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Earlier this year, when a Wu-Tang Clan promotional van pulled up outside the midtown club Speed, a member of the venue's security staff wondered who the goofy-looking white Negro was in the front passenger seat. As he stepped out of the Ghostface Killah poster-emblazoned vehicle, the gold fronts on his teeth glinting in the half-light, he looked dimly familiar, as well as kind of comicalwhat with his baggy jeans and exaggerated gait, not to mention the carefully arranged cornrows in his hair. The bouncer experienced a shock of recognition when he realized it was Michael Caruso, a/k/a Lord Michaelat present employed as Wu-Tang Clan rapper Cappadonna's personal manager, but formerly the Ecstasy kingpinwho, after he was arrested three years ago, ratted out club owners Peter Gatien and Chris Paciello to the government in order to save his own skin. Caruso had also supplied false information about the bouncer's friends, who had been charged with distributing drugs, but were later acquitted. The bouncer refused, of course, to let him into the club.
Caruso's exterior has altered dramatically since the days when he ran a violent drug ring at the Limelight disco in the '90s. Gone are the designer clothes and clean-cut looks. "He dresses like a hood rat," says the security guard. "I got the strong impression that he's changed his appearance to protect himself from retaliation. He has to try and blend in with a black crowd because all the Italian kids hate him." From downtown's version of Sammy "the Bull" Gravano to Staten Island's answer to Vanilla Ice in one easy moveand all under the watchful eye of the feds.
Two years ago, as he sat on the witness stand at Limelight owner Peter Gatien's drug-conspiracy trial bawling his eyes out in a badly fitting blue suit, Michael Caruso's life seemed effectively over. The big-time promoterthe man who first brought techno music to Manhattan and turned Staten Island on to Ecstasyconfessed to a string of brutal crimes: bank robbery, home invasions, extortion schemes, kidnapping attempts, wholesale drug trafficking, and more. These should have put him behind bars for 20 years. But in exchange for leniency, he became the centerpiece of the government's case against Gatien, betraying a man who he'd told associates was closer to him than his own father. Caruso's testimony about the inner workings of the Limelight's drug network, which he himself created, not only provided a glimpse of the seamy underbelly of club culturethe violent demimonde of dope peddlers, gangsters, professional party-goers, and police informers hidden behind the superficial veil of fun and fabulousnessbut helped put behind bars many of his former colleagues.
But even though the jury ultimately didn't believe him, and eventually acquitted the probe's primary target, Gatien, the feds nonetheless used Caruso in another high-profile case. He is now a cooperating witness against his former business partner Chris Paciello. The information he supplied about Paciello's alleged mob ties played a major role in bringing about the Miami club king's current legal troubles. Caruso is expected to testify against his onetime pal at an upcoming September trial.
Insiders had predicted that, by now, Caruso would be dead, in prison, or a permanent guest of the witness protection program. In the immediate wake of the Gatien trial, he told friends he expected to do five years in the slammer, but his sentencing date has been repeatedly postponed (most recently to June 30), and now he expects to get parole. He's yet to serve a single day in federal lockup, and he's experienced an amazing turnaround of fortuneas a manager for the world-famous hip-hop collective the Wu-Tang Clan.
Other than changing his appearance, he's made little effort to keep a low profile. He's frequently seen in public, club-hopping with Method Man, RZA, and Ol' Dirty Bastard, though the Clan members he's said to be closest to are Cappadonna and Ghostface Killah. (He also manages the rap group Authorize FAM, featuring Caruso's and Cappadonna's respective brothers.) He says he's not scared of reprisals from people he's informed on because the belligerent rap groupformed in the projects of Staten Islandis watching his back. The man who used to be so scared of reprisals from drug dealers he'd robbed that he hired around-the-clock bodyguards now has his own personal hip-hop Praetorian Guard.
Caruso just returned from a 25-date national tour with Wu members, even though his government cooperation agreement expressly forbids him from leaving New York or associating with people who have criminal recordswhich pretty much covers most everybody in the Wu-Tang Clan.
