TALE OF TWO MEN
South Beach, Miami
December 1, 1999
It was after midnight and South Beach was crackling with electricity. Neon lights sparkled off the dark blue ocean. Headache-bright convertible Mercedes and brand-new PT Cruisers crawled down Ocean Drive with their car stereos pumping bass-heavy Latin beats. Sidewalk bistros resonated with conversations in a panoply of languages. Palm trees swayed alongside the strip’s hotels and high-rise condominiums. Leggy models overran the sidewalks, teetering on strappy high heels in the direction of fancy nightclubs. Buff gay boys strolled hand-in-hand along cream-colored beaches. Leathery women with iguanas on their backs hustled tourists for money, oblivious to the pack of bikers slurping liquor-laden slushes at outdoor bars.
Even on a weeknight South Beach did not come to life until now, until the wee hours. Most “year-rounders”—as the glittery residents of the beachfront area refer to themselves—don’t have anywhere to be come daybreak. First appointments begin in the middle of the day—chores like late afternoon photo shoots or workouts with personal trainers. Posh clothing stores, like Versace and Betsey Johnson, don’t even bother to open before 2 p.m. The only people who appeared busy were the paparazzi, vying from helicopters for shots of Madonna jogging along the edge of the waves or of Sylvester Stallone pushing a baby stroller with his wife.
Nightlife is the heartbeat of South Beach, and no one made its heart beat more loudly than Chris Paciello.
Driving on the morning side of midnight, Chris Paciello cruised down beyond-stylish Washington Avenue in his black Range Rover. He had a cell phone clamped to his ear. On the other end of the line was the manager of Joia, the elite Italian bistro Paciello owned on Ocean Drive. Paciello wanted the answer to a relatively straight-forward question: What would it take for these guys to shape up and keep that place running smoothly without him? Paciello was steaming. He waited a few impatient moments for an answer, and when he didn’t receive one, he hung up in disgust.
The twenty-eight-year-old businessman had just departed from Joia, where he’d dined on risotto sautéed with pungent Parmesan cheese, accompanied by a glass of fine red wine. He ate dinner there four or five nights a week at his personal table near Joia’s hostess stand. It was the choicest seat in the house, ideal for those who liked to glance at the beautiful people passing by while nibbling on expensive cuisine. From this vantage point, Paciello could oversee the staff, survey the customers, or focus his attention on the turquoise shoreline with its sunbathers, often topless, across the street. He could even take in the competition at other open-air bars and eateries smattered along the beachfront.
This was his place. These were his people.
You didn’t even have to live in South Beach to know Chris Paciello. National magazines had carried photos and profiles of the “hunky club owner.” Vanity Fair interviewed Madonna and Rupert Everett at Joia, declaring, “If South Beach is the new Riviera, then Joia is the Hôtel Du Cap.”
But the elite eatery was just part of Paciello’s empire. He also owned Bar Room, Miami’s hottest lounge, where Dennis Rodman and Gwyneth Paltrow were regulars, as well as Liquid, another massive nightclub. Paciello’s dark moods were always buoyed when he pulled his SUV in front of 1439 Washington Avenue. At this moment, Liquid was the hottest nightspot on the planet.
On this night, more than a hundred decked-out revelers were feverishly trying to beg or bribe their way past swarthy bouncers into the 36,000-square-foot club. The line stretched the entire block.
Each of the area’s hotspots hired a crew of buff men with bronze complexions and steely stares standing guard behind velvet ropes. These bruisers had powers far beyond that of mortal doormen. They were the gate-keepers. The givers of “The Nod”—a silent, bobbing-head signal that meant you could join the party inside.
Only then could you enter the realm of South Beach’s professional A-list, where Chris Paciello ruled.
Paciello valet-parked his car and palmed a ten into the valet’s hand. The valet, like most of his clubs’ employees, was an old friend from Staten Island, New York. Paciello always surrounded himself with people he trusted, and usually he only trusted people from the old neighborhood.
Some of the club’s regulars, even plain folk who recognized his mug from People magazine, spotted Paciello as he strode toward the velvet ropes. He stood six-feet-plus, his frame all muscle, with a boxer’s square jaw and blazing black eyes. They yelled his name in vain. “What’s up, Chris?” “Hey, guy, remember me?” “Chris, help me out here, I’m with my girl.” The club’s owner just smiled toward the crowd, whispered to his head bouncer, and opened the front doors, blasting the hopeful with a few brief seconds of techno music and kaleidoscopic disco lights.
Once inside, Paciello was immediately the center of attention. Svelte women preened for his approval. He strode through the downstairs lounge, making sure the candles were lit, the incense was burning, and the vases were filled with fresh flowers. Everything was in place; after all, Madonna’s brother, Christopher Ciccone, had designed the club’s swank layout.
Paciello twisted through the packed dance floor to his reserved table in the more exclusive of the club’s two VIP sections. The room was private enough to keep starry-eyed interlopers out. Before he even took a seat, a waitress set down an ice bucket with Moët champagne and a bottle of Evian water.
