The Agony Of Ecstasy:
The Fall Of Sammy Gravano And Peter Gatien
By James Ridgway de Szigethy
Fall, 2002. New York City. Salvatore Gravano, also known as Sammy "The Bull", former Underboss of the Gambino Mafia Family, is languishing in a Federal prison cell. Peter Gatien, the impresario of several successful New York nightclubs, is also languishing in a Federal prison cell.
Both men came from very different upbringings; Sal Gravano grew up in Brooklyn, where his parents operated a profitable business that sold women’s dresses. Peter Gatien grew up in a poor family in Canada, where he excelled in the national obsession of hockey. Sammy Gravano put in a stint with the United States Army, after which he returned to his native Brooklyn where he enrolled in a local school, intent on becoming a hairdresser. Peter Gatien’s ambitions were narrowed by an accident in a hockey game, during which a hockey puck destroyed one of his eyes. Gatien utilized the insurance settlement from this accident to bankroll a succession of nightclubs; first in Canada, later in the South, and later, most successfully, in New York City.
Both men were on a course that would make them millionaires at a young age. Then came their fall, as both would become the targets of Prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn and the New York office of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The ammunition that brought both men down was a tiny little pill called Ecstasy.
A HAIR-DRESSER NAMED SAL
The city that Salvatore Gravano returned to after his Army tour in the 1960s was a metropolis becoming increasingly violent. In an event that stunned the world, young Kitty Genovese was slowly stabbed to death on the streets of New York while scores of witnesses ignored her cries for help. Such conditions of resignation and indifference provided fertile ground for the Mafia, which had long held sway in New York, to dramatically expand it’s operations and influence. The Mafia even moved into a new line of money making – the kidnapping for ransom of members of rival Mafia Families.
Such was the lawlessness in New York City that spurred on two men who needed little encouragement in breaking the law; young John Gotti and the man who would later become his Underboss, Sammy Gravano. By the early 70s a series of incarcerations and murders had elevated Gotti to a position of power within his crew which brought him into direct contact with Carlo Gambino, Godfather of the Family. In 1973 Gotti was indicted for the murder of Jimmy McBratney, who allegedly was involved in the botched kidnapping of Carlo Gambino’s nephew. Gotti hired to represent him criminal attorney Roy Cohn, arguably one of the most corrupt lawyers in U. S. history. Cohn had achieved fame as a Prosecutor in the case of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were convicted in the 1950s of espionage and later executed. Cohn then became a household name as an aide, along with Bobby Kennedy, to Senator Joseph McCarthy during his televised hearings exposing Communist infiltration of the U. S. government. Cohn later became an attorney for the Mob, representing a succession of America’s most notorious and violent criminals. The relationship between Cohn and the Mafia was a marriage of convenience that would last until Cohn’s death in 1986 due to AIDS; Cohn provide the Mafia with some of the best legal – and illegal – assistance available, and the Mob in return provided Cohn with the drugs and male prostitutes he used on a daily basis.
Cohn’s power as a criminal attorney stemmed from his association with criminals, not just those who belonged to organized crime families, but those corrupted by such families, including cops, prosecutors, and Judges. With such contacts and, some would say, "leverage," Cohn was able to cop pleas and procure reduced sentences as few others in his field could. In Gotti’s case Cohn was able to convince the authorities to allow Gotti to plead guilty to the lesser charge of attempted manslaughter. Gotti received a sentence of only 4 years in prison, of which he served less than half.
Although Gotti had only been away from New York a short time, much had changed during his absence. A new culture had erupted upon the scene in New York which would quickly spread across America. The phenomenon was called "Disco." Nightclubs began to spring up across New York City as venues for this new dance music and the mob saw in such clubs new potential for money-making ventures; one as a ‘legitimate’ business and another as an opportunity to launder money from illegal activities, including the burgeoning drug business. Drug abuse, notably the new ‘in’ drug cocaine, was a commodity demanded by many of those who sought escape in the Discos. Young toughs in the Mafia families began to ignore the Mafia’s traditional edict that prohibited drug dealing, among them associates of John Gotti, including his brother Gene, who developed a lucrative drug trafficking operation.
During those years Sammy Gravano had turned himself from a hairdresser to an up-and-coming wannabe gangster aligned with the Colombo Mafia Family. As a child, Gravano had received ridicule from his classmates because of his dyslexia condition, which made him a ‘slow learner.’ His diminutive size also prompted bullies to taunt him, and once Gravano enrolled in a Beauticians School, it seemed to many that Gravano would suffer the ridicule heaped upon those considered by some elements of society as ‘sissies.’ At some point, Gravano began to fight back, determined to ‘prove his manhood’ to the petty hoods that ruled the streets of his native Bensonhurst. Gravano soon discovered an ally in his fight to be treated with respect; anabolic steroids, drugs that, combined with a special diet and vigorous weight training program, can turn small ‘sissies’ into hulking ‘macho’ men. As in all drugs, however, steroids produce side effects, including an increased blood pressure and heart beat and the eruption of violent fits of anger, the so-called ‘roid rages.’ As to how many of the 19 murders Gravano has admitted to were fueled by his steroids use, the number cannot ever be known but nevertheless will be the subject of debate of criminologists and mental health professionals for many years to come.