In what may or may not turn out to be an amazing coincidence, the Wu are reportedly at the same time the subject of a federal gunrunning probe, sparked by two murders of Wu-Tang associates involving weapons purchased near the Clan's compound in Steubenville, Ohio.
But what's even more peculiar is that the Wu-Tang has no idea that Caruso is a rat. After the Voice started making inquiries about Caruso with the rap outfit's organization, group representatives confronted Caruso about stories that he's a snitch. He not only denied providing Wu-Tang information to the feds, he insisted he'd never informed on anybody. He told the Clan: "Don't believe anything you read about me in the newspapers. It's all bullshit. Haven't you ever read stuff about yourself that isn't true?" Also, when another of the group's representatives approached Ghostface Killah with documents and Voice articles conclusively proving Caruso is a snitch, the rapper threatened to beat up the messenger: "How could you say that about Mike? Mike's a good guy," he fumed. The world-class con man Caruso has managed to sucker even the Wu-Tang Clan, a group defined by its street savvy.
"Caruso is playing the Wu-Tang Clan like a violin," says downtown nightlife veteran Steven Lewis, who worked with Caruso at the Limelight. "He's a pathological liar and master manipulator. It's part of a pattern with him. He impresses one group of tough guys with what a big shot he is, betrays them, and then moves on to a next group. But eventually even the stupid ones catch on to what a scumbag he really is."
"The Wu-Tang Clan doesn't care if he's a robber or a drug dealer," says a source inside their camp. "That's probably what attracted them to Caruso in the first place. But they would never have worked with him if they knew he was a rat. For obvious reasons, the Wu-Tang Clan is very anti-law-enforcement. Having someone like Caruso as part of the organization could seriously lead to the breakup of the group."
Forty miles to the west of Pittsburgh stands the old-fashioned blue-collar town of Steubenville, Ohio. It was here, amid the steel mills and coal mines, that Dean Martin, Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder, and later Robert Diggsbetter known as Wu musical mastermind RZAwere born. The Clan owns a compound on the outskirts of town, where the self-styled ninja warriors of rap go to relax and practice target shooting before returning to Shaolin (Wu-speak for Staten Islanditself a borough best described as Copland meets The Sopranos). Steubenville is a rough-and-tumble place. For a town of only 22,000 people, it has more than its fair share of shootings and homicides. It also has a serious gang problem.
"It might surprise folks in the big city, but we have all kinds of street gangs in Steubenville," admits Jefferson County assistant prosecutor Chris Becker. "We get reports from the FBI all the time about gang-related activity in the area. We've got Bloods, Crips, Godz, you name it. They basically recruit from small-town America."
On a crisp autumn evening in November 1997, RZA's close friend Wisegod Allah was walking down a street in Steubenville, on his way to a recording session with Killarmy, the rap group he managed, when he passed a large party of Crips hanging out on the corner. Wisegod made the mistake of flashing a high-powered .357 Magnum handgun at the gang-bangers. The D.A. says that one of the Crips, Willie Hubbard, believed Wisegod had robbed his Mother Hubbard's home. The response was scattershot but lethal: Nine shooters fired over 60 bullets at Wisegod, only one of which hit the intended target, fatally wounding him in the head.
Steubenville detectives investigating the case traced one of the shootout's weapons to a batch bought from a local gun store by a colleague of the Wu-Tang Clan; the detectives also discovered an affiliation between the Wu-Tang and local Bloods. Wisegod's death touched off a string of retaliatory shootings. The homes of Walter "Pookie" Thompson and Donald "Ruckus" Harris, later convicted of the murder along with fellow Crips, were sprayed with gunfire.
A month later, on December 30, 1997, 23-year-old Robert Johnsona close friend of Cappadonnawas shot several times by two masked men on a residential block in the St. George district of Staten Island. Staten Island police doubt that Johnson's slaying was gang-related. But a gun left at the scene was traced back to the same batch of weapons purchased in Steubenville.
