Fight Club

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

Quinn, who now is ashamed at having used the racist term, sued the nightclub and Paciello in 1996. The trial was scheduled to begin this month, but Paciello's arrest delayed things.

Paciello's connection to gangsters may explain a few things. Peter Mineo, Quinn's Fort Lauderdale attorney, says a witness to the attack suddenly disappeared. "We're having a hard time locating her," Mineo says. "She had agreed to give a deposition, but she never showed up. Someone overheard her telling a friend that Chris Paciello offered to bribe her not to testify."

Another explanation for the witness's reticence comes from champion boxer Vinny Pazienza, who is a friend of Quinn's: "I got a call from an acquaintance. He told me to tell Mike to back off, because these are bad people and something could happen to him." (Paciello's attorneys declined to comment on the case.)

Paciello, partner Casares, and actress Jennifer Lopez dine out in better times
Paciello, partner Casares, and actress Jennifer Lopez dine out in better times

In December 1996 Paciello and model Sofia Vergara went to Bar None on Miami Beach. When model Niki Taylor's ex-husband, Matt Martinez, approached, he and Paciello duked it out. The Daily News reported that Paciello dropped Martinez with one blow, then blew him a kiss. But Paciello told Miami Beach police a friend of Martinez's pummeled him from the side and he could not defend himself. Neither Martinez nor Paciello was criminally charged in the incident.

"These things happen from time to time" in the club business, defense lawyer Howard Srebnick says. Rowdy patrons and civil suits are an unpleasant reality of the trade.

Life wasn't all scraped knuckles for the blossoming club mogul. In 1997 Paciello and partner Casares broadened their business interests, opening Joia restaurant on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach. Paciello bought a five-bedroom house on Flamingo Drive for $550,000, and he continued to date Vergara and other models. Casares and Paciello even planned to expand their business into Manhattan. They took a trip to the city to scout locations and signed a lease on a West 27th Street space during the summer of 1997. Paciello celebrated his new business venture there by accompanying a former Miss U.S.S.R., Julia Sukhanova, to the nightclub Life. According to the New York Post, a Russian photographer wouldn't leave the couple alone, so Paciello decked the guy. Soon tables were knocked over, drinks were spilled on the floor, and the photographer had been stabbed in the chest three times "by an unknown assailant." He was rushed to a hospital, where he soon recovered. No charges were filed in that case.

That wasn't the only trouble Paciello encountered in Manhattan. Plans for the 27th Street club stalled. Next Paciello and Casares targeted 16 W. 22nd St. But rumors of Paciello's past once again dogged him, and neighborhood resistance was fierce. After The Village Voice published its story alleging Paciello had Mob ties, further ideas about a New York club were scuttled.

Humbled, the owners of Liquid, Inc., headed back to Miami Beach, a town more receptive to their efforts. In 1998 they opened Bar Room on Lincoln Road. Paciello hired the Shadow Lounge's Gerry Kelly to promote and manage both Bar Room and Liquid. "Chris negotiated with me for two and a half years to come over to Liquid," recounts Kelly, an Irish fashion designer and nightlife maven. Eventually Kelly agreed. He says Paciello was a sharp boss, who did not appear to have secrets. His office door was always open, Kelly comments. "I found his business to be legitimately run, from what I saw," he asserts. "Before I took the job, he met with me and asked if I had any questions or concerns, and I told him, 'I'm concerned about some of the rumors I've heard about you.' [Paciello] answered, 'You have nothing to worry about; they're all just rumors.'" Kelly eventually left to become part owner of the new Washington Avenue club Level.

But prosecutors claim to have wiretap recordings that prove Paciello was conspiring around this time with an undercover police officer, who was posing as a crooked cop. The Liquid owner wanted information on rival club owners, and he wanted to sabotage their businesses. At one point Paciello allegedly asked the officer to arrest a competitor for drug possession. "You get this guy good, and I'll take care of you," he said. Authorities also recorded conversations between Paciello and Colombo crime family associate Dominick Dionisio. Paciello talks of scaring a businessman whom Dionisio was trying to track down: "So that cocksucker won't come out, huh? I'll take care of it down here."

Dionisio responds: "Even after you grab him… I'm gonna terrorize him a little." Srebnick now denies Paciello was going to hurt anyone. (The businessman, who asked not to be identified, said he had never been threatened.)

Casares and Paciello soon recovered from their failed New York adventure. Paciello even bought a new home this past July, a sprawling one-million-dollar, six-bedroom place next door to his old house on Flamingo Drive. With others, including Casares and promoter Michael Capponi, he also formed numerous small businesses to help support his clubs: Paciello and Capponi Advertising, C&P Music, and Downtown 2000, an organization to sponsor a New Year's Eve gala. (New York publicist Lizzie Grubman assures the party will go on as planned.)

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