He scoured the surrounding faces with a fixed smile, curious to see who was in the club. Liquid’s guest roster usually read like National Enquirer headline copy. Sean “Puffy” Combs burst into impromptu concerts there. Cher was another performer who often packed the place. Starlet Cameron Diaz was a regular, as were Michael Jordan and Robert De Niro, Matt Dillon and Chris Rock, Naomi Campbell and Donatella Versace, and James Woods and Calvin Klein.
America’s royalty—the models, the moguls, the movie stars—had crowned Chris Paciello King of South Beach, and he wore the title well. He looked regal with his chiseled face and slicked-back hair, a few black strands highlighted an orange tint by the sun. He wrapped his toned physique in pricey Prada suits. His face was a staple in Miami glossies. His every move was monitored by gossip columnists in tabloids up and down the East Coast.
In a few days Paciello was going to open the fourth outpost of his empire, the West Palm Beach Liquid Room. For the big party, New York business mogul and casino tycoon Donald Trump had agreed to be the guest of honor. The phone was already ringing off the hook. Glitterati from downtown Manhattan to Beverly Hills wanted a spot on the guest list.
As Paciello contemplated the upcoming bash, Miami Heat superstar center Alonzo Mourning passed by his table. Paciello pulled him to the side and invited him to be a guest.
“It’s going to be the party of the year!” Paciello announced in a gritty New York accent. “This Friday will be one that south Florida will never forget.”
Paciello was not even thirty, already a millionaire and a legendary Casanova. He had a hard time keeping his women away from each other. Rumor had Madonna succumbing to Paciello’s charm. Sultry MTV veejay Daisy Fuentes pursued him for months until he became her frequent escort. Pop singer Jennifer Lopez deposited her famous derriere into his open palms to ring in New Year’s Eve at Ocean Drive’s Pelican Hotel one year. Then there was the time he was caught making out with supermodel Niki Taylor in Liquid’s DJ booth.
South Beach was a fitting refuge for someone like Chris Paciello. After all, the town’s sunny shores had long been a great hideaway for shady characters and B-list celebrities. Al Capone and his cronies wintered on Miami’s shores. The FBI has a file stuffed with surveillance shots of Meyer Lansky as he strolled down South Beach. In the forties, Frank Sinatra and Marlene Dietrich made it their own American Riviera.
Yet by the early 1980s, most of South Beach’s whimsical buildings stood rotting and near collapse. Biker gangs, drug addicts, and derelicts enjoyed almost complete run of the streets. A decade later, however, savvy entrepreneurs moved in and lured the rich and famous to the dilapidated shoreline with glittering nightlife. Fashion models and their photographers, millionaire rap stars, and surgery-enhanced jet-setters played happy rats to Paciello and his fellow pied pipers. They raised South Beach to a new high. And the best-of-the-best kept coming.
In fact, it might be said that in many ways the revival of this run-down Florida haven paralleled what Jewish gangster Bugsy Siegel and his gang in Murder Inc. did by whipping a pile of desert sand into the money-machine that became Las Vegas. Certainly the guys financing the South Beach renaissance were familiar with Bugsy Siegel’s line of work.
Chris Paciello left Liquid just after 3 a.m. He drove past Bar Room a few blocks away, but he did not go in. He just nodded toward the doormen and drove home. At the moment he was living in a rented one-story white stucco house on East San Marino Drive while his $1 million Italian palazzo underwent a complete overhaul. East San Marino Drive was not exactly low rent, though. The small street was one of many dotting picturesque inlets behind South Beach. Paciello lived across the street from an ambassador to Cuba.
As Paciello pulled the Range Rover into the driveway, his faithful rottweiler ran to the front yard and barked a welcome. He patted the dog, walked into the house past his brother, Keith, who had nodded out on the couch, and went upstairs to the master bedroom. He had to get some rest before his boxing coach showed up.
As he slept, Chris Paciello could have stirred restlessly as scenes from his not-too-distant past disturbed his dreams. His future may have looked as bright as a south Florida dawn, but the life he had lived in New York would soon eclipse him, leaving him veiled only in the darkness of his past. The rumors that had swirled upon his arrival in South Beach of his Mafia ties, rumors that had helped fuel his tough-guy image, were well founded. The area’s club king had a long list of crimes to his name and an even longer list of criminal accomplices. Those very paesans had recently been arrested, and already had been squawking to the government. As Chris Paciello basked in his South Beach empire there was one crime he had to be particularly concerned about: a time bomb that would blow apart the cushy new world he had created for himself among the pastel-hued beaches of Miami and propel him straight back to New York City.
On a dark, freezing February night years earlier, four men in a Mercury sedan headed for a cul-de-sac in Staten Island’s Richmond Valley. It was just before midnight and they were looking for a street called Meade Loop.
Nobody said a word as the car crawled past the neighborhood’s million-dollar sandstone and brick homes. It was a bitterly cold night even for a northeast winter—the temperature in the daytime had been twenty-seven degrees, but had dropped since. Most people stayed in from the cold, and the street was deserted. The only light emanated from a dozen street lamps dimly flickering over the fallen snow.
