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 Drivemagazine 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. . . . "

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 Drivemagazine: "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."

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.

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 Drivemagazine. "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 friends—including 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 Paciello—who has lost weight in prison—blew 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.

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