Fight Club

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

Later that summer Caruso says he asked Paciello for a business loan. "I had needed some cash for an Ecstasy deal that I was going to do, and Chris basically told me, 'I won't have any hands-on involvement or buy drugs or deal drugs, but I'll give you a personal loan.' He gave me a loan of $10,000, of which I was supposed to pay him eleven-five back on it, and I ended up only paying him back $10,000 and we became friends."

Their friendship eventually became cemented in that age-old form of male bonding: a fight. The two men were out one night that summer and decided to go to Manhattan's Sound Factory. A friend told Caruso that a guy named Alex would help them enter the club. Caruso says he asked a bouncer whether he could speak with Alex. "[We're] waiting on line, waiting, and then a security came over and said, 'Guys, you are not going to get in tonight.'" Caruso and Paciello didn't move. "Security came back again, and he said, 'Guys, I told you get off the f'in line. You are not going to get in tonight.'"

Then Paciello took off his watch, Caruso said. When the guard returned and "kind of pushed Chris' arm," Paciello punched him. In the brawl that ensued, bouncers sprayed the two men with fire extinguishers, and Alex came out and went after Paciello with an ax handle. Paciello yanked it away and cracked it over his assailant's head.

Paciello with Heat basketball star Alonzo Mourning
Paciello with Heat basketball star Alonzo Mourning

Paciello and Caruso escaped into the night, but the fight was far from over. The mysterious Alex, it turns out, was connected to the large and powerful gang known as the Latin Kings. Word soon spread that they wanted revenge. It must have seemed like a good time to take a trip.

In September 1994 Paciello and Caruso arrived in Miami Beach, intending to open a club. Caruso says the two men met with a realtor and toured bar and restaurant locations. Eventually they checked out Mickey's at 1203 Washington Ave. (now Club Zen), a South Beach bar owned by actor and Miami Beach High graduate Mickey Rourke. The place apparently had Mob connections before Paciello's arrival. According to a local rumor, the Gambino family gave Rourke the bar after he supported John Gotti during the Mob leader's 1992 racketeering and murder trial. Rourke's name may have been on the sign, but the man who ran the place was Carlo Vaccarezza, Gotti's former limo driver, Caruso testified. "It was public knowledge," Caruso said. "[The bar] had pictures of Gotti up all over the walls." After visiting Mickey's, Caruso recalled Paciello proclaiming: "This is the club we're going to get a deal with, do this deal with the club Mickey's."

By October the pair had transformed Mickey's into the nightclub Risk. It's unclear how much money they invested in the place, but Caruso said in court that he raised his $25,000 share by selling a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and withdrawing $11,000 he'd saved from scams and drug dealing. The Village Voice reported in 1998 that Paciello told state liquor officials a Staten Island gym owner named Robert Currie loaned him $120,000. But Currie denied granting the loan. The Voice also quoted Caruso's testimony about Paciello's Mafia connections.

From the start Caruso was Risk's public face. "Chris said to me, 'Listen, Mike, people know you from the club world…. You been the face that everybody knows; you know how to deal with people,'" Caruso testified. "'I'm a goon; I'm not a high-fashion pretty boy.' That's what he said."

Not long after the club's opening, two well-known Gambino family members, Johnny Rizzo and John D'Amico, sauntered into Risk and had a closed-door meeting with Paciello, Caruso recalled. (Paciello told the Daily News he never met with the two men.) But talk of Mob involvement was enough to scare away Lee D'Avanzo, an early investor, Caruso said. (State records list D'Avanzo as a corporate officer when Risk opened.) He continued: "[D'Avanzo] said to me, 'I don't want to be involved with Chris; he's shady. I heard he's involved with some Mob guys, and he's going to shake you down and all that. You might as well get out of here and not be involved.'"

Even as Paciello tried to go legit in Miami Beach, his thug instincts apparently got the better of him. On December 9, 1994, at 3:45 p.m., Edward Neff, a Coral Gables doctor, parked his 1994 BMW while visiting his parents in their condominium at 5151 Collins Ave. Paciello also lived in the building. Three hours later, when Neff went to retrieve his car, it was gone from the lot.

Nearly a month later, police checked out a green BMW parked on 28th Street and Pine Tree Drive. It was Neff's car, but the windows were tinted and the identification number had been replaced with one from a similar vehicle that Paciello had wrecked. Paciello's BMW was later found torched in a suspicious fire. Police charged the club king with grand theft auto, a felony. The case was dropped in August 1995 after Paciello agreed to reimburse Neff $800 for damage and insurance costs.

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