One of the more popular New York clubs of the era was Max’s Kansas City, which was presided over by the ‘Andy Warhol’ crowd. Warhol had years earlier invented a new art form, ‘Pop Art,’ which relied on everyday, commonplace subjects, such as his famous painting of a Campbell’s Soup can. Max’s Kansas City was a place where stars and wannabes of the art, fashion, and music world gathered to interact off each other’s creativity. Unknown musicians such as Billy Joel, Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen, and Patty Smith first plied their craft inside the walls of the infamous club. Patty Smith’s boyfriend, artist Robert Mapplethorpe, also got his start at Max’s Kansas City.
Within a few years Smith was a star of the new ‘punk rock’ genre and Mapplethorpe was a rising star in Manhattan’s hot art scene. Along the way, Mappelthorpe descended into a subculture of New York nightlife which dealt with drugs, sado-masochistic sex rituals, and involvement in the Occult. Already a denizen of this scene was an art dealer named Andrew Crispo, who found a lucrative business in procuring art objects for rich and/or famous clients worldwide.
DEATH OF A GODFATHER
With the dawn of the 1980s new opportunities arose for members of organized crime, most notably the arrival on the scene of an inexpensive, highly addictive form of cocaine known as ‘crack.’ The crack cocaine epidemic that swept America in a relatively short period of time was in part the result of events that occurred in the final months of the Administration of U. S. President Jimmy Carter. In 1979 the Soviet Union invaded neighboring Afghanistan. The response of President Carter was his threat that if the Communists did not withdraw from Afghanistan, the United States would not send it’s athletes to compete in the 1980 Olympic games to be held in Moscow. Also during this time, Islamic militants seized the U. S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, holding hostage 52 U. S. citizens. Also, exploiting President Carter’s weakness, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro dumped onto the shores of the United States thousands of his convicted criminals, mentally ill, and drug addicts in the infamous ‘Mariel boat lift.’ The Mariellitos were a nightmare for law enforcement nationwide, bringing with them the practice of cocaine trafficking.
Carter’s weakness prompted both the Soviet Union and it’s ally Cuba to sponsor Communist revolutions in several countries in Central and South America. Most of the Communist insurgents were poor peasants eaking out a living in the remote rain forests of their country, but one commodity, which could be locally grown, was readily available as a means of achieving arms to further the Communist cause; that commodity was the coca plant, which produced a substance that could be refined into cocaine, and, more deadly for the youth of America, ‘crack.’ As the Western World and the Communists fought it out over the control of the hearts and minds of those in Central and South America, tons of crack made it’s way into the communities of America.
Members of John Gotti’s crew in the Gambino Family were among those to capitalize on the new flood of drugs into America. There were several obstacles standing in their way; one was the Feds, who were struggling to respond to the new tide of drug trafficking. The other was the Godfather of the Gambino Family, Paul Castellano, part of the old school of Mafia leaders who prohibited the dealing of drugs. Something had to go; either the millions of dollars in drug profits being earned by associates of John Gotti, or Godfather Castellano.
In December 1985, John Gotti and his associates awaited Paul Castellano’s planned visit to Spark’s Steak House in mid-Manhattan. The murder gang, which included drug addicts Sammy Gravano and Eddie Lino, pulled off one of the great assassinations in Mafia history. The murder of a Godfather was not permitted under Mafia rules, but this was just one of many of the old rules that John Gotti would break during his lifetime of crime.
THE KING OF CLUBS
In late 1983 Peter Gatien opened The Limelight in New York City. This was actually the third incarnation of Gatien’s club by this name, the prior two having been hits in Florida and Georgia. The setting for the nightclub was an abandoned Episcopal Church in the heart of Chelsea, home to many of Manhattans artists, models, gays, and drug dealers. The theme of the club was ‘post-Disco’ decadence, with a deliberate sacrilegious scorn and disdain for the religious symbols that flanked the walls and stained glass windows of the former house of worship.
Everything from celebrities to the scum of the earth were attracted to the Limelight, which in many ways recalled the glory years of Studio 54, which had been at its peak just a few years earlier. So many celebrities, in fact, came to the Limelight that Peter Gatien hired a person whose sole function was to entertain them. Performing this duty was a young man named Fred Rothbell-Mista. Young Fred was one of several Gatien employees who would go on to bigger and better things; in Fred’s case, he would, years later, become "Rocco Primavera," a character that satirized the ‘lounge lizards’ that entertain in small venues nationwide, whose repertoire always include the song "I Did it My Way!" Limelight Doorman Chazz Palminteri would become a star after Gatien put up the money to produce Palminteri’s anti-Mafia motion picture "A Bronx Tale," starring Robert DeNiro. Another Gatien employee to hit it big was Mark Vincent, a bouncer at the Tunnel who would later become action star Vin Diesel.
