Thug Life

With her exotic looks, privileged pedigree, and stable of famous ''galpals'' like Madonna and k.d. lang, Ingrid Casares is the most recognizable face behind a controversial effort to open a large club on a Flatiron district street already overrun with bars and nightspots.

And while area residents, politicians, and Community Board 5 are convinced that Casares's proposed venture--the Gotham branch of Miami Beach's popular Liquid nightclub--would cause more havoc in the neighborhood, they have something else with which to be concerned, the Voice has learned.

Lurking behind Casares is her Miami Beach partner, a mob-connected thug with a lengthy rap sheet and a history of violence. In fact, Chris Paciello, Casares's associate, is a singular quality-of-life nightmare, the kind of pumped-up wild man that community groups fight to keep from their streets.

Court records, law enforcement sources, and testimony from the recent trial of club czar Peter Gatien paint a scary portrait of the Brooklyn-born Paciello. In fact, for the past few years, the 26-year-old has used an alias--his real name is the less wiseguy-sounding Christian Ludwigsen--in an apparent bid to cloak his seedy record, highlights of which include:

After a 1995 business dispute, according to court testimony at the Gatien trial, Ludwigsen beat up his partner and pointed a gun in the man's face, threatening to kill him.

Ludwigsen financed a friend's purchase of $10,000 worth of Ecstasy, the illegal drug of choice for many clubgoers.

Ludwigsen met privately with a pair of Gambino crime family members, including powerful captain John ''Jackie Nose'' D'Amico, at the Miami Beach predecessor to Liquid, a nightclub called Risk. Investigators believe that the wiseguys secretly owned a piece of the nightspot, and FBI agents are currently probing Mafia involvement in the Ludwigsen operation. The club eventually burned down in what Florida investigators believe, but could not prove, was an arson fire; Ludwigsen used his $250,000 insurance settlement to open Liquid.

On behalf of an associate, Ludwigsen arranged for two Colombo crime family figures, with whom he is affiliated, to intercede on the associate's behalf and help smooth over a problem.

During a brawl outside a Manhattan club, Ludwigsen used an ax handle to split open the head of one man. In another New York club fight, a Ludwigsen opponent was somehow stabbed with a fork, though no charges were filed in either case. And in a South Beach incident last year, Ludwigsen bashed a plank over the head of one unfortunate rival, according to a federal investigator.

In testimony at the Gatien trial, government witness Michael Caruso recounted a conversation he once had with Ludwigsen, his ex-partner in Risk. At the time, Ludwigsen wanted Caruso, a well-known party promoter, to run Risk with him since, as Caruso recalled Ludwigsen explained, ''I'm a goon. I'm not a high-fashion pretty boy.''

Ludwigsen's criminal record confirms this telling appraisal. He has been arrested three times for felony assault in New York, and his rap sheet also includes busts for criminal mischief, disorderly conduct, car theft, grand larceny, and drunk driving. In most cases, charges against Ludwigsen were eventually reduced and he escaped prison sentences. Ludwigsen did not return several messages left for him at Liquid, while his spokesperson Lizzie Grubman declined to answer any Voice questions.

Seeking to duplicate the raging success of their Miami Beach business, Casares, 33, and Ludwigsen have spent more than a year looking for a Manhattan site to house Liquid's New York outpost. After false starts at two West Side locations, the pair settled on a 20,000-square-foot space at 16 West 22nd Street, now home to the Les Poulets club.

But landlord David Yagoda, acknowledging community concerns, has balked at agreeing to allow Liquid to assume the Les Poulets lease. The issue of the lease assignment is the subject of ongoing hearings at the State Liquor Authority (SLA) as well as negotiations between the landlord and Liquid's lawyers.

In an SLA filing, Liquid listed its sole shareholder as Raul Casares, Ingrid's wealthy father. Ludwigsen's name does not appear on the document, though he has attended negotiating sessions with Yagoda, according to Andrew Miltenberg, the landlord's lawyer.

Florida records show that Ludwigsen is the sole owner of Liquid in Miami Beach, though Ingrid Casares is always described in media reports as his ''partner'' or ''co-owner'' of both the Florida and New York ventures. The duo are also reportedly partners in an Italian restaurant that opened last year in South Beach called Joia.

Investigators told the Voice that they believe that Ludwigsen served as an investment front for organized crime figures involved with Risk and may be doing the same with Liquid. Along with the two Gambino members he met with in Miami Beach, investigators said that Ludwigsen is principally connected to Colombo associates Enrico Locascio, 27, and Dominick Dionisio, 28, junior members of the crime crew headed by captain William ''Wild Bill'' Cutolo. According to an FBI report, the six-foot-six-inch Dionisio was a member of a Cutolo-led hit team that roamed Brooklyn's streets during the Colombo family shooting war of the early '90s.

When he opened Risk in 1995, Ludwigsen told Florida licensing officials that the bulk of his $141,000 investment came in the form of a $125,000 loan from a Staten Island gym owner named Robert Currie. But in a Voice interview last Friday, Currie vehemently denied lending the money to Ludwigsen, whom he described as a friend who once worked out in his Richmond Avenue gym. Currie could not explain why Ludwigsen would claim that he had provided the Miami Beach club's seed money.

Before opening Risk, Ludwigsen worked from 1988 to '93 as assistant manager of a Staten Island nightclub, according to Florida licensing records. After being unemployed during 1993--94, Ludwigsen opened Risk in early 1995 in a South Beach space that had previously been occupied by a club owned by Carlo Vaccarezza, a close pal of John Gotti's and a former chauffeur for the Gambino crime family boss.

Along with Caruso, Ludwigsen hired three other New York expatriates--Robert Gordon, Frank Romano, and Paul Torres--to work at his Miami Beach clubs. All four men had previously worked for Peter Gatien's Manhattan clubs and were cogs in a drug distribution network flourishing in those establishments. After being indicted on federal criminal charges, each member of the quartet agreed to testify against Gatien, who was subsequently acquitted at trial. It was during this testimony that Ludwigsen's former associates, felons all, were questioned about their dealings with Gatien and a host of other nightlife fixtures, including Ludwigsen.

Caruso, his ex-partner, recalled Ludwigsen threatening him with a gun. The pair's relationship was not always so tense, though. Caruso told of once needing "some cash for an Ecstasy deal." Caruso said that Ludwigsen "basically told me, 'I won't have any hands-on involvement or buy drugs or deal drugs, but I'll give you a personal loan.'" Caruso testified that Ludwigsen gave him $10,000 with the understanding that Caruso would pay back $11,500. But, Caruso added, Ludwigsen did not hold him to the usurious terms: "I ended up only paying him back 10,000 and we became friends."

While Ludwigsen does not have Casares's high profile--she is a gossip column staple and has been romantically linked to Madonna, Sandra Bernhard, and other celebrities--he has become a well-known South Beach figure. Following the death of designer Gianni Versace, Ludwigsen, identified as Chris Paciello, appeared on ABC's Prime Time Live to talk about Andrew Cunanan's visits to Liquid in the weeks before he murdered Versace. According to the National Enquirer, Ludwigsen has dated Madonna, while other published reports have linked him to supermodel Niki Taylor. The latter relationship, according to a December 1996 Daily News story, resulted in a ''brutal fistfight'' when Taylor's ex-husband, Matt Martinez, confronted Ludwigsen in a South Beach bar. Ludwigsen dropped Martinez ''with one punch,'' the News reported, and was later seen ''blowing a kiss'' to Taylor's ex. Ludwigsen told the paper that Martinez ''should be happy she has a good male friend in me. There are a lot of s--- guys out there.''

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