His hair is thinning and he's starting to show a double chin, but as Chris Paciello strolls past the mirrored walls and into the restaurant's scented main room, he's instantly recognizable as the handsome impresario who dominated the South Beach nightlife scene in the 1990s. Dressed in a snug-fitting dark pinstripe suit, the man who made South Beach a beacon of international glamour looks damn good for his 40 years. Six years behind bars did little to diminish the sulky bad boy charisma that in his heyday attracted a bevy of famous women from Jennifer Lopez to Sofia Vergara to Madonna.
Tonight is his comeback party. Well, sort of. Officially, it's the debut of the Delano Hotel's restaurant Bianca, a high-priced, high-wattage South Beach Italian eatery. Unofficially, it's an event to welcome back onto the A-list a man whose life story is tabloid legend: An impossibly attractive young thug appeared from nowhere, captured the attention of the Miami Beach smart set, used those connections to build a nightlife empire, and then was brought down by a secret from his past.
Tonight is also a test. Can Paciello still lure bold-face names to his parties, something he was lionized for in glossy magazines and gossip columns during the 1990s? And it seems he is about to pass, because before long, celebrities arrive in dazzling spurts. There's Sammy Sosa, A-Rod, Mickey Rourke, Entourage actor Kevin Connelly, Diana Ross's son Evan, and a gaggle of supermodels including Jessica Stam and Selita Ebanks.
They dine against a backdrop of antique pillars and billowing curtains, while outside by the swimming pool, a trumpeter blows bland jazz on his horn. Also in attendance are '90s scene-makers such as property tycoon Thomas Kramer, luxury homebuilder Michael Capponi, and sycophant-to-the-stars Ingrid Casares; all are here to support their friend's improbable comeback.
Despite the six years he spent in the federal pen for the felony-murder of Staten Island housewife Judith Shemtov, Paciello has returned to reclaim his crown.
"Chris still has the magic touch that it takes to run the hippest place in town," says Kramer. "I'm glad he's back and kicking. [Bianca's opening party is] like a big, happy family reunion."
Not so happy is Paciello's former family, La Cosa Nostra. His Hollywood friends and South Beach supporters mistakenly believe the Mob turncoat only informed on a handful of low-level thugs involved in the 1993 murder-robbery of homemaker Shemtov, who was brewing a cup of tea before taking a bullet in the head. Though he didn't pull the trigger, Paciello planned the robbery-gone-wrong and drove the getaway car.
But according to hundreds of pages of sealed court documents — including interviews he gave to his government handlers — that New Times obtained from a confidential source, Paciello's snitching to the FBI was far more extensive and damaging to the Mafia's interests than previously reported.
Between December 2000 and May 2001, the FBI met with the fallen club king eight times and conducted 15 hours of interviews. During those meetings, Paciello detailed not only his own criminal history, but those of dozens of his Mob colleagues.
Some of the secrets contained in the documents that the former Madonna flame divulged to FBI agent Gregory Massa include:
• A 1997 plot involving Paciello and Colombo crime family boss Alphonse Persico to try to kill a dissident Mafioso. Paciello secretly pleaded guilty and got off virtually scot-free.
• The 1994 kidnapping of a Staten Island businessman from an auto body repair shop by Paciello and a Bonanno family soldier.
• The million-dollar robbery of a Westminster Bank in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, that provided the start-up capital for Paciello's first Miami Beach nightclub.
• The burglary of more than 30 bank night safety boxes in four states by Paciello in alliance with members of a Bonanno-affiliated gang called the New Springville Boys.
Most significant, Paciello fingered two made members of the Bonanno family, which led ultimately to the takedown of almost the entire upper echelon of the organization, including family boss Joseph "Big Joe" Massino. This is something that even undercover FBI agent Joe Pistone, AKA Donnie Brasco (whose exploits were described in the eponymous 1997 movie starring Johnny Depp), never managed to achieve during his six years infiltrating the Bonanno family in the 1970s.
Paciello's cooperation with the federal government was "unprecedented," according to a March 2004 letter by his then-lawyer, Ben Brafman, to the court. Brafman estimated that "more than 70 people" had been "prosecuted directly and indirectly as a result of [his] cooperation." This was largely confirmed in a subsequent letter sent by the U.S. District Attorney's Office in Brooklyn.
During Paciello's 2004 sentencing hearing at federal court in Brooklyn, Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Andres spelled out the important behind-the-scenes role Paciello had played in crime boss Massino's conviction. "Mr. [Paciello]... provided us with information that led to the arrest and later cooperation of made members of the Bonanno crime family. Prior to December of 2002, [none of them] had ever cooperated. In the last 14 months, we've arrested virtually ever criminal supervisor in the Bonanno family. Those prosecutions resulted in part from the cooperation of Mr. [Paciello]."