Before Rothbell-Mista became a celebrity on MTV and other TV programs, he made certain that those Celebes who popped into the Limelight had a full glass of the drink of their choice (compliments of the house), and that the gossip columnists got their daily fix of ‘who was doing what and with whom.’ On February 22, 1985, Fred welcomed celebrity art dealer Andrew Crispo and two of his associates into the VIP room at the Limelight. Crispo and his associates repeatedly tried to convince Fred to join them in a ‘party’ some distance away. Rothbell-Mista politely refused, as there were several other VIPs on hand at the Limelight that night.
Crispo’s young employee Bernard LeGeros would later claim that Crispo was trying to lure Fred to a house upstate where he was to be murdered. Failing that, Crispo and LeGeros left the Limelight and headed downtown, where they hooked up with a young model from Sweden, Eigel Vesti. The three then drove to Rockland County, where Vesti had his face covered with a leather S&M mask. Vesti was tortued and sexually assaulted for a lengthy period of time and then shot to death with a rifle. The body was then thrown into a ditch and set on fire with gasoline. By the time authorities found the body, all that was left was the flesh on Vesti’s face, protected by the leather ‘Death Mask.’
LeGeros was charged with the murder and convicted. Crispo, however, was never charged in the kidnapping, torture, and murder of the young model. Crispo had hired as his criminal attorney Roy Cohn.
The Limelight received a lot of negative publicity as the investigation into the murder of Eigel Vesti revealed the earlier plot at Peter Gatien’s club. Partly as a result of this event, the nightclub began to lose its popularity. As the decade was coming to an end, Peter Gatien knew personnel changes were in order if his clubs the Limelight and the Tunnel were going to regain their former stature. Gatien decided to hire two young men as party promoters, the ‘two Michaels;’ ‘Lord Michael’ Caruso, a pathological criminal and con artist who hailed from Brooklyn, and Michael Alig, a slight, effeminate kid from the Midwest.
JOHN GOTTI SUPERSTAR
Pop icon Andy Warhol’s most famous quip was "In the near future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes!" By the 1980s many Americans had taken the quote to heart, believing it was their birthright as U. S. citizens to become famous, if only temporarily. From the moment he took over as Godfather of the Gambino Family, John Gotti appeared to fit into this category. Most Godfathers of Mafia Families maintain a low profile so as not to unnecessarily attract the attention of law enforcement. Genovese Family Godfather Vinny "The Chin" Gigante had taken this to another level, wandering the streets of Little Italy in Manhattan wearing his bathrobe, mumbling incoherently to himself.
John Gotti decided not to hide from the Media nor law enforcement. The new Godfather quickly became a conspicuous figure in New York, walking the streets openly with his entourage while decked out in $2,000 suits. First the tabloids, then the ‘mainstream Media’ took the bait, turning Gotti into one of the most recognizable ‘celebrities’ in the city. Gotti even began to host a block party outside his headquarters in the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club in Ozone Park. The event was held each Fourth of July, with plenty of rides for the kids and hot, free meals for whoever chose to attend. Enough members of non-Italian ethnic groups were on hand to advertise that the ‘new’ Mafia was an equal opportunity employer. Capping the event was a huge – and illegal – fireworks display. Standing guard each year at the event were dozens of impotent cops, on hand to ensure that no one tried to interfere with the Godfather’s right to violate the law. The rank-and-file cops fumed silently, their anger directed more towards the Mayor than at the Godfather.
Perhaps more angry and embarrassed were agents of the FBI; Gotti’s flaunting of his position as Godfather was nothing less than a slap in the face of every FBI agent in New York. The Administration of President Ronald Reagan decided to take action. The number three person in the Reagan Justice Department was an aggressive attorney from New York named Rudolph Giuliani, who was in charge of all of the U. S. Attorneys thoughout the country. Giuliani grew up in New York and hated the Mafia; many years later his anger would be revealed to have familial roots.
Giuliani then resigned his high-ranking position in the Justice Department to take the subordinate position as U. S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. From that office Giuliani launched an unprecedented attack on the five Mafia families that had an iron grip on the labor Unions, the garment industry, the waste management industry, the Fulton Fish Market, and other viable moneymaking industries. One of Giuliani's best achievements was his successful prosecution of the "Commission case," in which the leaders of all five families were indicted. One of those indicted, Paul Castellano, would not live to face trial.
Rudolph Giuliani, however, would not get a crack at putting John Gotti away. In 1986 Gotti was placed on federal racketeering and murder charges by the U. S. Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York, the location of Gotti’s headquarters. One of the jurors selected, George Pape, was a friend of a man with alleged ties to organized crime, Bosko Radonjich. Sammy the Bull was thus allegedly able to bribe the juror and guarantee at least a hung jury. Gotti also beat two other trials, neither of which involved extensive use of the resources of the FBI.
