On hot summer days, while most of Miami has retreated to the air-conditioning of home, the city's beautiful people like to take their yachts out into the cool ocean breezes on Biscayne Bay. One day last August, a handful of the most beautiful people of all were enjoying those breezes in the company of Madonna, Ingrid Casares, and Chris Paciello.
The six-foot-one, 28-year-old owner of two of South Beach's most celebrated nightclubs, Paciello was known for rubbing elbows -- and, rumor always seemed to have it, more than that -- with Jennifer Lopez, model Niki Taylor, Spanish television star Sofia Vergara, and even Madonna herself. But his pretty-boy looks -- pumped forearms, bedroom eyes, and expressive jet-black eyebrows -- belied his business acumen. In 1995 his club Liquid helped put Miami on the nightlife map, partly because his partner, Ingrid Casares, was close with Madonna and almost every A-lister who flies south. In 1998 they invested in the cozy Ocean Drive restaurant Joia, in 1999 they opened the sleek lounge Bar Room, and in December they launched an outpost of Liquid in Palm Beach.
Paciello had come a long way from the rough Bensonhurst neighborhood he grew up in, where street fights were settled under the protective eye of the Mafia. He had seen as a teenager how much the nightclub business could offer a tough guy who wasn't afraid to work hard, and he moved to Miami to go into business for himself when he was just 22. He took with him a reputation for getting into brawls -- and winning them brutally -- as well as the whiff of mob connections. But that only seemed to work in his favor in the Miami club scene. "Didn't most people see GoodFellas and think Ray Liotta was the sexiest thing in the world?" says Steven Lewis, a former top promoter at Life and Limelight who met Paciello in New York and later became a rival. "Chris has that gangster charm. You look at him and you think, He knows people."
At some point that afternoon on the yacht, remembers another passenger, Paciello noticed they were being followed. Most of the revelers assumed they were being trailed by paparazzi. It wasn't until months later that another theory surfaced -- that it was the FBI.
"Didn't most people see GoodFellas and think Ray Liotta was the sexiest thing in the world? Chris has that gangster charm. You look at him and you think, He knows people."
In November, a friend of Paciello's and Casares's told New York, Casares had a "nervous breakdown," terrified that the business she helped build would be ruined by the company she kept. Suddenly, Paciello started learning who his real friends were. "Madonna's whole attitude was, 'I never had any business dealings with him, so I don't care,' " the friend says. "But she made a general statement to Ingrid: 'You have to be careful of who you're with.' "
On December 1, as the culmination of an organized-crime investigation that stretched back at least to 1997, Chris Paciello surrendered to a U.S. Marshal a week after being indicted for a 1993 murder in Staten Island. Since then, prosecutors have claimed in court -- but not yet formally charged -- that Paciello burned down his first Miami club for the insurance money, permitted drug-dealing at Liquid, and tried to intimidate and sabotage three of his competitors. (New York has also learned that he still employs Robert Gordon, described during Limelight owner Peter Gatien's drug trial as a major ecstasy dealer in the early nineties.)
Federal prosecutor James Walden has said in court that a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation into the clubs' finances revealed circumstantial evidence of money laundering -- reported profits that are grossly out of proportion with inventory purchases. And though Paciello told a friend last fall that the rumors about his mob connections were spread by people who were "fucking jealous," his co-defendants in the indictment are all accused of having connections to the Bonanno crime family. The road to trial promises to be bumpy: Just last week, Walden revealed that security guards found marijuana and a partially empty box of .40 caliber bullets hidden in the Staten Island house where Paciello is, by court order, supposed to be monitored 24 hours a day.
It's tempting to frame the story of Chris Paciello as a cautionary tale about a blue-collar kid who would do anything to get at the good life -- think "The Talented Mr. Paciello." But in truth, his story may say as much about South Beach: a place where drug dealers are so brazen they've turned a local gas station into an ecstasy supermarket. In such an environment, Paciello succeeded not despite his criminal tendencies but because of them. Even by the time Paciello had achieved enough respectability to serve on a city committee charged with limiting the number of clubs in South Beach, he was also living the low life. He was accused of pummeling a bodybuilder, a football player, and a corrections officer. Prosecutors say he maintained two different driver's licenses (one of which he denied existed, under oath), two Social Security numbers, and, Walden has alleged, a million dollars or more in hidden assets.
Only when the murder charge punctured Paciello's myth did the people who were excited by his aura of danger suddenly get spooked by it. "Chris is a gentleman, but he can be a villain," says Mark Baker, a New York promoter who worked with Paciello on a party. "And everybody loves a respectable villain." That is, until that villain gets caught.
Chris Paciello: Myself.
A Virtue: Loyalty.
A Hero: My Mom.
A Film: King of New York.
Something That Worries You: Everything.
A Defect: Temper.
Violence: No More! Lost Too Much!
-- From a word-association interview with Chris Paciello in the October 1997 issue of the Miami magazine D'VOX.