has bedded a string of beautiful and famous women, and whom Ocean Drive magazine dubbed "the It Boy of South Beach"—really be a mobster, a thief, and a killer?

Beautiful People: Ingrid Casares, Madonna, and Paciello
photo: Patrick McMullan
Beautiful People: Ingrid Casares, Madonna, and Paciello

"If Chris Paciello did everything the government says he did, then he deserves an Oscar," says South Beach publicist Louis Canales, who used to work for Paciello. "Because he certainly fooled everybody down here. The Chris Paciello we're reading about in the newspapers is not the person we've come to know and love."

Among the government's claims:

  • On February 18, 1993, as a low-level associate of the Bonanno crime family, Paciello took part in a bungled Staten Island home-invasion robbery that ended with the death—by a bullet to the head—of innocent 46-year-old housewife Judith Shemtov. Paciello didn't pull the trigger, says the government, but he did plan the operation and drive the getaway car.

  • The previous December, Paciello participated in the armed heist of $300,000 from a Staten Island Chemical Bank. Around the same time, Paciello supposedly robbed over a million dollars worth of marijuana from a local dealer. He allegedly sold a portion of pot to one buyer, then later stole it back from him in an armed robbery.

  • In mid 1995, Paciello harbored fugitive Vincent Rizzuto Jr., a Gambino associate. Rizzuto was on the run from a murder indictment after blowing away a Colombo family drug dealer in Brooklyn. Paciello is supposed to have housed the fleeing gangster in the Miami apartment belonging to his then business partner Lord Michael Caruso, who ran the Ecstasy ring at the Limelight, and who is currently a full-time government informer. Caruso told the feds that before he left, Rizzuto stole his wallet, identification, and other belongings. Rizzuto was spotted soon after in Chicago and Minneapolis trying to pass himself off as Michael Caruso.

  • Recently, the feds observed Paciello meeting with Alphonse Persico, the acting head of the Colombo family. The government suspects Paciello and Persico were involved in a money-laundering scheme together, using Paciello's celebrity hangout Liquid as a front to hide the proceeds from illegal mob activities. Federal prosecutors assert that the nightclub is more profitable than it should be. Persico pleaded guilty to federal gun charges last October, and is currently behind bars in Miami.

  • In addition, the government claims Paciello is a dangerous thug who has been involved in a dozen beatings in clubs and bars in New York and Miami—involving a variety of weapons, including a bottle, a knife, a baseball bat, a plank of wood, a gun, and an ax handle. Paciello is also under investigation for making a death threat against a cooperating witness.

    The government also released selected transcripts of secret wiretap recordings. On one tape, from late 1997, Paciello is caught conspiring with Colombo family associate Dominick Dionisio to beat up Downtown New York nightlife veteran Steven Lewis, currently the director of the West Village nightclub Life. After Paciello and Casares were rebuffed by community groups in their attempt to open a New York version of Liquid in the Flatiron District, Lewis approached Casares about doing a club together in Manhattan, minus Paciello. When Paciello, who is notoriously possessive of the women in his life, found that Lewis had gone behind his back, he was furious and contacted Dionisio, an old friend from Bensonhurst who was arrested last year on stock fraud and money-laundering charges.

    Paciello feared that Casares might accept Lewis's offer: "I gotta start taking care of her, or else she's fuckin' gonna leave me. . . . [Lewis] is a great manipulator, he'll talk her ear off, she'll start believing him, she's fuckin' stupid. . . . "

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