That changed in December 1990 when the FBI arrested John Gotti and Sammy Gravano on charges including gambling, tax evasion, and murder. The indictments were the result of secretly taped recordings made in a building in lower Manhattan where Gotti and his associates frequently gathered to conduct business. Gotti and Gravano were each held without bail while awaiting trial. Gravano hired as his lawyer criminal attorney Benjamin Brafman, a career Mafia defender. Before going to trial, Sammy the Bull made the stunning decision to plead guilty and testify against Gotti in exchange for a reduced sentence. Also sealing Gotti’s fate was the decision by the Judge in the case barring Gotti’s use of his attorneys Bruce Cutler and Gerald Shargel, citing their being mentioned by Gotti on secret tapes.
During Sammy’s testimony at trial, Gotti at one point made a motion with his right hand as if he was injecting a drug into his left arm. The point of this gesture was to allude to Sammy's expensive anabolic steroids habit. The anonymous, sequestered jury found Gotti guilty on all charges and he was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Outside the Courthouse, hundreds of what Gotti referred to as "my public" rioted, chanting "Free John Gotti!"
The Gambino Godfather was sent to the Federal Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, where he was kept in solitary confinement. Sammy The Bull, however, would soon be a free man, receiving a prison sentence of only 5 years for the life of crime he confessed to, which included 19 murders. Conventional wisdom held that the Mafia would track Gravano down wherever he was living in the world and assassinate him.
THE CLUB KIDS
In March, 1998 the ‘Club Kids’ were born at a now-legendary party at Peter Gatien’s The Tunnel nightclub. Among the founding members were performance artist Joey Arias, the Lady Bunny, Phoebe Legere, Lypsinka, RuPaul, Michael Alig, Keoki, Allison Wonderland, and Larry Tee. The invitation to the party, entitled "Changing of the Guard," even listed Andy Warhol as a sponsor of the party, although Warhol had died the year before.
Perhaps prophetically, the event was a huge success, and each of the participants did in fact soon attain their ’15 minutes’ – and then some. Keoki and Larry Tee would become famous DJ’s, with Tee producing a hit record, ‘Supermodel’ with transvestite model RuPaul. The Lady Bunny and Lypsinka would also attain fame in the world of men dressed as beautiful women. Pulling this all together as the "King of the Club Kids" was Michael Alig, a young gay from the Heartland of America who was attaining the ultimate revenge against those schoolyard bullies who had taunted him in his youth for being ‘different;’ Michael Alig had turned his ‘difference’ into fame, becoming within just a few years of his move to the New York one of the most successful party promoters in America.
The Club Kids wanted everything ’new’ and they got it; their costumes were futuristic, as were many of their names, they danced to futuristic music, notably Techno, a computer-driven version of House Music, and to get high, they turned to a new ‘designer drug’ named Ecstasy. On one segment of the Geraldo Show Michael Alig had actually bragged of having turned his own mother on to the new ‘feel good’ drug of the 1990s.
"House Music," which would become identified with the Club Kid scene, was invented in the mid 1980s in Chicago by music pioneers Frankie Knuckles, pop duo Clivelles and Cole, Liz Torres, and the "Queen of House Music," ‘Screaming Rachel.’ House music soon became popular worldwide on the nightclub scene and the hit records recorded by Screaming Rachel soon took her to the clubs of New York City. Just years before the Internet explosion would provide everyone with their own website, Screaming Rachel was among those in the early 1990s who communicated their agenda through their own Public Access Cable TV show. These programs, mostly of poor quality and with a narcissistic tone, were a national trend at the time, satirized memorably in the Saturday Night Live skit ‘Wayne’s World.’
By 1993 Screaming Rachel and the Club Kids were at the height of their popularity; Michael Alig ruled as King every Wednesday night at his popular Limelight event ‘Disco 2000.’ Screaming Rachel packed them in during her Monday Night Live performances at the nightclub Tatou, then run by former owners of Studio 54. Emcee of the Monday night performances was Rocco Primavera.
The fall of the Club Kids scene began in 1994, when former Prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani took over as Mayor of New York City. By this time New York City had experienced unprecedented crime levels and the residents demanded change. The previous Mayor, David Dinkins, had not set a good example for New York City residents, having ‘forgotten’ to pay his income taxes for 5 years. Openly hostile to the police, Dinkins had raised taxes to unprecedented levels during the midst of a Recession. Soon 100,000 jobs quickly vanished from the New York economy, one of many disturbing facts TIME Magazine reported in it’s cover story ‘The Rotting of the Big Apple.’
Giuliani was determined to clean up New York and his Administration began a crackdown on crime, taking on everything from the Mafia’s control of the Fulton Fish Market to the "crime" of jaywalking, considered by many New Yorkers a birthright. Even the sex shops in Times Square, which provided a backdrop for the movie ‘Midnight Cowboy,’ filmed a generation earlier, were shut down. The Giuliani Administration refused to issue the permit the Gambino’s needed to hold their annual block party, and scores of cops were sent in to prevent so much as a sparkler from being ignited. Such aggressive law enforcement tactics by the Giuliani Administration would soon produce results most residents believed unattainable; within a few years, New York City had become the "safest large city in America!"
