Fight Club

Chris Paciello, the dangerous darling of the South Florida nightlife set, has a reputation for fisticuffs. And Mob ties.

How times have changed. In 1993 few people in South Florida or New York had heard of Chris Paciello. Back then he was nothing more than a Brooklyn kid aching to make a name for himself outside the borough. Certainly Judith Shemtov had no idea who he was on February 18 of that year, when she sat down in her Staten Island home for a cup of tea with her husband, Sami, who had just returned from a business trip. The property's extensive alarm system was switched off because the couple's daughter was expecting her boyfriend. When someone knocked on the door, the 46-year-old housewife answered. Police say Paciello waited in a getaway car while Thomas Reynolds and others burst into the house with guns drawn, demanding to know the location of the safe. Less than two minutes later, Reynolds put a .45-caliber automatic handgun to Judith Shemtov's head and pulled the trigger. She died that night at Staten Island University Hospital. The family had no Mob ties, investigators say. This was simply a robbery gone wrong.

The holdup was one in a string of crimes committed by Reynolds, Paciello, and seven others, prosecutors say. A few months before, on the morning of December 14, 1992, Paciello and Reynolds smashed the window of a Chemical Bank branch office in the Staten Island Mall with a sledgehammer, rushed in brandishing weapons, and swiped night-deposit bags stuffed with $300,000.

The government maintains these weren't random episodes of violence. Prosecutors say six witnesses will testify that Paciello was involved with a group that had sworn allegiance to the Bonanno crime family, one of the five Mafia groups that dominate Italian organized crime. Paciello was on the bottom rung of an outfit headed by Joseph Benante, a Bonanno soldier. Benante ran a group of Mob associates, including Reynolds, the prosecutors charge. Reynolds brought in Paciello as an "affiliate," according to the feds, to help with strong-arm work. Paciello and this gang allegedly knocked off a hardware store, a pet store, and numerous video stores. Neither Paciello nor Reynolds had sworn allegiance to the Cosa Nostra or taken the crime syndicate's vow of silence, known as omertà.

Defense attorney Howard Srebnick maintains authorities are targeting Paciello because of his prominence and his refusal to abandon old friends
Defense attorney Howard Srebnick maintains authorities are targeting Paciello because of his prominence and his refusal to abandon old friends
Magazines like People couldn't get enough of Paciello
Magazines like People couldn't get enough of Paciello

Paciello acknowledges he grew up with some tough guys and it's possible some of his friends had organized-crime connections, Srebnick says. But the nightclub owner denies Mafia involvement. "Chris can't help where he grew up," the lawyer maintains. "He hasn't turned his back on the people he grew up with. Nor did he commit crimes with these people. The government has a bunch of guys in jail making allegations in order to get out."

Paciello's slick life in South Florida is a world away from his roots in Brooklyn, where he graduated from Bensonhurst's Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School in the late '80s. It was there, no doubt, that he embraced the Italian half of his heritage. In a deposition Paciello gave during a 1997 civil lawsuit, he explained that his given name was Christian Ludwigsen and that his father, George Ludwigsen, was of German descent. Paciello adopted his mother's maiden name, which he termed "my stage name," because he didn't get along with his dad. After high school Paciello moved to Staten Island to work at his uncle's construction firm, LGZ Acoustics. (No such firm is currently listed in Staten Island.) Within a few years he was a Mob apprentice, prosecutors and police contend. He had multiple arrests but no convictions, according to records and Staten Island investigators. He was charged in 1989 with assault on a police officer, in 1991 with grand larceny, and in 1992 with robbery and assault with a bat.

By the mid-'90s, Paciello was looking to reinvent himself. He found his inspiration across the East River in Manhattan's subterranean nightclub culture. Back then the nocturnal cognoscenti would have viewed him as a member of the bridge-and-tunnel crowd, kids from the boroughs and beyond who flocked to Gotham's stylish scene. They were seen as the classless big-hair and muscle-shirt set. Yet the hordes from Staten Island, Queens, and New Jersey comprised the bulk of the paying public at cavernous social halls like the Tunnel and Limelight. Paciello's ability to span the two worlds would become a business asset.

In the summer of 1994, a year and a half after Shemtov's murder, Paciello met Michael Caruso, also known as Lord Michael, a confessed Ecstasy dealer. Caruso also was a successful promoter of underground events at the clubs, and Paciello saw in him a model of urban hip. For Caruso, who ran into trouble frequently in the drug trade, Paciello's reputation as a bully afforded some degree of protection. "Chris was known as a tough, a tough guy," Caruso said during the 1998 federal drug trial of nightclub owner Peter Gatien in New York. Although Caruso received a reduced sentence on drug charges for his testimony, Gatien was acquitted. Black is quick to point out, "That means the jury did not believe Caruso, and I don't know why anyone else should."

But no one denies the two men were tight for a time. "We had become friends in the summer of '94, hanging out, going drinking," Caruso told the jury. "There were times when people made physical-like threats towards me over an argument… and Chris said, 'You know, this is my friend. Anyone comes near him, basically they're going to deal with me.'"

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