Death by Decadence
by Alix Sharkey
The cardboard box in the
hall-way contained the legless torso of Angel Melendez, a 26 year old
drug dealer of Colombian origin. His skull had been smashed by three
hammer blows and he had been asphyxiated. Heíd been dead almost a week
now. Before putting Angelís body into the box, Michael had wrapped it
in a sheet and two plastic garbage sacks after Freeze had sprinkled it
with baking soda, to "absorb some of the odour". Then they
slid the cardboard coffin across the parquet floor and out through the
front door, before humping it into the elevator. Dumping the body was
going to be difficult, which was why theyíd left Angle decomposing in
the bathtub so long.
They were both sweating: Freeze from fear and
exertion, Michael because heíd done some more heroin to steady his
nerves. Then again, Michael would have done heroin anyway, whether
heíd been ditching a corpse or shopping for make-up. Thatís why
Angel had been allowed to stay at the apartment. Because, like Freeze,
he sold drugs.
In fact, that was the only reason that anybody put up
with Angel. Nobody really liked him, apparently. Angel theyíll tell
you, wrinkling their noses, Angel was tacky. You know, he wore those
stupid Pumas with platform soles, like, this high, and those white
leather pants, and those fucking wings. And that white leather cap with
the peak down over his eyes? Puh-leese. He looked like a reject from the
Village People. And he was always dressed the same ... You know, he was
just tacky. There was no other way to describe him. Thatís what they
say, the people who took Angelís drugs at Michaelís parties.
The trouble with Angel, they say, was that he never
really fitted into the scene. He was a hanger-on - he followed Michael
everywhere - and unsympathetic at that. They say he would bark at people
who didnít have money or power. And worse, he was saving money. The
difference between a good dealer and a bad one, they say, is that a good
dealer, like Freeze, doesnít do it for the money - a good dealer does
it because he likes the drugs and the scene. Heís his own best
customer. Thatís why people didnít like Angel. They say his dream
was to make $100,000 and get out, go into business, make films, you
know, something like that. So he never got high on his own supply. He
was a bad drug dealer. He was a capitalist.
Now Angel had made his last deal; his dream was over.
His legs were already being washed down river, wrapped in a couple of
garbage sacks. the rest of him was stuffed in this cardboard box that
had once contained a Zenith colour TV; Freeze had found it in the
basement of their apartment building on West 43rd Street. It had been a
tough week for Freeze and Michael, living with a corpse in their
bathtub. For a start, they couldnít take a shower. And Michael, fuck
him, Michael kept telling people what theyíd done, practically
boasting about it. But it was nearly over now. Once they got to the
Westside Highway, everything would be okay. They were in control.
Immediately after the murder, Michael and Freeze
didnít know whether to shit, shave or shampoo. They couldnít call
the cops because the place was full of drugs. Anyway, the rent on the
apartment was being paid by Michaelís boss, Peter Gatien - the owner
of Limelight, Palladium and Tunnel, the three biggest and most
successful nightclubs in New York. Gatien didnít need more drug
trouble; Limelight had already been closed down seven months earlier, in
September 1995, after a police raid. All right, it had been a pathetic
bust - three arrests for selling small amounts of marijuana, and the
only connection to the club was that one of them was a Limelight busboy.
The club was re-opened a week later, after Gatien had paid $35,000 in
fines, posted a $150,000 bond and employed an outside security firm to
devise an anti-drug plan.
But this was murder, involving two drug dealers and
Michael Alig, king of the Club Kids and scene-maker extraordinaire, New
Yorkís best-known and most successful party promoter - and the
principal creative consultant of Gatienís club empire for the past six
years. Alig knew that undercover agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency
(DEA) were still investigating Gatienís clubs, trying to put together
a drug conspiracy case against the club magnate. The last thing Gatien
needed right now was a trail of blood leading from a dealerís
butchered corpse to his doorstep.
Alig called his friends, asking them what he should
do. Although some of them might have said, "Get a lawyer, call the
police," most of them told him to "get rid of the body".
He tried to find someone to help him take care of "this terrible
mess", but, for once, there were not takers. Finally, he and Freeze
worked out a plan themselves. Freeze went to Macyís and bought two
large chefís knives and a meat cleaver. According to Freeze,
"Michael told me that if I gave him ten bags of heroin, he would
take care of this part. So I did, and he went into the bathroom alone
and cut off both of Angelís legs. Then we put each leg into plastic
bags, and then into a duffel bag, and carried them, one at a time, to
the river and threw them in."
Then they had to dispose of the rest of Angelís
body. By chance, a cab was waiting right outside the block when they
came out of the elevator into the lobby. The doorman of the swish
Riverbank West apartment building supposedly commented on the foul smell
emanating from the box they were carrying, but maybe thatís just a
little Hitch-cockian detail Alig added later as he boasted to his
friends about the killing. He loved a sick joke.
But the cab driver certainly helped them lift their
load into the boot, then tied the lid down because it wouldnít close:
the box was too big. Alig and Freeze rode downtown with Angelís
mutilated body and got out where 25th Street meets the Westside Highway,
right by the Hudson River. When the cab drove off, they hauled the box
to the riverís edge and threw it in. Imagine their faces when they
peered down at the filthy spume. The box was floating. They had sealed
it so thoroughly that the card-board coffin was air-tight.