It was only a matter of time before law enforcement turned its attention to the nightclub scene in Manhattan, which, since the days of Studio 54, had operated under little scrutiny. One tragic event that helped frame the problems in ClubLand was the death in the Summer of 1995 of a New Jersey youth, Nicholas Marinella, who died from an overdose of drugs obtained at The Limelight. The distraught family of the 18-year-old turned to Mayor Giuliani for help. New York City clubs came under increased surveillance, and the atmosphere in the clubs began to chill. Screaming Rachel saw the writing on the wall, and, sensing the impending death of the ‘scene’ of which she had been such an intrical part of, the House Music Queen packed her bags and returned to her native Chicago.
Also during this time, another member of the New York Club scene, Michael Papa, decided to relocate to hopefully greener pastures. In November of 1994, Papa and a friend were arrested for assaulting a doorman at the Trump Tower on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. Papa then decided to move out West, and he brought to his new home in Phoenix, Arizona first-hand knowledge of the New York Club scene and an affinity for its drug of choice, Ecstasy.
Another New York City family headed out to Phoenix during this time, the wife, daughter, and son of Sammy the Bull. Before they left New York, they denounced Sammy in the Media as a ‘rat,’ claiming they never wished to associate with him again. It is now known that this was all a sham, that the Gravano family left town to set down new roots in another city, a place where Sammy would join them after his release from prison. Using the alias "Jimmy Moran," Sammy the Bull started a new life for himself in the Arizona desert. Soon, his son Gerard hooked up with Michael Papa, and the two longed for the good times they had had in the Clubs of New York.
MURDER AND COVER-UP
Even though, by mid 1996, Screaming Rachel had been out of the New York nightlife scene for 2 years, Geraldo Rivera did not hesitate to invite her onto his program about the Club Kid scene. On May 8th, the program flew the House Music star into New York, where she joined the other nightcrawlers on the panel that continued the chronicling of this social phenomenon.
Rachel and I had become acquainted years earlier when I covered the nightlife scene as a columnist for a local magazine. Thus, once Rachel was back in town, the two of us got together, along with a mutual friend, to catch up with each other over a few drinks. That night Rachel drank more than usual, and soon she was opening up to something that was bothering her. Just a few days earlier, her friend Michael Alig had visited her in Chicago, en route to a drug rehabilitation facility in Colorado where Michael was being sent to attempt to beat his addiction to heroin and Ecstasy. Alig had brought with him videotapes of his favorite movies, which he and Rachel watched during his visit. One was ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’ the 1968 film about a group of Devil worshippers in New York City. Also in Alig’s possession were his favorites "Seven," about a psycho who dismembers a drug dealer, and "Angel Heart," the Mickey Rourke thriller about the Occult and murder in New York and New Orleans.
At some point while watching these movies, Rachel claimed, Michael confessed that he and his room mate "Freeze" had murdered a drug dealer named "Angel," dismembered him, and thrown his body parts into the Hudson River. Rachel then noted that her friend Michael was a practical joker and that she wasn’t convinced he was telling the truth. The speed with which Rachel downed her next drink, and then another, convinced me that she believed Michael had in fact murdered Angel.
The next day I phoned Al Guart at the New York Post and the two of us set out to investigate the alleged murder of Angel. First, we met with Angel’s brother and father outside the apartment building where Angel was believed to have been murdered. The serious tone the two exhibited towards the missing Angel convinced us that Angel was probably dead.
Something curious then happened; friends of Michael Alig, aware Al and I were investigating the disappearance of Angel, began a smear campaign against me, claiming the story was a hoax I had concocted. Rachel suddenly developed amnesia over the entire event. Then, on May 15th, Peter Gatien and 23 of his employees were arrested by the Feds on charges they trafficked the drug Ecstasy in Gatien’s nightclubs the Limelight and the Tunnel. Brooklyn U. S. Attorney Zachary Carter displayed uncharacteristic humor in noting that some of the DEA agents in the investigation had to dress "like Dennis Rodman" in order to gain access to Gatien’s drug underworld inside the Clubs.
On May 17th Al Guart ran a story in the Post that gave a chilling look inside Peter Gatien’s empire; the previous September, authorities had shown up one night at the Limelight to arrest 30 people for drug trafficking, but only 4 were in residence. The Feds became convinced that a crooked cop had obtained the list of those expected to be arrested and that the list was circulated at the Limelight the night before. Guart noted that because of the information compromise agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration later refused to co-operate with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and the NYPD. This would, in fact, be the beginning of bad blood between the agencies that would haunt the investigations for many months to come.
