Goon Over Miami

Chris Paciello, the dangerous darling of the SoBe nightlife set, has a reputation for fisticuffs. And mob ties.

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 his praises at the hearing included Casares's 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."

Murder victim Judith Shemtov, from the Staten Island Advance 's Website
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Murder victim Judith Shemtov, from the Staten Island Advance 's Website

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


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How times have changed. In 1993 few people in Miami 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 simply was 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 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 nor taken the crime syndicate's vow of silence, known as omerta.

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 Miami is a world away from his roots in Brooklyn, where he graduated from Bensonhurst's Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School in the late Eighties. 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. His record shows multiple arrests but no convictions, according to records and Staten Island investigators. He was charged in 1989 for assault on a police officer, in 1991 for grand larceny, and in 1992 for robbery and assault with a bat.

By the mid-Nineties 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 flock to Gotham's stylish scene. They are known as the classless big-hair and muscle-shirt set. Yet the hordes from Staten Island, Queens, and New Jersey comprise 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.

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