Thirty-two-year-old New York Daily News police bureau chief Michele McPhee knew at an early age that investigative reporting was her forte. Marrying her exploratory skills with her Mafia fascination yielded a book that would remind South Beach of its roots in organized crime. Her novel, Mob Over Miami, looks at the life and crimes of thug-turned South-beach-club king Chris Paciello.
While her book grabbed the attention of many of South Beach’s who’s who, it also managed to stir up a fair share of controversy among locals who disapproved of her description of Paciello and South Beach in general. McPhee recently took time to explain to South Beach Magazine how she first became interested in Paciello’s tale, what it’s like being one of few female mob reporters and how people are responding to her book.
What about the mob life grabbed your interest?
I’m from East Boston – an Italian neighborhood in Beantown – so it always piqued my interest the way gangsters interacted with the rest of society. The mob is like a dysfunctional family, and “the life” is a kaleidoscopic look at criminal behavior. I love stories about wiseguys who strip down to their underwear to chop up a body on a Saturday night, then go to mass with their families on Sunday morning.
Tell me about being a female mob writer. Isn’t it mostly a male-dominated field?
It’s completely a male-dominate field. I’m the only female mafia reporter in New York. There’s a great female mob reporter in Boston, the Globe’s Shelly Murphy, and I wanted to follow in her footsteps. I had a great deal of respect for her. Besides that, I’ve always gone against the grain. I’m the only female police bureau chief for all five New York City daily papers.
How did you find out about Chris Paciello?
I knew the detectives who took down the case. They were talking about fingerprinting this guy who was bragging about where he came from. They asked me if I’d ever heard of him. I love South Beach, so of course I knew who he was. Not knowing Chris Paciello’s name in South Beach is like not knowing Donald Trump’s name in Manhattan.
What about his story made you want to write a book?
His story had all the elements of a tabloid reporter’s dream. He slept with Madonna, was involved in a horrific murder of a housewife and had ties to the mafia. What more can a crime story have? You can’t make this stuff up.
Did you come to South Beach to write and research?
Yes, I lived on South Beach for a couple of months when Gianni Versace was murdered, so I knew the layout of the beach pretty well. I also came to South Beach about five times while writing the book.
How have people in South Beach responded to your book?
Some people are living in a fantasy world where they tell themselves Chris is not really in the Witness Protection Program, and he’s coming back to lead the Beach back into a Renaissance.
Have you experienced a backlash from locals who think of Paciello as a hero?
I think the backlash comes from locals who feel fooled and betrayed by Chris, who they embraced as a hero, only to find out he’s just another thug wrapped in a Prada suit. It makes people who loved him feel a bit silly.
What do you think about people who still think of Paciello as a hero? What would you say to them?
I would say those people have to look beyond his Prada suit and their free drink tickets. He was responsible for setting up a robbery in which a woman was shot in the face and died in the arms of her young daughter. He set his girlfriend’s mother’s car on fire. He robbed his neighbor on South Beach.
I understand nightclub impresario Michael Capponi refused to attend the release party for Mob Over Miami because he says he was misquoted in the book. Tell me about that.
I don’t see how he can say he was misquoted. He talked to every newspaper and magazine in town when Chris got arrested.
Have you had any e-mailed or written responses from readers? If so, what have they been? Has Capponi ever contacted you regarding the book?
The response is overwhelming positive from people who grew up with members of the Bath Avenue crew in Brooklyn and obviously from the victims of the crimes Paciello admitted to committing. And, no, Michael Capponi has never contacted me about the book.
In your opinion, where do you think Paciello relocated? Do you think we will ever see or hear from him again?
I cannot comment on where he relocated to, and as far as if we will ever see or hear from him again, I’ve discovered anything’s possible.
Do you believe people really can change, as in Paciello’s transformation from N.Y. mobster to friendly South Beach club-king hero?
I don’t know how friendly he really was. Ask Carl B. Dread if he thought his boss was friendly when he pushed him down a flight of stairs and kicked him repeatedly. I think Chris wanted to change, but the Binger inside him had all the control.
You told John Tanasychuk of the Sun-Sentinel, “The wiseguys bring the glam. The whole town of South Beach is sort of a mob mall. It’s all about fashion and the best bottle of champagne.” Do you think your depiction of South Beach is realistic, fair?
Well, of course, it’s a glossy description from someone who sees South Beach from a vacationer’s view. I never lived there. I don’t go to the gym there, take yoga classes, go food shopping. I’ve always been an outsider looking in, but where else in the world is an overwhelming majority of the population toned, tanned, radiant and sumptuous?
Do you think living in South Beach for a few months and visiting five times during the course of your writing was enough time for you to get a feel for and draw an accurate conclusion of the place?
The book is not about South Beach. The book is about a wannabe wiseguy from Brooklyn who reinvented himself on South Beach. The book is about the mob in New York City. The book is about a guy, not a place.
As a mob writer, have you ever encountered a situation the was possibly life-threatening or ever received hate mail?
No. The work I do is very fair and accurate. Usually, people do not quibble over the truth.
When was the last time you were in South Beach? How has it changed in your opinion?
I was in South Beach in April, and I think the scene has changed only in that the crowd seems to be more international and less New York glam.
Did you know Paciello’s partner Ingrid Casares recently opened a club? What is your opinion on that?
Ingrid, I believe, will always land on her feet.
What connections do you see between New York and South Beach?
They are both places that attract a similar jet-setting crowd. They are both places where the nightlife is unmatched.
What can we expect from you in the future? Are you working on any other mob-related books?
Yes, I’m currently writing a book about the Colombo crime family war.