May 15, 2000 12:00 PM

The packed room rang with voices, Armani jostled Prada, and waifish beauties brushed designer breasts against ripped young men straight out of an Obsession ad. In short, the SRO scene last Dec. 15 was vintage Chris Paciello—only this time the runway-ready crowd wasn’t congregating at Liquid or one of the other sizzling Miami nightspots that had made Paciello and his business partner, Madonna gal pal Ingrid Casares, the club king and queen of South Beach. The scene was now a U.S. district court, where federal prosecutors and Paciello’s own hired guns exchanged opening rounds at his first bail hearing on charges that could put a permanent end to his party.

With 70 friends and supporters watching, some of them in tears, prosecutors elaborated on an indictment issued three weeks earlier that accused Paciello, 28, and eight alleged associates of a string of mob-related crimes. The New York City-born Paciello, the indictment charged, had driven the getaway car in a botched 1993 robbery that ended with the murder of Staten Island, N.Y., homemaker Judith Shemtov, 46. Two months earlier, prosecutors claimed, the man who would become a suave club impresario, along with two accomplices wielding a sledgehammer, broke into a Staten Island bank and made off with $300,000. Labeling Paciello an associate of organized crime, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Firestone said, “the defendant has maintained a double life.”

Citing secretly taped phone conversations as well as reports from informants, prosecutors portrayed Paciello as a former street tough known by the nickname of Binger—an apparent reference to his habit of going on violent binges—who robbed video stores and drug dealers and even tried to bribe police into intimidating his rivals. According to a transcript of a taped phone conversation with a Miami undercover agent posing as a crooked cop, Paciello allegedly said about a former business partner, “We got to get his head f——-‘ broken in. I got to get him whacked.”

In addition to the federal charges, which he has denied through his attorneys, Paciello faces other legal hurdles. He is being sued for $15,000 or more by Mike Quinn, 38, a 285-lb. former Mr. Universe, who alleges that Paciello clubbed him over the head with a bottle and broke his nose after hearing Quinn use a racial insult to refer to another patron at Liquid. Paciello, currently out on $15 million bail and living under house arrest at a modest Staten Island home owned by his mother, is expected to contest those charges when the case goes to trial in a Miami civil court this month.

Still, Paciello’s closest pals are sticking by him, posting much of his bail. “I stand behind Chris 100 percent,” says Casares, 35, who met Paciello on the Miami Beach club circuit in 1995 and eventually opened a string of bars and boîtes with him. Yet, with Paciello under arrest, the empire of the pair once dubbed the It-Boy-and-Girl of South Beach appears to be imploding: One of the partners’ South Beach clubs, Bar Room, is being sold for $2 million, and Liquid has lost much of its luster. Says Paciello pal Sam Robbins, a Miami Beach interior designer: “He was the heartbeat of that business.”

In their heyday, Paciello and Casares’s clubs were meccas for celebrities—and the masses who like to gawk at them. “Without fawning all over them, Chris set rules that allowed VIPs to feel at ease,” says Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel columnist Jose Lambiet. “It’s like Studio 54 redux.”

Part of the Paciello package was a streetwise cockiness that impressed many on the South Beach scene, especially the ladies. “We never thought he was an angel,” says one friend, Jacquelynn Powers, a senior editor at Miami Beach’s Ocean Drive magazine. But it’s doubtful that any of his pals ever dreamed that, if prosecutors are to be believed, he once helped a mobster wanted for murder to hide out in Miami Beach, where Paciello lived in a Si million mansion. Says publicist Louis Canales, who has known Paciello since 1994: “If the allegations are true, Paciello deserves an Oscar.”

Miami Beach’s party scene was just shifting into high gear in 1994, when Paciello opened his first club, Risk, with a partner from New York City. (Prosecutors claim Paciello’s backers were involved in criminal activities.) Risk burned down a year later—the cause of the fire was never determined—and Paciello reportedly used the $250,000 insurance payout to open a second club, Liquid, with Casares, the daughter of a wealthy Cuban-American businessman.

Together they hit the jackpot. The duo struck gold again with Joia, a pricey Tuscan-style trattoria. In 1999, just hours before the opening of Bar Room, Paciello—whose relationship with supermodel Niki Taylor had recently ended—told PEOPLE that he and Casares had worked day and night for their success. “I don’t think [Ingrid] knew what she was getting into,” he said.

Paciello, on the other hand, knew how to hustle from way back. The second of three sons raised in the same two-family home, in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, where his mother, Marguerite, a hairdresser, had grown up, Paciello “worked very hard at whatever he did,” says his aunt Bernadette Zdanowicz. Paciello’s father, George Ludwigsen, who was once employed by a brokerage firm, is separated from his mother, and Paciello uses her maiden name.

He dropped out of Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School in 10th grade. Then in 1987 he was arrested for auto theft and in 1993 for assault, in both cases pleading guilty to lesser charges. During that time span, according to prosecutors, Paciello also was involved in robberies of a pet store, a pharmacy and other businesses in Brooklyn and Staten Island.

The most serious charge is the murder of homemaker Judy Shemtov on Feb. 18, 1993. Shemtov was sipping a cup of tea that evening at her home in Staten Island when two armed men rang the bell. One of the intruders fatally shot Shemtov when she opened the door; then the gunmen left without even searching for a safe, where the family, according to rumor, kept between $30,000 and $1 million. If convicted of driving the getaway car, Paciello could face life in prison.

But Paciello, who has retained noted Florida defense attorney Roy Black, appears determined to come out swinging when his case goes to trial this September. At that point it will be up to the prosecutors to prove that he is actually a criminal, not just a son of the streets who made good beside a sparkling sea. “I grew up in a certain area where everybody thinks fighting is normal,” Paciello told Ocean Drive magazine last year, before the indictment. “I’m not ashamed of it at all. To come from where I came from and to do what I’m doing now, I can actually pat myself on the back.”

Patrick Rogers

Fannie Weinstein in New York City and Grace Lim and Jeanne DeQuine in Miami

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