The Post also noted that the Ecstasy pills sold in Gatien’s clubs originated in Europe and were smuggled into the United States by a group of Israeli citizens. Bail for Peter Gatien was set at $1 million. Gatien was represented in Court by criminal attorney Benjamin Brafman, Sammy Gravano’s former criminal lawyer.
Meanwhile, the investigation into the missing Angel Cruz continued. Angel’s real name, it turned out, was Andre Melendez, but his name, like many in Clubland, had been changed. In this case, Andre was rechristened "Angel" by none other than Michael Alig, the inspiration being Alig’s favorite movie "Angel Heart." Melendez took the moniker literally, wearing two giant feathered wings on his back as he plowed through the back rooms of the Limelight, selling drugs. To the parents of kids who would die of the drugs peddled in Peter Gatien’s clubs, "Angel" the drug dealer was nothing more than the ‘Angel of Death!’
As the weeks went by and no trace of Angel showed up, reports in the Media suggested that the drug dealer was in fact dead. By mid-July, the Federal Prosecutors in Brooklyn who had indicted Peter Gatien and his employees on drug trafficking charges were reported to have been investigating the disappearance of Angel. Speculation spread through the city that the Feds could charge those involved in the cover-up of the murder of Angel as crimes furthering the interests of a racketeering enterprise, in this case, the alleged Gatien drug trafficking ring. In other words, the Feds could use the RICO statutes normally reserved for Mafia prosecutions to add racketeering charges against Gatien and his employees that would significantly increase the jail time such alleged criminals would receive if they were convicted. While the actions that several Gatien associates had taken were unmistakable evidence of an attempt to cover-up the murder of Angel, the Feds were left with one minor little problem; they had yet to come up with a body – or body part – that would prove Angel had been murdered.
A few months later, the Feds thought they got a break in the case when a body part wrapped in duct tape was pulled from the East River by a hapless angler. The body turned out not to be the missing Angel. However, two NYPD Detectives who read the story in the New York Post decided to take a second look at a body part they had found months earlier washed up on Staten Island. That body part turned out to be the torso of Angel Cruz, proving at last that the drug dealer had in fact been murdered.
However, the body showed evidence of more than just murder; the corpse had been sexually mutilated, suggesting that what happened in Michael Alig’s apartment involved more than just a drug deal gone bad.
In 1995 Michael Alig’s friends threw a birthday party for Michael, which Michael produced, called the BLOODFEAST and the invitation to the event was a huge poster done up to present the party as if it were a gruesome horror movie. The poster featured Michael lying on the floor, his brains bashed out by a hammer that lay in front of him. A Club Kid known as Jenny Talia was depicted eating Michael’s brains with a fork. The poster mentioned "Freeze’s" name, and carried the terms ‘buckets of blood’ and ‘legs cut off.’ This was, of course, exactly what Michael and Freeze would do months later to Angel Cruz; bash him on the head with a hammer and cut off his legs. As all the elements of the eventual murder were there in the poster, the evidence suggested that Angel’s murder was in fact pre-meditated.
I decided to investigate further the elements that were used to put the Bloodfeast poster together. My investigation revealed that the fonts used in the wording of the invitation were purchased over the Internet from a business called Brain Eaters Font Company. The fonts used in Michael’s poster were called Blood Feast, taken from a 1960s horror flick. As Michael had already been revealed to be a pedophile Ecstasy and heroin addict who drank his own urine at parties, a new question had to be posed; ‘had Michael and/or Freeze cannibalized Angel’s body?’
If the Feds knew the answer to this question, they certainly were keeping it secret, as it appeared they intended to use Alig as a Prosecution Witness against Peter Gatien. The Manhattan District Attorney’s office surely knew also, but they have a long history of hiding from the public information about crimes involving the Occult. Further investigation proved that Michael Alig and Freeze were involved with the Occult; Michael being a ‘dabbler’ whereas Freeze was heavily involved.
During this time, and continuing to this day, there existed a sub-culture within the Club Kid scene of people involved in the Occult. Some were into the ‘Goth’ scene, in which adherents dress in Gothic clothing, their skin lightened with cosmetics. Associated with this culture is the ‘Vampire scene,’ in which adherents drink each other’s blood. Scores of websites have sprung up over the last decade devoted to these and related Occult practices, which would seem humorous were it not for the fact that many of these practitioners have been involved in murders throughout the country.
One person in this world, who was intimate with both Freeze and art gallery owner Andrew Crispo was a young man named Ricardo Wiley. For months, reporters tried to get an interview with Wiley, but the Clubber indicated he feared for his personal safety if he spoke of what he knew about his associates. On a warm August night in 1998, the 31-year-old suddenly died. Heart failure was ruled the cause of death. Gregory Kraemer, a fixture on the Club scene for many years also fell silent as to his extensive knowledge of crime in Clubland; just days before Peter Gatien’s arrest, Kraemer was found hanging at the end of a rope secured to a ceiling fan in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel. His death was ruled a suicide. The deaths of these two men, like that of scores of others, were extremely convenient to many.
