Paciello also went to great lengths to keep Liquid's financial books closed. Last fall, an insurance company that had sued Liquid for understating its revenues when calculating its commercial premium reached a settlement. "One of the veiled threats we made was that we would do a lot of discovery and look into their finances," Robert Paradela, the lawyer representing Paradigm, told New York.
Last fall, as Liquid started losing its glamour to newer clubs like ex-Liquid marketing director Gerry Kelly's Level, Paciello was recorded by an undercover policeman pretending to be crooked asking the officer to frame Kelly on drug charges and plan an assault on Kelly's partner, Noah Lazes. "We got to get his head fuckin' broken in," said Paciello.
Meanwhile, a long-standing federal probe into the Bonanno family started netting some big fish, including reputed former acting boss Anthony Spero. The government cut deals with many of his underlings, four of whom identified the Shemtov murder as a Bath Avenue Crew operation. Once all four mentioned Paciello as the getaway-car driver and mastermind, his indictment was inevitable.
Paciello has been widely quoted telling the undercover cop over the phone a month before his surrender that "I gotta come out of fuckin' retirement" because "I've become a big pussy down here." But he never really "retired" in the first place. Weeks before his surrender, at a time when he had a $1.5 million mansion and drove a Mercedes, prosecutors say, Paciello was spotted by the FBI driving a stolen Lexus -- and introducing his undercover-cop friend to acting Colombo boss Alphonse Persico.
Christian Ludwigsen's December 15, 1999, bail hearing was packed by Miami A-listers, including Ocean Drive publisher Jason Binn, Forge restaurant owner Shareef Malnik, and both Ingrid Casares and her multimillionaire father, Raul. "Much like his clubs, it's standing-room only," said one of his lawyers, Howard Srebnick. The testimonials were glowing: Raul said his daughter was a cocaine-addicted "total disaster" before Paciello and her job at Liquid gave her a reason to clean up; and on January 7, as Paciello blew kisses and raised a fist in solidarity to Ingrid and Sofia Vergara at a bail hearing in Brooklyn, Raul pledged $15 million of his own money to secure Paciello's bail bond. Back in Florida, the mayor of Miami Beach declined to return Paciello's campaign contributions, saying that as far as he knew, "there have been no problems at Liquid or Bar Room."
But as prosecutors heaped on allegations of money-skimming, unveiling tape recordings of Paciello conspiring against competitors, Paciello's support seemed to fade. By February, Casares gave an interview to the New York Post focusing on her career as manager of D.J. Victor Calderone. At a March 24 hearing preceding Paciello's release to 24-hour custody at his mother's house in Staten Island, Paciello's lawyers announced that Raul Casares had downgraded his bail commitment from $15 million to $1 million. As a paler, thinner Paciello stood in a blue prison smock in the ceremonial room of the Brooklyn federal courthouse, he blew kisses at his uncle and two aunts. No Madonna. No Sofia Vergara. And no Ingrid Casares.
So far, the only new indictment to come down has been from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, for attempting to bribe the undercover cop to deflect drug investigations at Liquid and foil his competitors. But even if Paciello isn't charged with anything else, his reign as the king of Miami is over. In bail hearings, Paciello's lawyers have said he can't afford his defense costs. While prosecutors dispute this, saying they believe he's hiding more than a million dollars, Liquid, Bar Room, and the new Palm Beach Liquid are all for sale, along with Paciello's house on Flamingo Drive.
Paciello's trial is set for September, and if convicted he faces a sentence of 30 years to life. His lawyers have already contended that police targeted him -- and his old Brooklyn friends fingered him -- because he was a celebrity. But according to a Brooklyn law-enforcement source, "I didn't know or care who Chris Ludwigsen was. We were investigating the crimes committed by the Bath Avenue Crew in the period they were active." Key to that investigation, though, are witnesses who are accused mobsters who cut deals with the government, which may make them less credible in front of a jury.
Even if he beats the indictment and returns to Miami, Paciello may no longer recognize the world he was instrumental in creating. Larger clubs and less glamorous clubgoers are changing South Beach from a celebrity sandbox into a fraternity playground. "South Beach used to be about the Kelly Kleins, the Versaces," says an acquaintance of Paciello's. "Now it's hopelessly bridge-and-tunnel, seven days a week."
Of course, even during its glamour-fueled heyday, the South Beach scene hid plenty of secrets not far under the surface. "Nobody walks around with a sign that says i'm a mafia guy or i'm a member of the bath avenue crew," says Lewis. "As long as they stay in line, great -- I'm not gonna ask." And nobody did: One VIP-room attendant at a South Beach club said, "I really shouldn't say anything" about Paciello -- "I just got out of prison myself."
"If you've ever gone to a nightclub, you've probably socialized with a murderer," says another scenester and acquaintance of Paciello's. "Was anyone really shocked?"