On December 20 at Bar None, Paciello decked arena-football star Matt Martinez, Niki Taylor's ex-husband, with one punch and then grappled with the 280-pound corrections officer Martinez had on hand as a bodyguard. On his way out, he blew Martinez a kiss and later recounted the incident to the Daily News, telling a reporter that "the guy should be happy she has a good male friend in me."
Through it all, Miami's beautiful people never blinked an eye. "New York may be a very varied city -- theater, art, whatever -- but in Miami, it's nightlife," says Capponi. "If you're the king of nightlife, you're the king of the city." Paciello's profile rose beyond Miami -- both CNN and ABC sought him out for comment in the wake of Gianni Versace's murder, and Variety called him a "hunky impresario" in a story about the Hollywoodization of Miami. He took in Miami Heat games from courtside and had his picture taken with Jennifer Lopez at the Vanity Fair Oscar party (a friend of Paciello's confirms that they dated before she went out with Puffy). Steven Lewis remembers meeting Paciello in Miami and watching two female friends he brought along from New York submit to his charm. "Both fell in love with Chris," Lewis remembers. "I was saying, 'This guy is a rough guy!' They didn't care. If he wanted to fuck them right in the corner, they would have done it."
In the fall of 1997, Lewis told New York, he approached Casares and offered her a chance to go into business with him and Life owner Roy Stillman to reopen Studio 54. He also said he told Casares that he wanted Paciello aboard only if his name was kept off the project.
Paciello wasn't amused by Lewis's intrusion: At the time, Paciello and Casares had been talking up their plans to launch a New York branch of Liquid. On December 29, 1997, Paciello was recorded by the FBI ranting to Dominick Dionisio that Casares "wants everything." He also asked Dionisio to go to Life and "terrorize" Lewis into backing off from Casares.
When Dionisio went to the club, Lewis refused to see him. "I knew that Paciello could never get a liquor license or be associated with a nightclub in New York legally," Lewis says. That became even more obvious a month later, when Caruso's testimony at Gatien's trial fingered Paciello and the Bath Avenue Crew as protectors of Limelight drug dealers. Gatien's attorney also asked Caruso at the trial if he thought Paciello was responsible for the unsolved 1996 stabbing murder of New York club kid Billy Balanca. Caruso denied this, but the question itself damaged Paciello's reputation. (A law-enforcement source told New York that in the wake of Paciello's murder indictment, the Balanca case is being reexamined.)
Caruso's past as an ecstasy dealer made him a less-than-ideal witness (Gatien was acquitted), but his testimony about Paciello effectively killed any chance of Liquid's expanding into New York. Casares had already filed an application for a lease at 16 West 22nd Street, but building owner David Yagoda nixed the deal once he contacted the State Liquor Authority to check Casares's license application and noticed Paciello's name on the form. Paciello made one last-ditch effort to get the lease -- offering Yagoda a six-figure signing bonus that his lawyer, Andrew Miltenberg, described as "the kind of money most working people wouldn't turn down." Nevertheless, the landlord did just that. And in the spring, Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington vowed to oppose a Liquid anywhere in New York.
Around that time, as Casares showed her first signs of doubt about her partner, Paciello went into damage-control mode. "She'd ask him about it, and he'd always have an answer ready," one friend says. (In July of 1998, Paciello told New York that "it doesn't make me a gangster because I hung out on the corner with people when I was growing up. They're childhood friends, and they will remain friends.") He also hired William Kennedy Smith's former attorney, Roy Black. Black told prosecutors last year that after hiring him, Paciello paid $750,000 in back taxes to the Internal Revenue Service. Paciello also stepped up his charity work, pledging $20,000 to aids foundations and spending $20,000 on a food drive for Kosovo victims.
The goodwill campaign seemed to work: Paciello was invited by a city commissioner to serve on a committee charged with limiting the number of new bars on Lincoln Road, where Bar Room is located. Just weeks before his surrender, Paciello threw what his lawyer called a "reelection celebration" at Bar Room for Miami Beach mayor Neisen Kasdin and donated $1,000 to his campaign.