Fight Club

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

Saturday the new nightclub Liquid Room opened on West Palm Beach's Clematis Street. It was another success for 28-year-old Chris Paciello. He already owned two of the most decadently popular clubs on Miami Beach, Liquid and Bar Room, along with a permanently in-vogue restaurant there, Joia. He had become his own publicity machine. He dated pop diva Madonna and a stable of models and sat back as his face, impassive as granite, popped up on the people pages of glossy magazines all over the country. Earlier this year he bought a million-dollar waterfront home. His rise was improbable, given that it was a mere five years ago that Paciello arrived in South Florida an unvarnished 23-year-old Brooklyn bully with a high-school education. But that only added to the allure. In no time he became the dangerous darling of the South Florida nightlife set.

The club's inaugural party was to be a lavish affair. Donald Trump was originally scheduled to preside over the kind of slick celebrity event that promised to usher in a new era for a town known more for its money than its cool. Alas, Trump didn't show up. Nor did Paciello.

A month earlier the feds had indicted him for murder and robbery. He is accused of running with a lethal group of mobsters known as the Bath Avenue Crew. Paciello spent his Saturday in a very exclusive federal detention center waiting to find out if a judge would grant him bail.

Paciello, partner Casares, and actress Jennifer Lopez dine out in better times
Paciello, partner Casares, and actress Jennifer Lopez dine out in better times
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 with Heat basketball star Alonzo Mourning
Paciello with Heat basketball star Alonzo Mourning

Now the glitterati who welcomed Paciello, including basketball star Alonzo Mourning, actress-singer Jennifer Lopez, and billionaire Donald Trump, have a morning-after taste in their mouths. They realize they've been had. Not by Paciello, who couldn't hide his barbaric nature behind fancy cars and beautiful companions, but by their own blind gravitation to power. Instead of a romantic man about town, it turns out they've been cozying up to a goombah the feds say was a member of a gang that killed Staten Island housewife Judith Shemtov during a 1993 robbery. Not much honor in that. The fall from gangster to goon has been sudden. The sheen of glamour on Paciello has vanished as quickly as a line of coke up the surgically sculpted nose of a Gucci model.

Even while Paciello led the life of a suave impresario, court records and police reports show he couldn't give up the taste for blood that feds say he acquired as a budding thug in New York. Indeed, wounded bodies and destruction trailed in his wake even after he arrived in South Florida in 1994. He's been accused of savaging people with a beer bottle, an ax handle, and his fists in at least five barroom brawls. In one of those melees, a photographer was mysteriously stabbed in the chest. Two civil suits accuse Paciello of attacking Liquid patrons without provocation. Cops have charged him with drunk driving and stealing a BMW from a neighbor at his swank Collins Avenue condominium. His first nightclub, Risk, went up in flames in 1995. And an ex-business partner, Michael Caruso, claimed in open court that Paciello once beat him up and thrust a gun in his face.

Federal prosecutors allege Paciello "imported the tactics, methods, and goals" of New York's Mob to South Beach. They claim to have wiretap recordings of Paciello talking with Mafia members about roughing up rivals to protect his business interests. The government lawyers also assert that Paciello helped hide a mobster on the run from a murder rap and that he conspired with an undercover agent posing as a corrupt cop to sabotage competitors.

"I got to get him whacked," Paciello says on tape, referring to a fellow club owner.

Although Paciello has been accused of many crimes, he has never been convicted of anything but DUI, responds his attorney, celebrity defender Roy Black. The nightclub owner's public image has unfairly made him a target for prosecution. "There's no Mob affiliation and no evidence there ever was," Black says. The lawyer points out that state prosecutors dropped charges that Paciello stole the BMW. And Caruso is a convicted drug dealer, he adds. Moreover wiretaps will show the undercover cop was trying to set up his client. "This is evidence of a troubled past?" Black queries.

Paciello, who was unavailable for comment because he is in jail, told New York's Daily News last year: "I am not a gangster."

Now the empire the handsome brawler built with his partner, Ingrid Casares, will come under federal scrutiny to determine whether illegal funds were used to start their businesses. Caruso admitted under oath in 1998 that much of the $25,000 he ponied up to start Risk came from drug deals and robberies. Caruso didn't know where Paciello garnered the rest of the $100,000-plus seed money. At the time Paciello didn't have much work experience; he had labored in his uncle's construction firm and worked at a few New York clubs.

On December 15 Federal Magistrate Judge Ted Bandstra set Paciello's bond at $3.1 million but ordered that he remain in custody while a New York judge reviews the case. Those who sang Paciello's praises at the hearing included Casares' father, Raul, who tearfully proclaimed Paciello helped get his daughter off drugs, and Shareef Malnik, the owner of the Forge restaurant. Ocean Drive publisher Jason Binn was there as well, and a few fawning articles about Paciello from Binn's publication were offered as evidence. Defense lawyer Howard Srebnick, Black's associate, recounted Paciello's charity work, hosting fundraisers and contributing to the Health Crisis Network, Florida International University, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and other organizations. "He has invested in this community like no other person," Srebnick told the judge. "His face has been publicized in every major publication in South Florida…. This is not a man who is a risk of flight."

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.

