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]."
So why is Chris Paciello still breathing today? And what does it say about the dwindling power of the Italian Mafia that instead of being turned into alligator food in the Everglades, he not only just opened a pricey restaurant, but last Monday debuted a swanky nightclub, the FDR Lounge, at the Delano Hotel — all in the full glare of the public spotlight?
Chris Paciello was born Christian Ludwigsen in Brooklyn's Borough Park in 1971. By his mid-teens, he had already embarked on a criminal career that earned him the admiring street name "The Binger." According to his 2005 testimony at the trial of bank robber Eddie Boyle, Paciello began stealing car radios at age 15 and graduated to cars at 16. By the time he reached his early 20s, he had progressed to bank robbery, home invasion, and kidnapping, not to mention supplying guns in a 1990s civil war among different factions within the Colombo family that left ten dead, including two innocent bystanders. From an early age, Paciello was a prolific moneymaker, something neighborhood Mob bosses quickly noticed.
In a "Dear Judge" letter that he penned for a 2004 sentencing hearing, the high school dropout cited his heroin-addicted dad as the reason he turned to crime: "My father, my role model as a child, left me, my two brothers, and my beautiful mother with nothing... I became the man of the house and this is where my criminal life began. I began to steal, rob, and do whatever I had to, to help me and my family survive."
During a May 2001 interview with the FBI, Paciello described how after his father departed, his family moved from Brooklyn to Staten Island. That's where he first met Lee D'Avanzo, the leader of the New Springville Boys, a ragtag group of wannabe wise guys whom the government would later characterize as a "farm team" for the Bonanno crime family.
D'Avanzo was a meaty tough guy with a cleft chin, piercing eyes, and jet-black hair. A cousin of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, he was the son of a car thief and loan shark who was killed in 1977 after trying to run down an FBI agent. (The younger D'Avanzo achieved notoriety last year as the husband of Drita D'Avanzo in the VH1 reality series Mob Wives.)
Paciello worked with a number of overlapping Mafia cliques in Brooklyn and Staten Island, but the members of D'Avanzo's crew, the New Springville Boys, were the nearest to being his real friends.
These relationships didn't prevent him from spilling the dirt to lawmen about the range of D'Avanzo's criminal activities, from ripping off banks' night deposit boxes to burglarizing stores to breaking into drug dealers' homes. Paciello also exposed D'Avanzo's loan-sharking operation; D'Avanzo once confided to him that he had as much as $100,000 on the street at any one time.
Wrote FBI agent Massa: "D'Avanzo always had guns. He would keep a shotgun next to his bed. Whenever [Paciello] needed a gun, D'Avanzo would provide one."
Sometime in fall 1992, one of D'Avanzo's buddies was picking up drugs on Richmond Terrace in Staten Island when he saw a group of men loading bales of marijuana into a U-Haul truck, according to the FBI documents. He called D'Avanzo and together they followed the truck to a secluded location in New Jersey. They then phoned Paciello, who headed over from the city, broke into the vehicle, and drove it away. When the trio arrived back in Staten Island and jimmied open the U-Haul, they could barely believe their eyes. It was literally a ton of marijuana.
Paciello sold his portion of the pot to a low-level mobster after placing a tracking device in the load. He then stole it back.
Word soon reached Bonanno Mob capo Anthony Graziano, a stocky, brutish man with a permanent smirk, about the huge haul. Soon Paciello was ordered to deliver $50,000 in a brown paper bag. (Documents that describe this incident only list Paciello as "source," but it is clear from the context that this is Paciello.)
According to the FBI report: "[Paciello] went to Graziano's house and met in the garage with Graziano. Graziano questioned [Paciello] about how much money [he] had from the score. [Paciello] lied and said only $150,000. [Paciello] told Graziano that [he] had used the money to purchase a home for his mother."
Graziano must have sensed a lie because he instructed one of his soldiers "to deal with this kid." The soldier pulled Paciello aside: "You want to be around for all the weddings, but none of the funerals," he reprimanded him. It was a thinly veiled threat.
Over the next six months, Paciello acknowledged to the FBI and federal prosecutors, he and the New Springville Boys pulled off several bank jobs. In one, a gangster strapped a fake bomb to his chest and walked into a bank, where he threatened to blow up the building if the tellers didn't give up the money. They did: $300,000.
In December 1992, Paciello helped stage a $360,000 robbery of a Chemical Bank branch in the Staten Island Mall. Fourteen months later, in February 1994, he teamed up with seasoned bank robber Eddie Boyle to take down a Westminster Bank in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. This heist was meticulously prepared, according to testimony Paciello gave at Boyle's 2005 trial. The future club owner cased the bank for a full month, watching the comings and goings of employees and clocking the exact time the armored car arrived to pick up money.
The morning of the robbery, an empty work van was parked six blocks away in case the robbers needed a place to hide. While Paciello waited outside in the "crash car," three masked accomplices entered the bank's basement through an adjoining laundromat and handcuffed two employees who were preparing the money for transport.
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