Fight Club

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.

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.

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Tristram Korten