Goon Over Miami

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

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.

Defense attorney Howard Srebnick maintains authorities are targeting Paciello because of his prominence and his refusal to abandon old friends
Jennie Zeiner
Defense attorney Howard Srebnick maintains authorities are targeting Paciello because of his prominence and his refusal to abandon old friends


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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 Beach promoter (and past New Times contributor) 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 town 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 "associates" 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. 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 kid's 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 3:00 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 and said: "'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.

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