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In November 1994, Chris Paciello opened his first nightclub, Risk, allegedly with profits from illegal activities. After scouring South Beach, Paciello and Caruso came across Mickey's, a failing bar and restaurant owned by actor Mickey Rourke, featuring pictures of Rourke's friend John Gotti on the walls. For no down payment, Paciello took both ownership of the club and its $400,000 debt. The feds believe the real owner of the space was Carlo Vaccarezza, Gotti's former limo driver.
Paciello and Caruso transformed the place into a New York-style dance club. In the beginning, Paciello stayed behind the scenes. Caruso quoted Paciello's reason for this arrangement: "I'm a goon; I'm not a high-fashion pretty boy." Soon after the club opened, Caruso claims, Paciello had a closed-door meeting with a powerful captain and his soldier in the Gambino family: John "Jackie Nose" D'Amico and Johnny Rizzo.
Hardly the Miami smart set, Risk's core audience was what locals call "the bridge and causeway crowd." "I was a big guido from New York opening up a club," Paciello told Ocean Drive magazine. "Everybody thought I'd be out of business in a week." Risk might have failed miserably if not for Monday night's "Fat Black Pussycat," a '70s soul and funk party that brought in South Beach's A-list trendies, among them party girl Ingrid Casares, the scion of a wealthy Cuban family.
After Risk burned down in 1995, Paciello dumped Caruso, and persuaded the more fashionable Casares to go into business with him. Together, they opened Liquid, whose Thanksgiving debut party attracted a slew of Casares's friendsincluding Madonna, Calvin Klein, David Geffen, Kate Moss, and Naomi Campbell. "The Madonna connection certainly put Liquid on the map," says publicist Louis Canales. (Through her spokesperson, Madonna declined to comment about her relationship with Paciello.)
Paciello and Casares became "like brother and sister," according to nightlife writer Jacquelynn D. Powers: "They were inseparable." Their bond went beyond mere business. Since her adolescence, Casares had been a serious cocaine addict; Madonna even staged an intervention and sent her friend to rehab, but to no avail. Only when Paciello turned up did Casares finally kick the habit. During a bail hearing last month in Miami, Ingrid's father, multimillionaire Raul Casares, tearfully told the court: "Ingrid did a lot of drugs as a child. . . . Then she met Chris. Chris is the one responsible for stopping her taking drugs."
As Liquid began to thrive, Paciello transformed himself into a chic figure on the scene. Gossip columnists started linking him romantically with movie stars and models. But the old Chris Paciello was lurking just beneath the surface.
On June 25, 1996, bodybuilder Michael Quinn was sitting in Liquid's V.I.P. room when he called a fellow patron "a nigger." On hearing this, Paciello sideswiped the former Mr. Universe with a bottle to the head. After suffering a broken nose and facial fractures, Quinn threatened to sue. Paciello sent a message back via an intermediary that the victim would "never live to spend the money" if he pressed the lawsuit.
"The only way this could have happened, where somebody of Paciello's size could have taken somebody of Mike Quinn's size with one shot, would be if it were a sucker punch, which is what it was, and with the use of a weapon, which is the use of a bottle," says Quinn's lawyer, Peter Mineo.
The next month, Paciello was involved in another altercation. On Christmas Eve, Paciello accompanied popular local television host Sofia Vergara to Bar None in Miami Beach. There, Matt Martinez, ex-husband of supermodel Niki Taylor approached Paciello, incensed that the club owner had dated Taylor. Paciello reportedly decked the former football player with one blow. Vergara told the Voice that Martinez instigated the fight.
Then in 1997, on a visit back home, Paciello was arrested and charged with attempted murder. Paciello and his cronies turned up at the Bleecker Street club Life, in the company of former Miss U.S.S.R. Julia Sukhanova. A pesky Russian shutterbug wouldn't leave Sukhanova alone. A brawl erupted in which the photographer was stabbed with a knife three times. The charges against Paciello were dropped after the club's surveillance video revealed that one of Paciello's friends committed the stabbing. But the tape did show Paciello hitting the photographer with his fists.
Last Friday in Brooklyn Federal Court, the government agreed with Paciello's lawyers to a $15 million bail deal that will allow Paciello to move from jail to his mother's home on Staten Island, where he will be under strict house arrest. Among those present and posting bail were the striking Casares and drop-dead gorgeous Sofia Vergara, both of whom Paciellowho has lost weight in prisonblew a kiss to upon entering the courtroom.
"Chris is extremely important in my life," Casares told the Voice after the hearing. "Before I met him, I had little direction and few goals. He is a highly focused and extremely hardworking individual, and had a vision of what could be done in South Beach. We clicked immediately and have been partners ever since. I have complete confidence in his innocence."
It seems lovely ladies of all stripes still flock to the charismatic goombah. "Chris Paciello is a movie-star gangster come to life," one well-placed New York clubland insider explains. "Women think he's goddamn Ray Liotta in GoodFellas. That's part of his sexiness."
Additional reporting by Tricia Romano.