Only two things set Chris Paciello apart from the thousands of other teenagers who rode the subway in from the outer boroughs to experience Manhattan's anything-goes early-nineties nightlife: his muscle and his connections to Bensonhurst's Bath Avenue Crew. The Crew consisted of a dozen or more Italian toughs loosely connected to the Bonanno family, according to the indictment, who several sources said moved into the then-burgeoning nightlife scene by dealing ecstasy, protecting ecstasy dealers, and helping Limelight promoter Michael Caruso (a.k.a. "Lord Michael") cut down on his competition. "Opening night of the Palladium, a bunch of thugs were pushing the crowd and trying to create fights" in order to sabotage the club's opening, at Caruso's behest, Lewis told New York. "Chris was one of them. So I walked up to Chris and said, 'This is not a man's thing to do.' It was a man-to-man thing, and he agreed. He took everybody, and they all left."
Once he had made it big in Miami, Paciello's time at Gatien's Limelight became the stuff of legend, and he was seen as an important New Yorker bringing big-city style to South Beach. But it was just that -- legend. "I've never heard of him promoting in New York," says Gatien. "I've never even met the guy."
Paciello grew up Christian Ludwigsen on Thirteenth Avenue in Bensonhurst, steps from Bath Avenue, an Italian stronghold of weathered single-family homes and corner stores like "Casa Calamari." It's also a stronghold of the Bonanno, Gambino, and Colombo crime families. When he was 16, Paciello's family moved to Mercury Lane in Staten Island, but three years later he moved out of the house and took his mother's maiden name. The change wasn't simply a chance to flaunt the Italian side of his heritage; he told friends it was also a rejection of his father -- who, the Queens and Brooklyn district attorney's offices report, on separate occasions in the late eighties faced charges for burglary, auto theft, and attempted criminal possession of a controlled substance. "Chris moved out and took the family with him," says Michael Capponi, a veteran South Beach promoter and, eventually, Paciello's director at Bar Room. "They don't talk anymore."
Capponi says Paciello's troubled relationship with his father made him something of a father figure himself -- especially to friends with drug problems. "If I'd disappear in a bathroom for two minutes, he'd kick down the door to make sure I wasn't doing drugs," Capponi recalls, adding that after he recovered from heroin addiction in 1998, Paciello "put me in nice clothes and made me look respectable." The middle of three sons, Paciello still employs both of his brothers, one as Liquid's daytime maintenance man and one as Liquid's current manager.
Paciello dropped out of high school when he moved to Staten Island, but he kept close ties with friends from the old neighborhood. Around that time, a source in clubland told New York, he was dating Roxanne Rizzo, the daughter of Johnny Rizzo, a top soldier under John Gotti in the Gambino crime family. "Forget those girls you read about on 'Page Six,' " the source says. "Roxanne was the love of Chris's life."
Prosecutors also say Paciello's name was found in a Bath Avenue Crew telephone book surrendered by a witness. At the time, most of the Crew's alleged crimes were small-time -- robberies of a pet shop, a hardware store, and some video rental joints -- but they had links higher up the Bonanno family's food chain. "The Crew would pay a portion of their proceeds for the right to invoke the family name if they got into territory disputes with other crime families," says a law-enforcement source.
Over the next few years, the Bath Avenue Crew also got involved in the rave scene that was developing in Brooklyn, shaking down promoters who threw parties in what they regarded as their territory. "One of my partners got rolled up on by heavy-duty Mafia guys" when he was throwing a party in the Bath Avenue area, remembers D.J. and rave promoter Frankie Bones. "He had to go to Eighteenth Avenue and have a sit-down with the espresso and the pinkie rings, just like on The Sopranos." Later, Bones says, he was beaten by the Crew for throwing a party that competed with one of Caruso's. "This guy popped out of the bushes and was like, 'Yo, did you throw a party last night?' " says Bones. "And I was like, 'Yeah.' The next thing I know, there were three guys coming up behind me with a pipe and a gun. I got pistol-whipped. I woke up in a bloody mess."
Through Caruso, who like Paciello grew up in Staten Island, the gang also got involved in the scene at the Limelight. Without dealing any drugs himself, Paciello became known as a resident tough guy, a self-described "goon" who protected Caruso's ecstasy dealing at the club. "There were times where people made physical threats towards me," Caruso said in 1998, testifying during Gatien's trial, "and Chris said, 'Anyone who comes near him, they're going to deal with me.' " According to the testimony, Paciello also told Caruso that if Robert Gordon, also identified by Caruso as an ecstasy dealer, had problems, Gordon could call Dominick Dionisio, a Colombo family-connected friend of Paciello's known for shaking down dealers at the Limelight.
Around the same time, prosecutors say, Paciello orchestrated two jobs for the Crew on Staten Island: a $300,000 bank-deposit-box heist that is also part of his current indictment and the planned home invasion that went wrong and earned him his murder charge. On February 18, 1993, a 46-year-old housewife named Judith Shemtov was sipping tea with her husband, Sami, when she heard a knock at the door of her Staten Island home. When she opened the door, prosecutors say, at least three young men with guns shoved their way in and told her they'd come to find a safe they'd heard was hidden in the house. Minutes later, Sami heard a gunshot.
According to the indictment, a member of the Bath Avenue Crew placed a .45 automatic at Judith Shemtov's head and pulled the trigger. Paciello, accomplices in the crime told police years later, was waiting outside in the getaway car.
Prosecutors haven't gone beyond saying Paciello was an "affiliate" member of a gang linked to the Bonanno family. Yet by allegedly organizing heists in Staten Island and providing a connection to the club scene through Caruso, Paciello had proved he could become a valuable "earner" -- which is how, some law-enforcement sources told New York, he was able to develop relationships with members of the Gambino and Colombo families. "An earner is somebody who can bridge the gap between organized crime and the legitimate world and make money for those who support them," says Laura Brevetti, who headed Brooklyn's federal organized-crime strike force in the eighties. "People who are not made members can do alliances with members of any family. If they're an earner, they're going to make it."
By 1994, it was getting harder to earn much in New York's club scene: Mayor Giuliani was beginning to crack down on nightlife, and Gatien would soon be nabbed on drug-conspiracy and racketeering charges. In August of that year, as the police investigation of the Shemtov murder was heating up, Paciello moved to Miami, where he bunked down with friends at the Clevelander, a downscale hotel with a pamphlet that boasts the best happy hour on the beach. "In two rooms, there were like eight guys," remembers a friend of Paciello's who met him soon after he arrived in Miami. "He was just a little punk, a tough kid with a street attitude trying to make it in South Beach."