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
Chris Paciello, deposed dark prince of South Beach nightclubs, shocked many people when he pleaded guilty this past October to racketeering, murder, and robbery charges. Immediately the rumors began to fly: He was going to sing against his mob capos and enter into the federal witness-protection program. "Did ya hear?" at least half a dozen nightclub insiders asked the day his plea deal was made public. "Supposedly Chris is gonna testify." At the time it just seemed like so much white noise surrounding the Paciello case.
But things certainly did look suspicious. Paciello's plea came on the eve of his trial, and the conditions -- a minimum 27 years in prison -- did not seem like smart negotiating. (Paciello admitted to running with a mob crew responsible for, among other things, a home-invasion robbery in which a Staten Island housewife was killed.)
Then the gossip press picked up the rumors. But without any confirmation, official or unofficial (the feds are very good at keeping their mouths shut), the newsmongers were reduced to deductive reasoning to bolster their story. It went something like this: (1) Paciello pleaded guilty. (2) Paciello faces nearly three decades in prison. (3) Paciello is not in his mother's Staten Island home under house arrest awaiting sentencing, as he had been for months. (4) Paciello is not in jail. (5) Ipso facto Paciello must be in witness protection. "Club King May Be Set to Sing," the New York Daily News's "Gossip" page trumpeted on November 19, 2000.
But then two weeks ago attorney Barry Levin, representing accused Colombo family mob boss Alphonse Persico, publicly claimed that Paciello was turning government witness against his client. After that stalwarts like the New York Times saw fit to call it news.
The feds unsealed an indictment against Persico on January 25, alleging that he was part of a vast loan-sharking conspiracy. In court papers the feds refer to a confidential informant in Florida. "Everybody knows it's Paciello," Levin says from his office in New York. "He's a federal informant. He's being debriefed right now. And they told him he could have the key to the door if he puts Alphonse Persico behind bars." (Levin adds that Paciello also is expected to testify against his codefendants in his original case.)
The Florida informant will attempt to link Persico to a murder conspiracy. The government claims the snitch and Persico met at the informant's Florida business in 1997 to discuss another Colombo member who had insulted a higher-up in the crime family. The informant allegedly was instructed to "take care of" the intended victim but was only able to report on his whereabouts.
Federal authorities, who decline to comment, timed the release of the indictment to coincide with Persico's release from prison after serving fifteen months on a weapons charge. (That case had South Florida roots: Persico was found with guns on his boat in the Keys.) Levin denies that Paciello and Persico are anything more than casual acquaintances.
New Times earlier reported that a Miami Beach undercover officer accompanied Paciello when he met Persico for lunch in July 1999 at Dox on the Bay in North Miami Beach, and also that Persico was observed dining with Paciello at his South Beach restaurant, Joia ("Goon Over Miami, Part 2,"February 17, 2000).
If these latest developments are true, Paciello's downfall couldn't be more humiliating: from celebrity boy-toy and club owner to cocky defendant smiling at his Miami supporters while shackled in court to admitted thug. Now he may be a stool pigeon. The likely denouement -- Paciello wasting away in a Midwestern suburb selling life insurance under an assumed name -- would seem a hell designed by Satan himself, particularly for a man who worked so hard to become part of the glamour elite.
Levin, meanwhile, lambastes Paciello as a desperate man willing to do anything to save his own skin: "Chris is doing this to get out of jail, and he doesn't care who gets hurt."