The innocent Staten Island housewife whom friend-to-the-stars Chris Paciello was charged two weeks ago with slaying in 1993 is not the only dead body floating around in the Miami club owner’s murky and violent past, according to a former business partner and government snitch. Paciello has also been connected to another homicide three years later: January 1996, to be exact, when Limelight drug dealer Ilber “Billy” Balanca was found stabbed to death in the trunk of a tan four-door Oldsmobile parked near Arthur Kill Road, also on Staten Island.
In the wake of Balanca’s brutal murder, the word on the street was that promoter Lord Michael Caruso—who, at the time, controlled most of the drug-dealing at the Limelight—did the dirty deed. But in 1997, when Caruso was questioned by federal agents about the killing, he fingered his former business partner Paciello as the real assassin, maybe in an attempt to deflect blame. According to confidential notes the agents made during the interrogation, Caruso claimed Paciello “whacked” Balanca over 50 pounds of marijuana that Paciello had allegedly vouched for, but which Balanca supposedly failed to make good on. The admitted felon Caruso claimed Paciello committed the murder “to protect his name.”
In a previously unpublished interview last year, Paciello told the Voice he was “dumbfounded” by his erstwhile associate’s claim. “Caruso is either lying or as delusional as an informant as I knew him to be as a promoter. After he’s admitted to being a liar, a drug dealer, and a thief, it shocks me that I have to defend myself against his ridiculous accusations.” Paciello also insinuated that the techno promoter’s animosity toward him is animated by the fact that he used to date Caruso’s girlfriend.
The Balanca murder remains officially unsolved. On the advice of Staten Island detectives still investigating the case, Billy’s sister Ganga Balanca would only tell the Voice: “Billy was a wonderful guy. We all loved him. We just want him to rest in peace.” She declined further comment.
Just how wonderful a guy is open to question, however. Billy told his parents he was a plumber. But in reality, he sold drugs for Caruso and participated in at least two holdups of rival dealers. According to testimony at the Peter Gatien drug conspiracy trial, Balanca even used his unwitting mom, who worked as a maid, to set up a hotel heist of a visiting British Ecstasy supplier. Later, he helped rob well-known Downtown dealers the It Twins in their own apartment. Not long after, Balanca was found dead.
Paciello and Caruso were briefly business partners in the short-lived South Beach nightclub Risk, the precursor to celebrity hangout Liquid, which Paciello co-owns with Madonna’s friend Ingrid Casares. Caruso also told the government that, soon after he arrived in Miami, a fellow investor advised him to sell his interest in the hot spot because Paciello was involved with some heavy mobsters who were eventually going to take over the place anyway. In 1995, the aptly named Risk burned to the ground in disputed circumstances. Miami police have long suspected, but never been able to prove, that Paciello’s establishments operate as fronts for organized crime.
Wednesday in Miami federal court, as one justification for denying him bail on the existing murder, robbery, and racketeering charges, prosecutors plan to introduce the possibility that the 28-year-old king of nocturnal Miami, whose real name is Christian Ludwigsen, was involved in a second homicide. In addition to his alleged role as a member of a Mafia goon squad that shot 46-year-old Judith Shemtov in a bungled 1993 push-in robbery, Paciello is charged with participating in the 1992 armed raid on a Chemical Bank inside the Staten Island Mall, as well as associating with the Bonano crime family. (Previous Voice reports have also linked Paciello to members of the Colombo and Gambino organizations.)
The Paciello arrest is the biggest scandal to hit South Beach since the 1997 murder of Gianni Versace. In Miami, Paciello is widely credited with spearheading the revival of local nightlife in the ’90s, helping to transform the scene into a magnet for the young international jet set. A gossip column staple and a regular at upscale charity events, he hangs out with socialites, models, and celebrities, owns a yacht, and lives in a waterfront mansion. He has been romantically linked to a string of beautiful and famous women including Madonna, Niki Taylor, Jennifer Lopez, and Daisy Fuentes. Earlier this year Paciello and Casares opened the Bar Room, which attracts customers like Tommy Hilfiger, Cameron Diaz, and Samuel L. Jackson.
“I have known Chris for three years and he’s always been an absolute doll,” says interior designer Sam Robbins, who worked closely with Paciello on his new restaurant Joia. “Chris is not a thug; he’s one of the good guys. Everybody on the Miami scene loves and looks up to him. If I had a daughter, he’s exactly the type of guy I would want her to go out with.”
By contrast, clubland insiders in New York label Paciello “a thug” and “a goon,” comparing him to Jekyll and Hyde: one minute the handsome and good-natured gentleman charming all the ladies, the next a raging madman beating up assorted patrons at clubs from Manhattan to South Beach. Even if Paciello played no part in the Balanca and Shemtov murders, he still has a well-documented track record of violence: a knockdown brawl with Latin King bouncers at Sound Factory, for instance, and the assault on Niki Taylor’s ex-husband in a Miami bar. He was also questioned in the stabbing of a photographer at the Bleecker Street club Life.
Paciello’s powerful lawyer, Roy Black, believes the government is picking on his client because of his high-profile lifestyle. “He really helped put South Beach on the map,” says Black, who has defended the likes of Marv Albert and William Kennedy Smith. “Unfortunately, anybody who becomes a success in this country is an easy target.”
“That’s ridiculous,” scoffs federal prosecutor Jim Walden. “This case is not about celebrity. It’s about serious violent crime.”
Additional reporting by Tricia Romano
Read the Voice story that first uncovered the Miami nightclub owner’s mob connections.