By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
In the summer of 1994, a year and a half after Shemtov's murder, Paciello met Michael Caruso, a.k.a. 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's arm," Paciello punched him. In the brawl that ensued, bouncers sprayed the two men with fire extinguishers, and Alex came 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 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 opening, two well-known Gambino 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 listed 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.'"