Looking for Angel
June 25, 1996
Standing over 40 stories tall, the Riverbank West apartment complex is a beacon of faux luxury amid the drab, workday surroundings of the far west 40s. Until recently, the building’s most notorious resident was über-club kid Michael Alig, who lived in a two-bedroom, blond-wood floor apartment paid for by his then employer, the indicted club owner Peter Gatien. It was at the Riverbank, in the walled redbrick courtyard, with its circular drive and feeble attempt at a fountain, that Johnny Melendez last saw his brother Angel. Angel, a 26-year-old small-time drug dealer and friend of Alig’s, had come to New York from Colombia 18 years ago. He had ambitions of becoming an actor-filmmaker, but in his late teens he fell in with a racy nightlife crowd and became a full-time scenemaker instead.
In early March, Johnny dropped Angel off at Riverbank after a rare get-together over a Chinese meal in Manhattan. The two brothers didn’t hang out very often. Though they look alike physically, the worlds they moved in were vastly different. The conventionally attired Johnny is a salsa DJ who spins in small Latino clubs in New Jersey. Angel, on the other hand, inhabited a trendier milieu; he was a conspicuous figure at the Gatien-owned Limelight, where he could often be spotted selling Special K and Ecstasy while wearing his trademark, Barbarella-style feather wings. ”He didn’t used to look like that,” Johnny remembers. ”When he was growing up he was a quiet boy, very shy.”
The two brothers did keep in touch via beeper, though. Johnny has never met Michael Alig, but Angel talked about the king of the club kids all the time. ”He told me that Alig owed him some money,” says the 27-year-old Melendez.
Johnny doesn’t want to believe his younger brother is/was a drug dealer. “People said he never used drugs,” he argues. True, but he did sell them. I know — I bought ketamine from him for last year’s Special K Voice cover story. There are generally two types of drug dealers: those who are their own best customer and those who never, as the saying goes, get high on their own supply. Angel was in the latter category.
Johnny hopes his brother is still alive, but he’s heard the widely publicized rumors to the contrary. When he first learned of Angel’s disappearance, he contacted Detective Michael Reedy at the 10th Precinct. Reedy said he couldn’t open an investigation without more concrete evidence — which was tough to find, since Johnny didn’t even have a permanent address or phone number for his brother. Just the beeper number, calls to which went ominously unanswered. “If he was an important person, the police would start looking right away,” claims Johnny. “They just didn’t want to know.”
After filing a missing persons report, Johnny went to the city morgue, but to no avail. Then he decided to launch his own unofficial investigation. (Contacted by the Voice, Detective Reedy said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” and claimed never to have heard of Angel Melendez. Did Johnny Melendez contact him? ”He could have,” came the reply. Last Friday, another cop from the 10th Precinct, Detective Anthony Graham, called Johnny. He was more helpful, says Melendez, though an official investigation has yet to be launched.)
Johnny now spends his days trudging from store to store in the East Village and his nights visiting his brother’s old haunts in search of information. He’s also taped up posters by the West Village piers, in Washington Square Park, and along St. Mark’s Place offering a $4000 reward for information about Angel’s whereabouts. While Johnny was down by the piers, someone who identified himself only as a friend of Angel’s from the Limelight approached him and warned him to be careful. ”A lot of important people are involved in your brother’s disappearance,” he said mysteriously.
“I went looking for my brother and found myself in another world,” Johnny says of the freaky people he’s met on his travels. “I don’t know any friends of my brother’s, even though we were close. Everything was a big secret with him. But I soon found people who knew Angel and who were willing to help me.”
Melendez expresses thanks for the cooperation that some clubgoers have given him in his difficult search. But others, he believes, are not telling him everything. According to Johnny, Genitalia, one of Alig’s closest compatriots, appeared nervous and flustered when Johnny walked into Trash and Vaudeville, the East Village clothing store where she works part-time. “She knew I was Angel’s brother straight away,” says Johnny. ”But she could hardly talk.”
Several confidential sources, only one of whom would speak on the record, claim that former Limelight promoter Michael Alig has told them that, his press denials notwithstanding, he did indeed kill his sometime roommate Angel earlier this year. They say that Alig has made the stunning confession to a number of people, among them former New York club czar Rudolf, Chicago house diva Screaming Rachel, Calvin Klein model Genitalia, Limelight lighting director Arthur Weinstein, and Alessandra Kobayashi, Limelight owner Peter Gatien’s business partner and common-law wife.
In the press, Alig continues to pass off the incident as a rumor, invented by a Limelight drag queen, that he played along with until it got out of hand. But several insiders buy the scenario that Michael Musto broke as a blind item in his column two months ago: Alig got into a row with Angel over money he had stolen from Angel, the fight escalated, and Angel started strangling Alig — at which point Freeze, a friend of Alig’s, repeatedly hit Angel over the head with a hammer. Though gravely injured, Angel was still alive. So Freeze, Alig, and an unidentified third person decided to finish off the job by injecting the moaning victim with Drano.