As to the murder of Angel Melendez, Detectives from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office eventually obtained a Warrant to pick up Freeze, who immediately gave a hand-written confession. Michael Alig later pleaded guilty as well, hoping to receive leniency in exchange for offering testimony against Peter Gatien and others. Alig in fact claimed what seemed evident all along to those following the case; that there was a concerted effort to cover-up the murder of Angel the drug dealer. However, by the time Peter Gatien’s drug trafficking case came to trial in the Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn, Alig had changed his tune, instead making outrageous allegations against the DEA agents involved in the investigation. By then, Federal Prosecutors had filed additional charges against Gatien, including, as expected, a RICO count. This charge, however, did not pertain to the cover-up of the murder of Angel, but rather the use of sex and drug parties hosted by Gatien at the Four Seasons Hotel which the Prosecutors argued were ‘company bonuses’ to reward those in the drug trafficking ring.
At Gatien’s trial the Club Kid known as Jenny Talia suddenly developed amnesia on the witness stand in regards to what she had testified about before the Grand Jury. Jenny Talia had extensive knowledge of Gatien’s nightclub empire, as she had had an affair with Peter Gatien, whom she met through her high school friend, Gatien’s daughter. Once on the Witness stand, Jenny Talia stated: "These (parties at the Four Seasons Hotel) had nothing to do with the Clubs!" This declaration echoed the mantra argued repeatedly by criminal attorney Brafman throughout the trial. The Prosecutors in the case, who had offered the Club Kid immunity from prosecution in exchange for her testimony, were clearly fuming over having been ‘screwed by Jenny Talia’ on the Witness Stand. "Are you afraid to testify against Peter Gatien?" Prosecutor Michele Adelman barked. Once Jenny Talia was excused from further testimony, her criminal attorney, Gerald Lefcourt, left the Courtroom sporting the same smile he had at the beginning of the session when he embraced Gatien’s attorney Brafman.
When the trial was at last over, none of the reporters seemed surprised when the jury returned a ‘Not Guilty’ verdict on all charges facing Peter Gatien. The one juror who chose to speak to the Media outside the Courthouse indicated that the jury was so shocked by the crimes committed by the Prosecution Witnesses that they could not believe a word that they said against Gatien. Particularly stunning had been the testimony of "Lord Michael" Caruso, who confessed to brazen rip-offs of drug dealers, drug trafficking, robberies, and other crimes and whom attorney Brafman suggested had been involved in a least one murder.
Peter Gatien mentioned under his breath to the reporters surrounding him that he was going to "Church," although it was not clear if the nightclub King had suddenly found religion during his ordeal or if he was in fact referring to the Limelight, the old Church that had been temporarily closed by the authorities. For Gatien and his nightclub empire, however, more troubles lay ahead. Among other problems, there were still charges of income tax evasion against him filed by the Manhattan District Attorneys office. Citizens groups fed up with the crime his clubs brought to the neighborhoods were fighting to get his liquor license revoked. The issue of the crooked cop on Gatien’s payroll had yet to be resolved, and a Limelight-related murder and a murder at the Tunnel were yet to unfold.
Also, the Federal trial against Gatien had brought into scrutiny an unresolved murder with roots in Clubland; the violent death of a drug dealer named Billy Balanca, an associate of both Lord Michael and another ClubLand figure who was best known for being a lover of pop star Madonna. His name was Chris Paciello, and his world – and that of Sammy Gravano – would soon unravel as the world celebrated the approach of the New Millenium.
On New Year’s Eve, 1999 a jet airliner was bound from Cancun Mexico for the Bahamas, carrying onboard Serbian freedom fighter Bosko Radonjich. The flight landed for a brief stopover in Miami on New Year’s Day and while awaiting the plane’s departure, a restless Radonjich accidentally wandered into an area that was a U. S. Customs checkpoint. Bosko Radonjich had worked with the CIA for many years in the fight against Communism in his homeland, but the computer the Customs agents had access to at the airport had something very different to say about Bosko; he was, in fact, a wanted fugitive, having been indicted in 1992 for giving a $60,000 bribe to a juror in the 1987 racketeering murder trial of John Gotti. The Customs agents promptly placed Bosko under arrest. Upon learning of this, the Feds in Brooklyn were ecstatic, knowing that the star witness in Bosko’s trial would be Sammy The Bull Gravano. By that time Sammy had been revealed to be living a new life in Arizona, no longer hiding in the Witness Protection Program. Gravano’s plea agreement required that he testify at any future trials in which he had information; Bosko’s case fell under this agreement.
However, a thousand miles away in Cleveland, Ohio, events were unfolding that would impact on Bosko’s trial. A Drug Enforcement Administration agent and a Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department Detective spent New Year’s Eve intercepting a package sent via Federal Express from Phoenix, Arizona. Inside the package were over 2,000 Ecstasy pills bound for four Youngstown area residents who were part of a drug trafficking ring.
