Goon Over Miami

Michael Quinn never saw the blow coming. The five-foot eight-inch, 270-pound former Mr. Universe was sitting in the nightclub Liquid with a young couple the night of June 25, 1996. After the woman, who was white, borrowed a hat from a black man, Quinn told her to "give the nigger his hat back." Then BAM! A beer bottle slammed into Quinn's face. The bodybuilder struggled to stay conscious, but he crumpled to the floor. Then someone repeatedly kicked him.

The bottle-wielding attacker wasn't the cap's owner, Quinn recounts. It was Liquid proprietor Chris Paciello. Quinn, who now is ashamed at having used the racist term, sued the nightclub and Paciello in 1996. The trial was scheduled to begin this month, but on November 23 a federal grand jury in New York indicted Paciello for robbery and murder. Prosecutors say he was involved in a mob-affiliated gang, known as the Bath Avenue Crew, that was responsible for a series of brutal murders and robberies in the early Nineties.

Paciello's connection with gangsters may explain a few things. Peter Mineo, Quinn's Fort Lauderdale attorney, says a witness to the attack suddenly disappeared. "We're having a hard time locating her," Mineo says. "She had agreed to give a deposition, but she never showed up. Someone overheard her telling a friend that Chris Paciello offered to bribe her not to testify." Another explanation for the witness's reticence comes from champion boxer Vinny Pazienza, who is a friend of Quinn: "I got a call from an acquaintance. He told me to tell Mike to back off because these are bad people and something could happen to him." (Paciello's attorneys declined to comment on the case.)

Chris Paciello, the dangerous darling of the South Beach nightlife set, came to Miami a scant five years ago as a 23-year-old from Brooklyn. In no time he transformed himself into a smooth entrepreneur by opening two decadent nightclubs, Liquid and Bar Room, and a permanently in-vogue restaurant, Joia. He bought a million-dollar waterfront home, dated pop diva Madonna and supermodels Niki Taylor and Sofia Vergara. His face, impassive as granite, popped up on the pages of glossy magazines across the nation. Even as authorities planned his arrest, Paciello was preparing to expand his empire by opening a third nightclub, the Liquid Room in West Palm Beach. It was an improbable rise, given his age and experience.

Now the glitterati who welcomed Paciello, including basketball star Alonzo Mourning, actress/singer Jennifer Lopez, and billionaire Donald Trump, have a morning-after taste in their mouths. They realize they've been had. Not by Paciello, who couldn't hide his barbaric nature behind fancy cars and beautiful escorts, but by their own blind gravitation to power. Instead of a romantic gangster, it turns out they've been cozying up to a goombah the feds say was a member of a gang that killed Staten Island housewife Judith Shemtov during a 1993 robbery. Not much honor in that. The fall from gangster to goon has been sudden. The sheen of glamour on Paciello has vanished as quickly as a line of coke up the surgically sculpted nose of a Gucci model.

Even while Paciello led the life of a suave impresario, court records and police reports show he couldn't give up the taste for blood the feds say he acquired as a budding thug in New York. Indeed wounded bodies and destruction trailed in his wake even after he arrived in South Florida in 1994. He's been accused of savaging people with a beer bottle, an ax handle, and his fists in at least five barroom brawls. In one of those melees, a photographer mysteriously was stabbed in the chest. Two civil suits accuse Paciello of attacking Liquid patrons without provocation. Cops have charged him with drunk driving and stealing a BMW from a neighbor at his swank Collins Avenue condominium. His first nightclub, Risk, went up in flames in 1995. And an ex-business partner, Michael Caruso, claimed in open court that Paciello once beat him up and thrust a gun into his face.

Federal prosecutors allege Paciello "imported the tactics, methods, and goals" of New York's mob to South Beach. They claim to have wiretaps of Paciello talking with Mafia members about roughing up rivals to protect his business interests. The government lawyers also assert that Paciello helped hide a mobster on the run from a murder rap; and that he conspired with an undercover agent posing as a corrupt cop to sabotage competitors. "I got to get him whacked," Paciello says on tape, referring to a fellow club owner.

Although Paciello has been accused of many crimes, he has never been convicted of anything but DUI, responds his attorney, celebrity defender Roy Black. The nightclub owner's public image has unfairly made him a target for prosecution. "There's no mob affiliation and no evidence there ever was," Black says. The lawyer points out that state prosecutors dropped charges that Paciello stole the BMW. And Caruso is a convicted drug dealer, he adds. Moreover, wiretaps will show the undercover cop was trying to set up his client. "This is evidence of a troubled past?" Black queries. Paciello, who was unavailable for comment because he is in jail, told New York's Daily News last year: "I am not a gangster."

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Tristram Korten
Contact: Tristram Korten