”Angel did not go quietly into the night,” says one source. “According to Michael, the apartment was covered in blood.”
Alig is such a twisted individual (and his judgment so warped by drugs) that it’s possible he’s confessing to a crime he didn’t commit. He loves the media spotlight and relishes his bad-boy reputation, so this could all be an elaborate hoax. But if it is a scam, where the hell is Angel? His heartbroken parents would like to know. (His father, who arrived here from Colombia last week, accompanied Johnny to the Voice offices on Saturday for a fact-finding mission.)
“Michael is so sick at the moment that the whole thing could be contrived,” says Screaming Rachel, who confirmed that Alig confessed the murder to her. ”No matter how many people he confessed to, I find it very hard to believe that Michael deliberately killed somebody. Either way, though, it’s an unbelievable horror. If he did, it must have been the drugs.”
Michael Alig has been a heavy drug user for years and makes no secret of that fact. One of the first times I ever met him, after a brief “Hi,” he told me to make a fist and proceeded to pour a full gram of cocaine onto the edge of my hand. In the early days of Disco 2000 he would appear with bags of drugs in each hand, which he would then pass out gratis to the partygoers. One of his favorite forms of greeting was to say, “Open your mouth” — whereupon Alig would pop a hit of Ecstasy into your gaping gob. According to several Limelight regulars, prior to the disappearance of Angel his always prodigious drug intake had increased dramatically; he was smoking crack and injecting heroin daily. That’s why he was sacked by Peter Gatien. One club kid remembers that two days before Angel disappeared, Alig was in the middle of a coke binge when he started telling friends — jokingly, perhaps — “I want to kill Angel, I want to kill Angel.”
The story Alig is telling friends goes much further than the original Musto item. According to anonymous sources, Alig left Angel’s body in the bathroom for over a week while deciding what to do with the corpse (it’s baroque details like these that might lead one to wonder if the whole thing is a hoax). Over the next few days, Alig phoned acquaintances, telling them he had a dead body in his apartment and asking how to get rid of it. One visitor to Alig’s abode, who spoke anonymously, described “a putrid smell that made you gag.” The same person noticed the bathroom had been barricaded shut.
When the stench of rotting flesh became too much to bear, Alig told one source, he dismembered the body in the bathtub, stuffed the torso in the trunk and the limbs in a plastic bag. In a sick scene out of a Hitchcock movie, Alig and friends supposedly carried the trunk downstairs to the lobby where the doorman commented on the obnoxious odor emanating from the case. Alig then hailed a taxi, took the body to the Hudson River, and dumped it. In a bizarre twist, while the plastic bags containing Angel’s limbs sank immediately, the trunk floated away on the current. Or so the story Alig is telling goes.
The doormen at Alig’s old building told Johnny Melendez they had noticed nothing unusual, but a superintendent did tell him that two policemen had visited Alig’s old apartment in the wake of Angel’s disappearance. “In a luxury building like that, somebody must have heard something,” he speculates about his brother. ”To take out a dead body from a place like that must be very hard.” The building manager at Riverbank failed to return repeated phone calls from the Voice.
According to contacts in the Gatien camp, the conflict with Angel began months earlier when Alig stole $2000 from the drug dealer. As revenge, Angel severely beat Alig over the head with a platform shoe. When Angel disappeared, Alig reportedly stole an additional $18,000 from the absent drug dealer’s stash — which he used to refurnish his luxury apartment. Later, Alig sold his new furniture to finance a cross-country road trip to Chicago and Denver he took after Angel’s exit.
Through his spokesperson, Gatien has denied ever knowing Angel. According to new information, however, Angel was not only on the payroll of Gatien’s organization, he also supplied the drugs that fueled the sex orgies Gatien and Alig used to throw at upscale hotels like the Mayfair and the Four Seasons. “It was basically nude hookers playing charades,” is how one attendee describes the parties.
New York magazine contends that soon after Angel’s disappearance, Gatien’s wife, Alessandra, went to Alig’s apartment, removed his remaining belongings, and bolted it shut — a scenario that Gatien spokesman Ron Koch denies is true. One source close to Gatien, however, says that when Alig first tried to tell Gatien his version of what happened at Riverbank West, Gatien interrupted him and said, “Stop right there. There’s no way I can help you. You’ve got to get a lawyer and go to the police.”
