The bottom floor of Liquid nightclub on South Beach is empty. The brick walls are bare. Velvet couches and chairs are gone; so are rows of liquor bottles. The only things visible through the front window last week were eight buckets of paint and plaster. Although the club rocks on upstairs, the change is an apt symbol of owner Chris Paciello's diminishing fortunes and continuing struggles.
Paciello's arrest on federal racketeering charges this past December, and the attendant publicity -- dozens of newspapers and magazines from Los Angeles to London followed the case largely because of Paciello's involvement with celebrities such as Madonna and Jennifer Lopez -- appears to signal the cooling of South Beach as the white-hot, sinful playground du jour for the fabulous set. Paciello's problems may have something to do with gossip columnists' perception that the stars aren't out in force this season. Although the club king was recently successful in reducing the surety (the portion of his $15 million bond that he is required to post in cash and property) to $2.8 million after months of struggle, he remains behind bars.
Not only has Liquid leased its downstairs to another bar owner (as a result of a decision made before the arrest, according to marketing manager Troy Parsons), but the 28-year-old Paciello's once prodigious business empire has downsized in other ways. The suite at 407 Lincoln Rd., which housed the marketing department for his clubs, an accounting office, and Paciello's own office, was closed in February. Many employees have been laid off, and Paciello's partner, Ingrid Casares, is negotiating to sell the Lincoln Road club Bar Room. "They're very close to closing on a deal as we speak," comments Lizzie Grubman, Casares's publicist. Then she adds that Liquid, the Liquid Room in Palm Beach, and the Ocean Drive restaurant Joia are not for sale. Joia, in fact, is doing exceptionally well. Grubman declined to name Bar Room's buyer.
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In mid-March local prosecutors jumped into the fray, piling more accusations on Washington Avenue's former alpha male, whose given name is Ludwigsen. On March 14 Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Charlie Johnson filed two counts of unlawful compensation and one count of bribery, both third-degree felonies, against Paciello for soliciting an undercover detective posing as a crooked cop to do some dirty work.
The charges refer to an incident on July 16, 1998, when Miami Beach Det. Andrew Dohler, working undercover, called Paciello and informed him about a police raid later that night to catch underage drinkers. The next day Paciello called Dohler to thank him. On July 30, according to police, Paciello showed his appreciation by taking Dohler out to dinner at Joia, then to Liquid for free drinks all night.
The prosecutor's complaint also relates that on September 27, 1998, Paciello asked Dohler to check the license plate of a man the club owner thought had stolen his dog. Dohler said there was no information in the department's computer system. On October 21, 1998, Paciello's brother Keith allegedly asked Dohler to research a license-plate number on the system. "Keith wanted Dohler to ... stop the car and give the driver a ticket to find out who was driving," court papers state. Dohler replied there was no record of the tag. On November 17 Chris Paciello gave Dohler three VIP passes to the strip bar Miami Gold as a reward.
The final accusation is the most sinister, and also the most elusive. Chris Paciello promised to "take care of Andrew Dohler big-time" if the cop arrested Gerry Kelly, Paciello's former marketing manager turned rival club owner, according to court papers. The arrest of Kelly, Paciello told the undercover cop, "is our first job together."
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On March 14 Miami-Dade County Court Judge Victoria Sigler set a $15,000 bond for Paciello, the standard amount for such low-grade felonies. Paciello's lawyer, Howard Srebnick, says the new allegations involve providing "ordinary hospitalities" to a part-time worker. And Paciello was just asking Dohler to uphold the law by arresting Kelly for drunk driving.
The accusations seem quaint when compared to the crimes Paciello is accused of committing in New York. Federal prosecutors say in the early 1990s, Paciello was a budding wise guy running with a Bonnano crime family crew that had a penchant for pulling heists at banks, pet shops, and video stores. Witnesses cooperating with federal agents claim Paciello even drove the getaway car in a home invasion that left a Staten Island housewife dead. The feds believe Paciello earned tens of thousands of dollars and may have used that money to start his first Miami Beach club, Risk, in 1993. The trial is scheduled for September in Brooklyn.
The state charges against Paciello will only come into play if he beats the federal rap. Then, if he doesn't plead out, he will return to Miami and stand trial.