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.'"

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 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 Voicealso 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 Newshe 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.

After quashing the felony charges and gaining a foothold in the club industry, Paciello apparently found a home in South Florida. The Brooklyn heavy not only successfully hid his past, but he took up hobbies other than fighting and stealing. He applied his street savvy and energy to learning the club business. "He was enthusiastic," says Miami Beach promoter John Hood. "He was a quick study, and he forged an immediate alliance with the locals."

Aiding Risk's early success was Hood's weekly funk-and-soul-theme event, Fat Black Pussycat, which Paciello and Caruso signed on for Monday evenings. But those who remember Risk say the club fizzled after several months. "I guess people just got bored," says one seasoned scenestress.

At one point during 1995, authorities contend, Paciello helped Gambino mobster Vincent Rizzuto avoid police by sending him to Caruso's home. Rizzuto was fleeing murder charges in New York. "With Mr. Ludwigsen's assistance, Mr. Rizzuto hid in the home of one of Mr. Ludwigsen's business associates," prosecutor Jim Walden said in court. Rizzuto was later found in Minnesota with Caruso's license.

As Risk's allure faded, Caruso pulled out and headed back to New York City. He had been in South Florida eight months. During the Gatien trial, Caruso said he needed to return north to provide for his wife and child. In April, about a month after Caruso's departure, Risk burned to the ground in a fire of undetermined origin, according to the Miami Beach Fire Department. Investigators say the likely cause of the blaze was a cigarette wedged between seat cushions. A prosecutor asked Caruso about it during the Gatien trial. "Didn't you tell [two associates] that Chris burned the club down, that you know it, and that you were pissed -- pardon the expression -- because you didn't get your share of the insurance?"

"No," Caruso replied.

In fact no "associate" ever testified about the event, and Paciello never was accused of setting the fire. The insurance company paid Paciello roughly $250,000, which he used to open Liquid at 1439 Washington Ave., Miami Beach, in August 1995. But again he needed a presentable public face for the club. Enter Ingrid Casares, a then-31-year-old party girl. Casares had made the rounds of the Miami Beach scene for years, even earning the club kids' badge of honor, a stint in rehab following cocaine addiction. "I partied hard in my twenties," she said in a glowing March 1999 People magazine profile titled "Queen of the Night." Soon after opening the club, Paciello brought her in as a partner.

Back in New York, Caruso had to deal with the thorny problem of the Latin Kings, who still were seeking revenge for the Sound Factory fight. Caruso claimed he met with Alex, the aggrieved gang member, and pinned the fracas on Paciello. "Chris told me to blame him," Caruso noted. But someone taped the encounter with Alex and played it back for Paciello, who didn't take it well. "Chris, he beat me up, and then he put a gun in my face," Caruso recounted. "He thought I double-crossed him." Caruso survived the altercation, but the pair's friendship ended.

Liquid, meanwhile, was a thriving success. The line out front frequently snaked around the block. Paciello met Madonna through Casares. Soon the pop star was a fixture at Liquid. Her friendship with Paciello became fodder for the gossip columns and magazines such as The National Enquirer. Yet instead of relaxing and enjoying his newfound prosperity, the bad boy from Brooklyn continued his violent ways. It was as if his business achievements made him feel invincible.

On the night of March 12, 1996, a group of vacationing Arab-Americans from Dearborn, Michigan, were denied entrance to Liquid after a long wait in line. They returned about 3 a.m. and were let in. In a deposition Paciello stated that he recognized the vacationers as people who earlier had thrown bottles at bouncers. The group denied attacking anyone.

According to one of the vacationers, Hassan Makled, Paciello approached the biggest of the bunch. "'I want to beat the fuck out of him.' [Those were his] exact words," Makled said. "[Paciello said,] 'I want to show you guys from Michigan, wherever you are from, what everything is about.'" Makled said his friend responded, "Leave us alone; we'll leave." But Paciello kept saying, "I want to fight this guy." Paciello denied such a conversation took place. He asserted he was escorting the group out when they suddenly became violent.

Both sides confirm that a melee followed. Makled claimed Paciello slugged him repeatedly. "Chris struck me…. I was bleeding, like, [from] my lower lip above my chin. My ears were bleeding, my head was bleeding." Makled and his friends sued Liquid for an undisclosed amount of money. Before the case went to trial, Liquid's lawyers settled.

Three months later, on June 25, 1996, Michael Quinn, a five-foot, eight-inch, 270-pound former Mr. Universe, was in Liquid with some friends when he says Paciello blindsided him with a beer bottle. Quinn says one of his friends borrowed a hat from a black man, and Quinn told her to "give the nigger his hat back." Then BAM! a beer bottle slammed into Quinn's face. As he fell to the floor, Paciello repeatedly kicked him.

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.)

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 Newsreported 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.)

Casares is calm about her partner's incarceration. "He's innocent, and everyone who's here today knows it," she told reporters last week, her face shielded by a massive pair of dark sunglasses.

Echoes Grubman: "Ingrid stands behind Chris 100 percent and has complete faith in his innocence." She adds that Paciello's legal problems haven't stopped business. Indeed the West Palm Beach Liquid Room opened this past Saturday.

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