When Alig’s alleged accomplice in murder (or hoaxdom), Freeze, heard that the Voice was asking questions about Angel, he contacted this reporter and offered to give his side of the story. In an interview that was mainly off the record, Freeze stated that on the Sunday in question he showed up at Alig’s place at noon after spending the night partying at the Tunnel. Angel, getting dressed and apparently in a bad mood, woke up Alig to demand money that he owed him for drugs. According to Freeze, though the argument was bitter, it never turned physical. The former hat designer claims the last time he saw Angel was when Angel left the apartment, saying he intended to get something to eat.
I asked Freeze about the persistent rumors that over the years several people had OD’d while in his company and that he subsequently dumped their bodies in a Lower East Side park near his apartment. Pale-faced and disheveled, Freeze insisted that only one person had died — someone he hardly knew, who choked on his own vomit after OD’ing on heroin at his place. Freeze insists that he wasn’t home at the time, and that after discovering the body he got rid of all the drugs in the apartment and then called the police.
After our interview, I was told that Freeze had agreed to talk to me as a way of finding out what information the Voice had about the alleged murder (or hoax). He’d heard through the grapevine that Alessandra Kobayashi, prompted by the news that the DEA was looking into the possibility that her husband had something to do with Angel’s disappearance, was about to supply this newspaper with what she claimed was conclusive proof that Alig did it. Freeze’s information was correct: Gatien spokesman Ron Koch called me last month saying that Alessandra had “hard evidence” of Alig’s guilt. At the last minute, though, Kobayashi canceled the interview at the insistence of Gatien’s high-powered lawyer Benjamin Brafman, who threatened to quit the case if she talked to the Voice. It’s unclear whether this “hard evidence” exists, but according to one theory, immediately after the murder Alig tried to get in touch with Gatien. Instead, he got Kobayashi on the phone and told her, “There’s a dead body in my apartment. How do I get rid of it?” Kobayashi, who hates Alig because of the special place he holds in her husband’s affections, is known to secretly tape-record many of her phone conversations. (When he heard that Kobayashi might have an incriminating tape, Alig began peddling another cover story: the “dead body” in the apartment was a boyfriend who had OD’d but miraculously came back to life after Alig got off the phone.)
Two weekends ago a rumor swept the clubs — and was repeated last week by the Post’s Page Six — that Freeze was talking to the police about Angel’s disappearance. According to one source, however, the rumor is false; Freeze had actually been picked up by the cops, but for a completely unrelated reason: a local drag queen called them in after Freeze refused to leave her apartment, where he had been staying temporarily. He was later released.
Even in his early teens, Michael Alig stood out from the crowd. A nerdy gay boy with an eye for women’s clothes, he was teased without mercy at Penn High School near South Bend, Indiana, where he wrote a gossip column for the school newspaper.
In the column, he demonstrated a precocious interest in fashion, fake celebrity, and media mockery — all themes that would later show up at Disco 2000, the polysexual freak show that began in 1990 and spearheaded a return to drug-saturated decadence among young clubgoers. Alig turned his social circle into a proto-Limelight, creating a mini-scene of fag hags, pretty girls, and stylish straight boys whom he gathered around him as protection from the bullies and queer-bashers. According to someone who knew him in the early ’80s, Alig was ironic before ironic was fashionable.
The same person also stated that Alig’s German mother was a cold, eccentric woman who liked to dress up like a minor Hollywood starlet and kept her son at arm’s length. Later, however, she was known to show up at her son’s Disco 2000 events. Michael’s architect father was divorced from his mother and rarely visited.
Michael attempted to follow in his father’s footsteps when he came to New York to study architecture at Fordham University. But he soon became enamored of the local nightlife, and dropped out of college after only one semester. He worked at the Zoot clothing store in the East Village, and swept floors at Danceteria, where he met Rudolph, who quickly became Alig’s mentor — a position later occupied by Gatien. Alig pestered Rudolph to let him throw parties. Impressed by the energy and warped ideas of this small-town boy, Rudolph gave in and allowed Alig to stage his first events. Alig quickly became the king of his own scene. They were called the club kids, and their contribution to the history of Western civilization was to pioneer kiddie fashions for grown-ups.
Alig is frequently compared to Andy Warhol. Like Warhol, he gathered around him a large coterie of extravagantly dressed freaks who came up with most of the concepts and trends he took credit for. “Michael has never had an original thought in his life,” says one close friend. “He’s a vampire who sucks the creative juice from other people.”
Alig’s shock aesthetic — a form of nihilistic hedonism — was best illustrated in the Blood Fest invitation he prepared for Disco 2000 regulars a few years back. In a photo mock-up of a splatter movie, Alig is depicted with his brains spilling out of his skull while Genitalia chows down with a knife and fork. When Gatien saw the image he refused to allow it to be printed up.
