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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?”