A six-foot-one, 195-pound man with dark eyes and brown hair was driving. His baseball cap shadowed the features of his face and luminous brown eyes. To his cohorts he was known as “the Binger” for his propensity to binge on crimes. His robberies and shakedowns also had a nasty habit of turning into broken teeth and splintered bones for his victims. He binged on stealing cars and bank burglaries, ripping ATM machines and night deposit boxes out of brick walls, and random baseball bat attacks.
The Binger was the brains of this bunch.
Next to the Binger sat fleshy James “Jimmy Gap” Calandra, a twenty-five-year-old career bank robber who stood five-feet-eleven and weighed 240 pounds. He was wearing a navy blue Fila running suit, zipped tight over his paunch to hide the 9 mm pistol nestled in the small of his back. He also had on a pair of fake eyeglasses to mask his threatening eyes. In the back seat was Tommy Reynolds, a slight twenty-four-year-old who was considered to be particularly dangerous. He wore a Fila running suit identical to Calandra’s except for its white color. He clutched a .45 caliber pistol in his sweaty palms. Sitting next to Tommy was lanky Michael Yammine, also twenty-four, with a boxy, shaved head. Mikey was just along for the ride.
All four men enjoyed ties to the Mafia under the umbrella of the Bonanno organized crime family. They were used to carrying guns, especially Reynolds. This night they were out on business. Everybody understood the gravity of what was at hand.
Earlier that evening, the four men in the sedan had met at a two-bedroom apartment belonging to the Binger on Wellington Court, a very different street on Staten Island.
The Binger lived on the third floor in one of the hundreds of hastily erected, drab-brick condominium complexes all over the island. The building was close to Richmond Hill Road, a main drag routinely filled with traffic from the nearby Staten Island Mall.
That night, about an hour before his friends got there, a state marshal had tacked an eviction notice on the Binger’s door. He and his roommate, another young handsome thug named Vinny Rizzuto, had not paid the rent in three months, and his landlord wanted both of them out.
The four men sat on a leather couch and watched a homemade pornographic video. Tommy Reynolds had stolen the tape during one of his home burglaries. When Tommy popped in the tape, the men gasped. They recognized the couple from the neighborhood, but they certainly looked a lot different in lascivious poses.
As the tape came to a climactic end, the Binger spoke. “My buddy Ira told me about this guy. This porno guy, Shemtov. He keeps all his money in a safe built into his basement floor. I’m hearing he has anywhere from fifty thousand to a million bucks in there. I heard he has three hundred thousand in there right now. We just have to wait for the phone call to make it happen. When the guy comes home, we’ll get a tip.”
The other three nodded. It sounded like an easy score.
“Okay,” he continued. “What we are going to do is go in there, tie up the wife, and get the husband to open the safe, take the money and leave. No one gets hurt. Got it?” he added. “No one gets hurt.”
A short time later, the Binger’s beeper buzzed at his hip, the signal that Shemtov’s car had pulled into the driveway. He looked at his cohorts. “That means the guy’s home,” he said. “We gotta go there right away. I’m going to drive because if they see me, they recognize who I am around here.”
The four men were soon driving toward Shemtov’s home. It took them about an hour to find the right road.
“Jeez,” Yammine said. “How do people find their way home to this place?”
The small enclave of Meade Loop and its dozen-or-so homes was barely visible from the passing through roads. No signs marked the block. It was tucked behind massive, leafy trees. BMWs and Lincoln Continentals were parked in every driveway.
The front lawns, now covered in snow, were landscaped with expensive greenery, clipped by hired gardeners. Most of the homes boasted swimming pools, many with accompanying Jacuzzis. For all its wealth, though, Meade Loop was not about glitz. Its residents liked things quiet and out of reach.
Inside 95 Meade Loop, Judy Shemtov was filling a decorative teakettle.
The forty-six-year-old wife and mother worked out regularly and had the taut physique of a teenager. Her flaxen hair ordinarily hung just below her shoulders, but on the night of February 18, 1993, she wore it up, showcasing her bright blue eyes.
Judy’s husband, Sami Shemtov, had just returned from a business trip. Sami was an Israeli who had immigrated to New York in 1967. He’d earned an engineering degree from a prestigious Israeli college, but he changed career paths after arriving in New York. He bought up a string of lucrative businesses—a chain of 99-cent stores and, law enforcement officials say, at least a half dozen pornography shops in Brooklyn and Miami. Sami also owned an electrical supply company based in Cincinnati.
The Shemtovs had been married for just under a year, and they still behaved like newlyweds. Sami’s frequent absences just made their relationship stronger. They were planning a new beginning in Florida. Each had three grown children from previous relationships, children who had grown into successful and happy adults.
Even after her children grew up, Judy Shemtov took pleasure in making sure the house smelled of freshly baked cookies. She’d been a stay-at-home mom who “relished her family,” her son Adam would later recall. On that night, the house smelled faintly of cinnamon sugar from a cake she had made earlier in the day in anticipation of Sami’s homecoming.
Excerpted from A Mob Story by Michele R. Mcphee.
Copyright © 2002 by Michele McPhee..
Published in 2002 by St. Martin's Paperbacks.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.