The gun deaths of a pair of Wu associates in such a short period of time was reportedly enough for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to launch an investigation into the group's murky extramusical activities. While no charges have been brought, the feds reportedly believe that the Clan gets associates to buy guns in Steubenville, which they then take to Staten Island to defend themselves. (The ATF refuses to confirm that the group is the subject of an investigation.)
"We're targets, man," Method Man told Vibe last year. "I mean, our lives are in danger. If I got a gun, it's for protection. You have motherfuckers who love your music, and would still rob your ass."
"Any alleged criminal activity that they may have engaged in is all in the past," says Wu-Tang lawyer Peter Frankel. "The guys are too much into their careers. There is not a scintilla of evidence to suggest the Wu-Tang Clan is engaged in a current criminal conspiracy. As far as I know, the ATF probe concentrated not on members of the group, but people peripheral to the organization."
Others in the camp, though, speculate that the ATF is focusing on Diggs. Diggs has been known to Steubenville law enforcement since 1991, when the then 22-year-old shot Willie Walters in the leg following a dispute in which Walters kicked Diggs's car. Charged with felonious assault, Diggs claimed he fired in self-defense and he was ultimately acquitted. "I guess I wasn't that good a prosecutor back then," says Chris Becker, who brought the case to court.
Since then, Wu members have had numerous well-publicized legal run-ins. In October 1997, Method Man was charged with assault after blindsiding and knocking unconscious a Palladium bouncer. Though the charges were later dropped, the Wu-Tang Clan was banned from Peter Gatien's clubs because of the incident. In December 1997, Ghostface Killah was busted in Harlem for carrying a .357 Magnumthe same model that Wisegod flashed at the Cripsloaded with hollow-point bullets. He also pled guilty in a 1995 robbery case, and last year served four months of a six-month sentence. Then, in January 1999, Ol' Dirty Bastard was arrested on attempted murder charges after allegedly exchanging gunfire with street crime unit officers during a traffic stop in Crown Heights. The grand jury refused to indict, apparently believing the cops started the trouble. At various times ODB has also been arrested for burglary, threatening to kill a security guard, and not paying child support.
Into this atmosphere of turmoil stepped Michael Caruso. Caruso has known Cappadonna for years; they grew up together on Staten Island. But in the wake of Caruso's 1997 arrest by the Drug Enforcement Agency for distributing Ecstasy and cocaine at the Limelight, when he immediately offered to cooperate with the government, the former techno promoter decided to leave the rave scene, which he felt was over, in search of a new musical direction. He persuaded electronica fan Cappadonna to employ him as his personal manager.
Caruso's duties include making sure the rapper gets to recording sessions on time, and handling money and arrangements when Cappadonna is on tour. Those who work with him complain that Caruso is unprofessional and incompetent: "He behaves like an idiot. He spends his whole time smoking blunts, drinking Hennessy, and using the Wu-Tang name to pick up gullible girls." It seems life as a federal informer isn't all looking over your shoulder, expecting to be whacked at any minute.
Caruso told the Clan he used to peddle drugs at the Limelight. He regaled them with tales of drug and sex orgies hosted by Peter Gatien at fancy hotels. He forgot to mention he was also working for the government.
"When I first met him I thought he was a big bullshitter," says a member of the Wu-Tang Clan organization, who requested anonymity. "You could tell he wasn't really hardcore. He was trying too hard to be down.
"Cappadonna is easily influenced," says the same source. "I'm surprised Caruso was so easily able to get with the group. They're usually very careful who they bring into their inner circle, because they've been burnt before. He just sort of came from nowhere, and all of a sudden he was a Wu-Tang manager. But just because Cappadonna and Ghostface Killah accept him doesn't mean the rest of the group does."
