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.

In a later conversation, six-foot-six bruiser Dionisio told Paciello that Lewis refused to meet with him in New York. Lewis knew of Dionisio's strong-arm reputation: "The guy's deathly scared of me," Paciello replied. "So that cocksucker won't come out, huh? I'll take care of it down here." To which Dionisio remarked, "Even after you grab him . . . I'm gonna terrorize him a little, too."

In another tape, this one from September 29, 1999, two months before he was arrested, Paciello is also captured talking about assassinating South Beach club owner Gerry Kelly, who co-owns the rival venue Level. Previously, Kelly had worked as marketing director and manager at both Bar Room and Liquid. Kelly abruptly resigned last year and moved over to Level, but not before stealing mailing lists and other confidential information, according to Paciello's lawyers. On the wiretap, Paciello talks to an undercover police officer posing as a crooked cop about having Kelly arrested on fraudulent drug charges. Paciello then says: "I'm telling you the owner of the club, we got to get his head fuckin' broken in. We got to get him beat up. I got to get him whacked."

Chris Paciello rose from humble beginnings to become the most celebrated club owner in Miami Beach since Al Capone. His flagship venue, Liquid, was compared to Studio 54 by no less than Liza Minnelli. Before he was arrested, Paciello told Ocean Drive magazine: "Everybody can talk about my past, and I'm not ashamed of it at all. As a matter of fact, I'm proud of it. To come where I came from and to do what I'm doing now, I can actually pat myself on the back."

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

Paciello was born Christian Ludwigsen in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and raised on Staten Island—the land of cops and wiseguys. Within a few years of graduating from Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, prosecutors say, he was an apprentice mobster.

Paciello's name first became known on the Manhattan club scene in the mid '90s, when he provided muscle for Lord Michael Caruso's Ecstasy operation at the Limelight. His nickname, "the Binger," came from his penchant for bingeing on violent crime. Initially, the rave scene was largely run by young Italian American promoters and DJs from Brooklyn and Staten Island. Paciello exemplified the new breed of outer-borough hooligans, who—attracted by easy money—spoiled the scene's initial innocence with their bully-boy tactics.

Caruso, on the other hand, had started out as a legitimate techno promoter. In the early '90s, he staged groundbreaking concerts by such British electronic music acts as the Orb, Orbital, and the Prodigy. But by the time Paciello met Caruso at the Limelight in 1994, the techno promoter was deeply entwined in a web of corruption that involved armed robberies of rival dealers, as well as extortion and kidnapping.

According to testimony at Limelight owner Peter Gatien's drug conspiracy trial, around this time a Bensonhurst hoodlum named Anthony Faraci tried to muscle in on the drug trade at the Limelight. Paciello contacted Dominick Dionisio and Enrico Locasio—a/k/a the Stone Posse, two up-and-coming associates of the Colombo family—and Dionisio assured the Limelight drug dealers: "Don't worry about this half a moron—When we see him, we'll squash him and make it go away." The burly duo also started to fund drug dealing at the Limelight.

The bond between Paciello and Caruso became symbiotic. Caruso was a successful drug dealer and promoter, but no tough guy: Testifying at the Gatien trial, he frequently burst into tears. Paciello, on the other hand, had the balls of a brass bull.

In the summer of 1994, after being kicked out of Club USA for fighting, Paciello and Caruso approached the velvet rope at the underground dance hall Sound Factory. Bouncers refused to let them in.

An all-out brawl ensued. The bouncers sprayed the two men with Mace and fire extinguishers. The menacing head of security, Alex Cofield—a reputed member of the Latin Kings, whom the Drug Enforcement Agency later caught on tape admitting to "roid rage"—came running out of the lobby of the club brandishing an ax handle. Paciello grabbed the handle from Cofield's hands and proceeded to brain the bouncer with his own weapon. Wounded and humiliated, Cofield vowed revenge.

Last year, Paciello tried to downplay the incident, telling the Voice: "I did get into a scuffle with a bouncer at Sound Factory. It was a case of an overcrowded club and a bouncer with an attitude. It ended up getting physical, but nothing out-of-hand or dangerous to anyone else."

Afterward, Paciello and Caruso fled to Florida, where Paciello was planning to open a club. But the fallout from the incident continued to reverberate. In 1995, on a trip back to New York, Caruso was warned by bouncers at the Tunnel that Cofield was looking "to take you out." In an attempt to smooth things over, Caruso set up a meeting at a Union Square coffee shop. Cofield demanded that Caruso pay his medical bills, which he did.

During a second meeting with Cofield, Caruso supplied information about Paciello's day-to-day routine: his home address, the name of the gym he frequented. Unbeknownst to Caruso, Cofield secretly recorded the meeting, and a copy ended up in Paciello's hands. Furious that his business partner had betrayed him, Paciello hopped on a plane to New York and made his way to the Tunnel, where he confronted Caruso, beat him to a pulp, then stuck a gun in his face. Only the intervention of Paciello's friend kept him from pulling the trigger.

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