Before long, Paciello set his sights on Mickey's, a Washington Avenue club owned by actor Mickey Rourke and run by John Gotti's former driver, Carlo Vaccerezza, as something of a shrine to the jailed don. According to Caruso's testimony during Gatien's 1998 drug trial, Caruso put up $25,000, some of which he made from an ecstasy deal, for a 10 percent share; prosecutors believe the rest of the investment came from criminal proceeds. They renamed the club Risk and hired Rourke's sister, Janet Navarro, as Paciello's secretary. A few months later, according to Caruso, Johnny Rizzo (Paciello's former girlfriend's father) and John "The Nose" D'Amico, both high-level Gambino-family soldiers, began taking closed-door meetings with Paciello at the club. Caruso says he was dismissed from those talks with a simple "See you later, Mike," and he eventually returned to Staten Island. (Today, Caruso manages Wu-Tang Clan member Cappadonna.)
Only months after he had moved out of the Clevelander, Paciello earned a reputation as a charismatic gentleman who stood up whenever a woman entered the room. "He was new to town, but a great host," remembers Nicola Siervo, who went on to open Joia with Paciello. "He was trying to make friends." At Risk's one successful party, a weekly R&B night called "Fat Black Pussycat," Paciello met Ingrid Casares.
In April 1995, Risk burned down, and Paciello collected $250,000 in insurance. "When that would come up, I'd always smile and say, 'Too much coincidence,'" says Capponi. "And he'd say, 'I swear to God, I got so fucking lucky on that.' " Prosecutors say they have two witnesses who say that Paciello made his own luck.
Paciello used the insurance money to open Liquid, with Casares on board as a consultant, although she represented herself as Paciello's partner. "Before Liquid, you'd read about Ingrid, but her name wouldn't be attached to a job or anything," says a well-connected publicist who knew them both. "With Liquid, her name read 'Ingrid Casares, co-owner of Liquid.' " To Paciello, according to another friend, Casares was "the perfect front woman for the whole operation."
Liquid was never really upscale -- it's located next to a Payless shoe store, and caters mostly to weekend warriors the way New York clubs like Twilo do -- but Casares made it an A-list destination. Gloria Estefan, Calvin Klein, and Kate Moss were sighted there on opening night, and Liquid and later Bar Room all but cornered the Miami market on fashion fêtes and post-premiere parties. Paciello's manners and his sense of loyalty, along with his friendship with Casares, endeared him to Miami's Latin community. "Ingrid helped redefine Chris," says Gerry Kelly, a top promoter Paciello hired for Liquid. "She brought him into a totally different circle of friends."
They couldn't have been more different. According to Capponi, Casares's role consisted of "coming to the office and saying, 'I've talked to Donatella, and we'll do a party for her.' " Meanwhile, Paciello often worked eighteen-hour days. "You had to respect the guy," says Ernie Harrold, a former promoter at Liquid. "He'd go to the gym at eleven and be in the office by one. And he didn't leave until seven or eight o'clock in the morning the next day." Friends remember him as calm and in control, watching the bar, checking the sound, and monitoring the VIP room. "If there was a fight, he would get in there and break it up," says a Liquid doorman. "Once, the club's awning caught fire. He jumped onto the roof and patted down the flames himself. He ended up falling and breaking his ankle really badly. I can't think of another boss who would do that."
But Paciello's favorite role seemed to be bouncer: He was allegedly involved in at least four assaults in 1996 alone. On June 25 at Liquid, Paciello knocked down former Mr. Universe Michael Quinn with a beer bottle after overhearing him use the word nigger. As a crowd formed, Paciello repeatedly kicked Quinn while he was on the ground, according to Quinn's wife, Denise, and at least one other witness. "Chris was building up the momentum," Denise remembers, "saying, 'Aw, yeah -- you callin' my friend a nigger?!' If someone's getting more attention than him in a room, he attacks them." But in his February 1999 deposition for the lawsuit, Paciello described several witnesses to the incident as "colored." "I wasn't particularly happy with the way African-Americans were being treated at the club," says Harrold, who says he left Liquid partly for that reason.
Quinn refused to drop his civil suit against Paciello and later received a call from a friend saying that a mutual friend of theirs, one of the owners of the then-Gambino-connected Scores club, advised him to drop the suit for his own good. "He said I'll never get to spend the money," Quinn recalls.