By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
On a clear hot afternoon this past July, Chris Paciello, né Ludwigsen, loaded his 50-foot yacht with friends and aimed the bow north up the Intracoastal. Then he gunned the engine and sped off into a day filled with promise as bright as the subtropical sun overhead.
The 28-year-old had no reason to believe twilight would soon fall on his achievements. At the time his two clubs, Liquid and Bar Room, were easily the most popular locales on the South Beach nightlife circuit. He had signed exclusive Miami contracts with the East Coast's hottest DJs, so even during the dreaded summer months his dance halls were drawing crowds and turning a profit. Paciello and his partner Ingrid Casares planned to expand into Palm Beach County in the fall. Their restaurant, Joia, remained popular. He was at the peak of his entrepreneurial career, and he hadn't even turned 30.
But evidence of another side of the club owner was on the boat that afternoon, in the form of an apparently crooked Miami Beach cop named Andrew Dohler. To protect his budding empire, Paciello had lured Dohler on to his payroll in April 1998. The move seemed to pay off when Dohler provided classified police information on rival club owners and tipped Paciello to pending city raids to catch underage drinkers and drug dealers.
Paciello had even suggested the cop quit his job and help run his clubs. The boat ride was meant to impress the detective with the possibilities that lay ahead. That became clear when the vessel approached the dock at Dox on the Bay restaurant in North Miami Beach, and the entourage disembarked. There, waiting to dine with Paciello and his friends, was Alphonse "Allie Boy" Persico, acting head of the Colombo crime family.
The Miami Beach police memo that describes the events of that July day gives no detail of the conversations that followed. The reputed don's lawyer, Barry Levin, says at most Paciello and Persico are casual acquaintances. Some South Beach observers who declined to be named say the two were seen dining at Joia.
With friends like this, Paciello must have thought he could reign over South Beach for years. In the eyes of law enforcement, the Paciello story is just the latest chapter in a long history of mob business on the Beach, dating back to Al Capone, who bought a house on Palm Island in the 1920s, and the notorious S&G syndicate's takeover of gambling at big hotels during the 1950s. Only the soundtrack has changed, it seems, from big band to Sinatra to techno.
Five months after the Dox on the Bay boat ride, federal prosecutors in New York hit clubland's dark prince with a five-count racketeering, robbery, and murder indictment for a string of crimes committed in 1992 and 1993, when he allegedly ran with a Bonanno crime family crew. (Details of Paciello's unsavory past were described in New Times's feature story, "Goon Over Miami," on December 23.) The feds contend Paciello's mob connections and background helped him attain such success on the Beach.
At a Miami bond hearing in December, Howard Srebnick, one of Paciello's lawyers, stood outside the federal courthouse and claimed the government had gone after his client because he had "made something of himself." Paciello's other lawyer, Roy Black, told the press that Paciello may have grown up on the mean streets of Brooklyn, may even have known some tough characters back then, but he was no mob affiliate. In fact Srebnick tried to buff his client's reputation to a noble shine by saying Paciello was targeted "because he didn't turn his back on people he grew up with. He didn't commit crimes with them either."
Although the federal charges stem from years ago, a review of the court record shows Paciello hardly left his connections behind in New York. Just ask Dohler. The detective, a transplant from the New York City Police Department, was merely posing as a corrupt cop. At the time of the cruise to Dox on the Bay, he was investigating whether Paciello's businesses were mob fronts. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the FBI, the IRS, the U.S. Attorney's Office, and the State Attorney's Office were all working with Miami Beach police on the case.
As a result of the probe, state prosecutors plan this week to charge Paciello with bribery and unlawful compensation for rewarding Dohler with cash, dinners, and gifts.
On January 11 Dohler's bosses named him Officer of the Year for his work on the Paciello case. In a letter of commendation, Beach police brass congratulated the cop for his ability "to obtain detailed intelligence as to the financial status of PACIELLO'S businesses and his personal property holdings ... and link PACIELLO to traditional Italian organized crime."
With a trial date approaching in the New York case and Florida investigators still scrutinizing Paciello's finances, it appears the club mogul will be fighting for his freedom for some time to come. He has not been able to meet the $15 million bond set by a federal judge in New York, which would have allowed him to stay at his mother's home in Staten Island under house arrest. One reason is that his partner Casares, who pledged to help free him, has not anted up her full share of the bail. And the newest frontiers of their mini-empire, Bar Room in South Beach and Liquid Room in Palm Beach, are on the market. Insiders say the asking prices are steep, and the clubs aren't likely to close anytime soon. Even Liquid's downstairs area has been subleased, and the boat Paciello took to Dox on the Bay is up for sale.