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Meanwhile Persico, who splits his time between his Broward County home and New York City, is due in a Miami federal courtroom this week on charges of illegal shotgun and pistol possession.
In Parkland, Florida, 50 miles north of the Miami courthouse, Carlo Vaccarezza heard about Paciello's arrest with mild interest. After all, it's been years since they did business together. "I wish him the best, and I hope he gets vindicated," Vaccarezza says in a lilting north Italian accent, about the young man from New York he met six years ago. "Time will tell." Then Vaccarezza politely declines further comment.
The native of Genoa, Italy, has reason to wish Paciello well against the feds. In 1992 the government seized Vaccarezza's posh Manhattan eatery Da Noi (roughly translated from Italian to "our place"), and alleged the establishment was a money-laundering operation for John Gotti, head of the Gambino crime family. Da Noi's corporate name, the 74th and York Restaurant Corporation, "exists merely to provide the appearance that John Gotti and other Gambino family members have a legitimate income," the government's complaint stated. Gotti, of course, was convicted in April 1992 of racketeering and murder, and sentenced to life in prison. Vaccarezza was never personally charged. The case against the restaurant was dismissed after Gotti's conviction.
By then Vaccarezza had divested himself and headed south, where the weather may have been hotter but the climate was significantly cooler for a friend of Gotti. Casting about for a new business venture, Vaccarezza found 1203 Washington Ave.
The location has been a revolving door for mob-connected businessmen. Between 1992 and 1996, three businesses opened and closed there. Entrepreneur Al Baker Livingston, Jr. (a.k.a. Al Baker), a convicted mob money launderer, opened Mario's East of South Beach restaurant there in the 1992. Vaccarezza and several partners picked up the lease from him in 1993 and opened Mickey's Place, in partnership with actor and Miami Beach High alum Mickey Rourke. The two had become friends in New York and attended Gotti's trial together. Paciello took over the lease from Vaccarezza's partners in 1995 to open his first nightclub, Risk, which burned down later that year.
Baker is in some ways the most interesting of the trio. He is a garrulous impresario with Baroque tastes; the Miami Herald once did a story on the $110,000 rotating bed in his home. After trying to make a go of Mario's and failing, he opened a luxurious nightclub in North Miami Beach called Façade, which had financial problems almost from the beginning. In 1993 Baker's landlord evicted him. But before the space could be rented, someone demolished the interior with a chainsaw. Baker then materialized in Fort Lauderdale, where he opened Baccarat Nightclub and Restaurant. It was there, in partnership with Thomas Ruzzano, an associate of the Genovese crime family, that he laundered at least $100,000 for the mob.
Meanwhile Vaccarezza and his thespian partner Rourke were trying to re-create a little bit of Brooklyn in South Beach. They decorated the joint in a boxing-club motif, and Vaccarezza proudly hung a picture of his friend Gotti on the wall. But Vaccarezza, whom associates describe as very casual in dress, didn't fit in with the South Beach fashion scene. And police charged Rourke in 1994 with resisting arrest after a melee outside the club. The place faltered.
Enter Paciello, at the time a 23-year-old fresh from New York's club scene. If prosecutors are right, his heists during the previous two years, along with his wise-guy connections, provided the money for his South Beach investments. His partner at the time was a prominent underground promoter from New York, an early pioneer of the techno music scene and a confessed drug dealer named Michael "Lord Michael" Caruso (who is now a government witness against Paciello). Soon after Paciello met with Vaccarezza, Risk replaced Mickey's.
Risk enjoyed a brief season of popularity before the crowds began to thin. On April 2, 1995, just after Caruso abandoned his partnership with Paciello to return to New York, the building caught fire. Miami Beach investigators officially traced the cause of the blaze to a cigarette left smoldering on a seat. Police, however, have always suspected arson.
Recently New Times contacted a source who, on condition of anonymity, recounted meeting three friends of Paciello in 1996. One of them boasted about the trio's purpose for coming to South Florida from New York. "He said the three of them -- Frankie, Paulie, and Justin -- were brought down for the fire at Risk," the source says. Two others who are familiar with the scene, but decline to give their names, confirm a trio with those names worked for Paciello at Risk and then Liquid. The two have no knowledge of a planned fire.
James Walden, the federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, filed court papers Friday claiming that a witness told police: "Ludwigsen arranged for the arson of ... Risk."
Paciello and Caruso garnered a $250,000 insurance settlement as a result of the blaze. In 1995 they opened Liquid nightclub at the corner of Española Way and Washington Avenue.
About the same time, Vaccarezza retreated to the Ocala area to open a thoroughbred-training facility called Break of Dawn Farms. He had long wanted to work with horses, but in the early 1990s, New York gaming officials had denied him a license to own thoroughbred race horses because of his alleged association with organized crime.