”Twenty years ago a kid would say, ‘Hey Mom, look at that guy with long hair. Isn’t he cool?’ ” Alig told the Voice last year, explaining the changes in youth culture he was capitalizing on. ”Today he’d say ‘Hey Mom, look at that man, he drinks his own pee and sleeps with dead transsexuals. Not that again.’ ”
Alig is very much the product of the new drug culture that arose in the late ’80s as a new generation began experimenting with mind-bending chemicals and dancing to acid house. What began in a burst of creativity and optimism eventually degenerated into a maelstrom of bad vibes and bum trips, as the relatively benign drug Ecstasy was replaced by harder substances like heroin, crack, and Special K. Just as in the ’60s, the music and the fun fashions took a backseat to the drug-taking.
By the mid ’90s Alig was a major junkie. And a violent one at that. A friend of mine, an anesthesiologist named Giancarlo, was Alig’s neighbor when he lived on West 30th Street. On his way to work one morning, Giancarlo bumped into Alig in the elevator — and noticed that Alig was holding a big kitchen knife. When the doors opened, Alig calmly walked out of the building, crossed the street, and lunged at a young man standing on the corner. More recently, Alig was picked up by the police on an assault charge after a fight outside of the Tunnel.
Following the police raid on the Limelight in late ’95, Gatien knew the open drug-taking in his clubs had to stop. As the pied piper and ring leader of this pills-and-powder circus, Alig was increasingly becoming a liability. Gatien, who by all accounts loves Alig like a father, tried to send Michael to rehab, but he skipped out after a couple of days. Weeks went by without Alig showing up for work. Eventually the club owner sacked his protégé and replaced him with Walt Paper.
“[Michael] was extremely upset with Walt,” says Screaming Rachel. “It was as if Walt had broken his heart and taken away his club-kid kingdom. Michael was talking to me about all the people whose careers he’d helped. He accused Walt of pretending to be his loyal assistant while all the time planning to overthrow him. He thought Walt had stabbed him in the back. He was more upset at losing Disco 2000 than he was by Angel’s disappearance.”
Two Thursdays ago, Michael Alig returned to New York from Denver, where he’d been visiting his buddy, the well-known Superstar DJ Keoki (in a brief phone conversation, Keoki claimed that Alig was off drugs and in rehab, and had nothing to do with Angel’s disappearance). Even in Colorado, Alig had heard that the scandal, which had died down for a couple of months, was about to flare up again. He arrived at the Tunnel early and left a note for Gatien, accusing Kobayashi of selling him out to the Voice. He also proclaimed himself innocent of any wrongdoing in connection with the missing Angel. According to Ron Koch, the club owner refused to see him.
While in New York, Alig has gone around bad-mouthing the Voice, telling friends not to cooperate with this story. He has also convinced many of his friends that, in fact, he didn’t kill Angel. “Everybody wants to believe he didn’t do it,” says an insider who himself is convinced of Alig’s guilt. “They’re in deep denial.”
Bur some of his closest associates spoke to me anyway. ”Michael has turned into a borderline psychopath,” says a childhood friend. ”All the creative energy he used to put into Disco 2000 he’s now putting into avoiding responsibility for the disappearance of Angel. He’s a sick puppy and he needs to pay for what he did.”
“He’s not borderline,” says another pal who talked to him while he was in New York. “He’s completely fucking insane. He’s totally delusional.”
A comment I heard again and again from people who know Alig is that he lives in his own reality. He thinks the normal rules and laws of behavior that govern the rest of us don’t apply to him. How else to account for the news that at the end of June, Alig is planning a bash in Denver entitled “The World’s Biggest K-Hole”? A local club is planning to pay for a number of Manhattan club kids to fly out to Colorado for the event.
But the party might not be the roaring success that Alig hopes for. While friends like Keoki stand firmly by Alig, several nightcrawlers I talked to are appalled by the stories swirling around Alig, and say there’s no way they’re going to Denver. The Angel incident may turn out to be the club kids’ version of Altamont. Among clubgoers who pride themselves on being unshockable, it has touched a raw nerve. “It’s difficult to go out to clubs and enjoy myself,” said one. “It’s not fun anymore. As far as I’m concerned this is the death of downtown all over again.”
According to a few of Alig’s friends, after claiming responsibility for Angel’s death, Alig asked them, ”Does this change how you feel about me?” It seems it does.
All this could still be an elaborate media prank, of course. Maybe, after this article comes out, Alig will throw a “Welcome Home, Angel!” party and the missing Melendez will make a grand entrance, resplendent in his newly laundered feather wings. ”We may all have been scammed by the head scammer of all scammers,” says Screaming Rachel. Or maybe we haven’t.
Either way, it’s time for Alig to tell us where Angel is hiding out or where his body can be found. “I’m not after revenge,” insists Johnny Melendez. “Conscience will take care of Michael Alig. If my brother is dead I just want to find his body so my parents can give him a decent burial. Nobody deserves to die like that.”