Meanwhile, back in Miami, pop star Madonna and her friend Ingrid Casares were just a few miles away from Bosko’s drama, spending New Year’s Eve at a Miami disco. Ingrid, the daughter of a Cuban Freedom Fighter, had become a regular in the ClubLand scene, along with Madonna and her circle of friends. It was in this world that Casares would meet a New Yorker, Chris Paciello, who would become her lover and business partner in three Miami nightlife hangouts. However, just weeks earlier, the Feds had arrested Paciello on racketeering and murder charges, claiming he was a member of the crew of Anthony Spero of the Bonnano Mafia Family.
Paciello’s rise from an obscure upbringing on Staten Island was due to his talent for partnering with others. In 1992 Paciello and ‘Lord Michael,’ along with a few silent partners from the Gambino Family took over a Florida bar owned by actor Mickey Rourke and turned it into the nightclub RISK. It was indeed a ‘risky business,’ as the club soon burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances. Paciello then took the insurance money and opened a new nightclub, LIQUID, which became a huge success, with the help of celebrities he met along the way, including Madonna, Casares, Daisy Fuentes, Jennifer Lopez, Naomi Campbell, Liza Minelli, and Nikki Taylor.
When Chris Paciello was hit with his multiple Federal charges, he first hired as his attorney Roy Black, perhaps best known for his successful defense of accused rapist William Kennedy Smith. Later, Paciello switched to Benjamin Brafman. On January 7, 2000 Paciello was arraigned in Brooklyn Federal Court on various charges, the most serious being his role in a botched robbery attempt that ended in the murder of Staten Island housewife Judy Shemtov. Among other allegations against Paciello was the claim that he had given refuge to Gambino Family associate Vincent Rizzuto while on the lam for murdering a Colombo Family associate, and that Paciello had a meeting with "Allie Boy" Persico, acting head of the Colombo Family.
Federal authorities would later add additional charges, claiming Paciello torched his club RISK for the insurance money and also tried to bribe a cop who had information about drug trafficking inside his club LIQUID. Also, Prosecutors would claim that Paciello conspired with Colombo Family Underboss "Wild Bill" Cutolo to run a nightclub in Manhattan that would be a front for the Colombo Family. Cutolo, who led a rival faction against the Persico faction during the bloody Colombo Family war and was involved in the DC 37 Union scandal, disappeared in the Spring of 1999 and is presumed to have been murdered.
Also among the large volume of evidence the Feds had against Paciello was a secretly recorded tape on which Paciello conspired with a member of law enforcement to have a rival nightclub owner framed on fabricated drug charges. The tapes also reveal Paciello stating that if he ever got taken down, he wouldn’t turn ‘rat’ as had Sammy the Bull. However, as Paciello and criminal attorney Benjamin Brafman weighed all of the evidence against him, Paciello began to think of the unthinkable: turn government’s witness and rat out all of his associates in the Colombo, Gambino, and Bonnano Families.
In February, 2000 authorities in Arizona indicted Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, his wife, daughter, son, and several associates on charges they ran an extensive drug trafficking ring in Arizona, New Mexico, and Ohio. When arrested, Sammy was found to be in possession of a handgun and anabolic steroids. Federal Prosecutors in Brooklyn then had to drop the bribery charges against Bosko Radonjich as their star Prosecution Witness was now revealed to be someone who used his own children to peddle drugs to kids.
Cynics publicly hoped that Sammy’s son and daughter would pull a "Sammy the Bull" and testify against their own father in exchange for leniency. Instead, it was Gerard Gravano’s friend Michael Papa who agreed to testify against the Gravano family in exchange for leniency.
In July 2000 the Feds in Brooklyn indicted several people involved in the trafficking of Ecstasy into the United States, including an Israeli named Ilan Zarger. This ‘Israeli connection’ turned out to be the same people behind the Ecstasy trafficking that flourished inside Peter Gatien’s nightclubs.
In May, 2001 Sammy Gravano pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges. He was to be sentenced by the Feds in Brooklyn on September 11, 2001, but the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center that day postponed the sentencing hearing. Then, Sammy’s attorney Lynne Stewart was arrested on charges she illegally aided her client Sheik Omar Abdel-Rachman, who is in prison for plotting terrorist attacks on New York City landmarks. In September 2002 Gravano was finally sentenced at the Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn to 20 years in prison. Although Peter Gatien faced up to 25 years in prison for income tax evasion, his criminal attorney Benjamin Brafman was able to secure a plea bargain that put Gatien in jail for just a few weeks. Under attack by community leaders and the outraged parents of kids who died because of the drugs sold in his nightclubs, Gatien sold the Limelight and the Tunnel nightclubs. In September 2002 agents of the INS threw Gatien into solitary confinement in a Pennsylvania prison while processing deportation proceedings. Despite having lived in the United States for over three decades, Gatien, because of his negative opinion regarding the U. S. military, had never applied for citizenship.
James Ridgway de Szigethy can be reached at JAMESDE@prodigy.net.
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