Six years ago, when three masked robbersone of them carrying a Tech 9 machine pistol, another a handful of brightly colored balloonsburst into the Chelsea apartment of novice party promoter Don Archer, he thought it was a prank. After all, today was the nightcrawler's birthday. His friend Allison had just phoned, and said she was coming over to help him celebrate. Surprise quickly turned to terror, however, when he realized this was no joke. The slightly built Archer (not his real name) was quickly overpowered by beefy intruders and thrown to the floor, where he was tied up with duct tape alongside Allison, whom the gunmen had supposedly kidnapped from the street below. Turning up the music, the armed thugs ransacked the apartment, and stole $12,000 in cash and a box of the animal tranquilizer ketamine. To cover their exit, the bandits left pills and empty cocaine bottles strewn around the room to deter the victim from calling the police.
"I was so scared, I cleaned up immediately and moved out of the apartment and never went back," says Archer, who wondered how the robbers got past the luxury building's doorman. He suspected it was an inside job. But it wasn't until later that he found out that Allison had conspired with scam artist Michael Caruso, who planned and pulled off the heist.
In the early '90s, Michael Caruso was a major figure in the dissemination of rave culture in America. After a 1990 trip to the U.K. to check out the burgeoning acid house scene, he came back to Staten Island with a crate of techno 12-inch singles, which he handed out to local DJs, among them Pete Repete. At clubs like the Wave and Red Spot, this hyperkinetic sound caught the fancy of a new generation of Italian American males: "It was something different," recalls Repete. "They liked the aggressive energy of the music immediately." Caruso sensed that raving was the next big thing, and he was determined to capitalize on it, by fair means or foul.
Caruso got his big break when downtown DJ Keoki heard Repete spin at a West Village after-hours club. Keoki invited Repete to perform at one of the Limelight's decadent Disco 2000 extravaganzas. Keoki introduced Repete and Caruso to Peter Gatien, who suggested the Staten Islanders start throwing Thursday parties in the small upstairs chapel area. The Inner Mind parties, as they were called, quickly outgrew the chapel space, then soon moved to the main floor on Fridays.
At Caruso's new Future Shock parties, shirtless juvenile delinquents from Brooklyn and Staten Island, high on Ecstasy and angel dust, slam-danced to hardcore beats imported from Belgium and the U.K. Tattooed kids who would normally be fighting each other in the street were instead embracing each other on the dancefloor, their natural-born machismo melting under the influence of the drugs. "It was like playing in a penitentiary," jokes Moby, who, years before he was nominated for a Grammy, performed at Lord Michael's Limelight events.
"There was a huge response," says Steven Lewis. "It was the only place in Manhattan that played techno music at the time. But the sudden success of Future Shock transformed Caruso. Practically overnight, he morphed from this shy, polite guy into a wannabe gangster who was always talking about having people beaten up or killed."
One time, he threatened to have Lewis kidnapped because Lewis wasn't letting in Lord Michael's drug-dealer friends from the neighborhood: "Caruso told me that I'd made the wrong people mad, that someone called Al Dente wanted to whack me. I thought he was kidding. But sure enough, one day I get a phone call: 'Hey, this is Al Dente. If you don't start letting my boys into the club, you're gonna have to deal with me.' I didn't know whether to be afraid or order the pasta special."
In the early days, Caruso claimed he was building a new youth movement, populated by "a new breed"the antithesis of the "Guido" stereotype that bedeviled young Italian American males. His crowd listened to progressive music and got along with blacks and gays. But really, he was laying the foundations for a criminal organization. He gathered around him a small army of Italian American toughs, culled from Brooklyn street cliques like the Bath Avenue Crew and Together Forever.
"After the initial popularity of the Future Shock parties, a lot of gangsters started coming," explains Repete. "They saw the success we were having, and they wanted a piece of it. Greed and ambition were Caruso's undoing. All he needed to do was stay with the scene and he would have ended up making more money than he did by robbing people and selling drugs."
"In the beginning, Caruso seemed like a regular neighborhood guy," adds Repete. "I had no clue what a scumbag he would turn into."
Caruso's first major robbery of record occurred early in 1992. Goldilocks, normally a supplier of Ecstasy, wanted to buy 20,000 hits from Caruso. When Goldilocks's assistant, Mr. Purpleso-called because of his purple hair and clothesarrived at the door of Caruso's posh Gramercy Park apartment, $180,000 in hand, two of Caruso's goons emerged from a side door, announced they were undercover drug cops, and pushed Purple in. Purple was ordered to lie down on the floor, where he was handcuffed. Caruso was also handcuffed as part of the scam.
Caruso's duplicity didn't end there. He subsequently paid his lieutenant Robert Gordon $5000 to convince Goldilocks that Caruso had nothing to do with the rip-off. Goldilocks bought the story, and continued to do drug deals with his Lordship.
Less than a year after the robbery, in March 1993, Caruso's partner in crime Damon Burett was found shot in the head in the loft space at Caruso's pad. When not dealing drugs for Caruso, Burett worked as Lord Michael's housekeeper in return for room and board. He was widely regarded as a sweet guy, but emotionally unstable.
When the police arrived, Caruso was holding a .32 pistol. The medical examiner ruled Damon's demise a suicide, but private eye John Dabrowskia retired Nassau County homicide cop working for Gatiencame to believe that Caruso used a suicide attempt by Burett the previous Sunday to cover the murder. On the witness stand at the Gatien trial, Caruso denied killing Burett. But Dabrowski claims that, given the extraordinarily high level of Valiumthe equivalent of over 100 pillsfound in the housekeeper's blood, it's doubtful he could have held a gun, let alone put it to his head and squeezed the trigger. And the contents of Burett's suicide note raise more troubling questions: "I took pills and lemons [slang for quaaludes]. It was better than blowing my brains out." Why would somebody describe one method of killing himself and do precisely what he said he wasn't going to do?
When key Caruso associate Paul Torres was arrested in 1997, he told the DEA that he thought Lord Michael killed Damon because Burett was being investigated for narcotics. Damon's father, Raymond, confirmed to the Voice that his son was picked up on serious drug charges roughly a year before his death.
"The detectives handling the case didn't do a proper investigation," claims Dabrowski. "Caruso basically bullshitted the police like he did everybody else."
His job as a federal informer hasn't put a crimpin Caruso's lifestyle. Since his DEA arrest, he continues to throw parties, associate with known criminals, and hatch scams. He and Brendon Schlitz, an incarcerated member of a Mafia-connected street gang known as the Port Richmond Crew, used to rob drug dealers. According to Schlitz, a former schoolmate, Caruso spends his dayswhen not on tour with the Wu-Tang Clanhanging out at his father's garage, Mike's Radiator Repair, smoking pot, trading rhyming couplets with his rapping brother Mario, and "dreaming of his next big score." (When the Voice attempted to contact Caruso at the garage, Mario answered and said, "All you guys do is put slander all over him." Then he hung up. The Voice was unable to reach Caruso himself.)
"He's running around Staten Island like the mayor," says Schlitz. "He tells everybody he's down with the Wu-Tang Clan. They don't know how much of a lying rat bastard he really is."
Only two months agoat a stop on the Ghostface Killah/Cappadonna tour, during Soul Camp, a hip-hop night at the Garage in Washington, D.C.an armed, drunken Caruso intimidated a group of promoters.
"He threatened our staff," says the concert organizer. "He was carrying a handgun in the waistband of his green Karl Kani jeans. 'It's about to get real in here,' he warned them. 'I'm going to come up with some heat.' Everybody knew what he meant."
The dispute was a trivial one. After the gig, a Ford Expedition had turned up to take the Wu-Tang Clan back to the hotel, instead of the expected large van. "Where's the van?" Caruso raged. "If I don't get a van, I want a thousand dollars right now."
"We had zero problems with the artistsGhostface and Cappadonna were great," says the promoter. "The concert was incredible, except for dealing with Caruso, which was a nightmare. In this business you run into a lot of assholes. But Caruso was the biggest dickhead I've had to deal with. Why the Wu-Tang Clan allow this idiot to represent them amazes me. He's hurting the group's reputation."
Additional reporting by Cara Buckley