There was so much money
swirling around New York during the mid-Eighties that the economic boom
generated a new trend in New York nightlife: the mega-clubs,
multi-floored or cavernous venues that held up to 3,500 people. Wall
Street was booming, big was beautiful. People were working hard and they
needed places to let off steam, to drink, to dance, to get high. But
nightlife trends can come and go quicker than a puff of dry ice, so in
order to fill their dancefloors night after night, month after month,
the mega-clubs needed promoters to organise weekly events and draw
In return for a complimentary guest list, drink
tickets, a budget to decorate the venue and, depending on the numbers,
anything upwards of £1,000 a night, promoters will supply the
"fabulous" people - the VIPs, pop stars, models, artists and
performers, as well as a clique of up-and-coming wannabes and the
hardcore clubbers with strange hair-dos, make-up and bizarre fashions -
who "dress" the venue.
The fabulous people, in turn, ,keep a club buzzing
and attract the "normals" - businessmen, tourists, yuppies,
the B&T crowd ("bridge-and-tunnel" people from the
outlying Borough of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, or from New-Jersey).
Ironically, these un-fabulous normals keep the industry afloat by paying
full-price admission and spending freely at the bar. Essentially, their
dollars cover the rent, wages, insurance, maintenance and profit of a
nightclub. And, of course, they also subsidise the fabulous people, who
will not come unless they get "comped" (free admission), free
drinks and access to the VIP room.
As the vital link between the clubs, the fabulous and
the normals, successful promoters are in an unusually privileged
position. They enjoy all the trappings of fame and success - wealth,
groupies, drugs and expensive health care - without having to endure the
drawbacks - stalkers, paparazzi, autograph hunters, invasion of privacy
and charity events. They occupy a very special place in the nightlife
hierarchy, one of power without responsibility.
In his early teens, Michael Alig was already
different from the other kids at Penn High School near South Bend,
Indiana, where he wrote a gossip column for the school newspaper. His
mother remembers that "Michael couldnít wait to get out of the
mid-west because people were so mean about him being gay". But he
was far from fabulous. People who met him at the time recall a
"cute but unremarkable" boy with neat hair, a T-shirt and
clean blue jeans.
Alig arrived in New York to study architecture at
Fordham University, but quickly switched to the trendy Fashion Institute
of Technology, before setting his sights on a nightclub career. At 17,
he was working as busboy at a four-storey nightclub on West 21st Street
called Danceteria, even though he was under-age. After a few weeks, he
started pestering the clubís co-owner, a German entrepreneur known
simply as Rudolf, to let him throw parties.
British film-maker Fenton Bailey, who was then
performing regularly at Danceteria as one half of the Fabulous Pop Tarts
duo, recalls Alig asking him one night to explain the principles of
party promotion. "I said, ĎAlright, but you have to buy me and
Randy lunch". And so he took us to McDonalds, and I told him how it
worked - concepts, budget, decor, who to call, who to comp, who to
avoid, and all the rest of it. A cheap date, I guess".
Rudolf was still unimpressed - "His first idea
was a lollypop party" - but Alig persisted, often arriving early to
explain his latest concept before starting his shift. "Thereís a
showbiz rule", says Rudolf, "that if someone is really, really
insistent, you give them a break. Even if theyíre no good at first, if
they want it bad enough, theyíll make it."
Alig wanted it bad. "He really worked,"
says Rudolf. "He promoted the shit out of his parties." After
making calls from the office all day, Alig would criss-cross the city,
by night, targeting clubs and bars, handing out comps and befriending
good-looking kids. As his circle grew, the parties got bigger. "It
was in his blood," says Rudolf. "He loved being a promoter,
being centre-stage and all that went with it. And once you reach a
certain momentum, your crowd, your followers, become dependent on
Unlike other promoters, however, Alig did not turn
his nose up at the under-21s who, under New Yorkís licensing laws,
were technically barred from the cityís clubs and bars. As far as Alig
was concerned, if a kid looked good, he was in, underage or not.
Besides, if there was one thing Alig loved, it was breaking the rules.
And, in assembling his own circle of nightlife "celebrities",
he had not need to court the established down-town faces. Suddenly the
old crowd looked very old indeed, and nobody cared what they thought,
much less whether they turned up to any parties.
The partnership continued when Rudolf left Danceteria
and opened his own club, a massive subterranean labyrinth based in a
system of disused train tunnels under the Westside Highway called,
appropriately, Tunnel. Alig and his rapidly expanding clan of
wild-looking teens, drag queens, genderbenders, fashion victims and
downtown misfits settled in Tunnelís basement VIP room. By now, they
had a name - the Club Kids.
In March 1988, the Club Kids were featured by New
York magazine, with a fresh-faced Michael Alig on the cover. New York
noted that the older club crowd had moved on to smaller, more intimate
clubs, such as Nellís where they could relax and network over a decent
bottle of Chablis. Let the boys in chiffon dresses and girls in
clingfilm get their Ecstasy-and-house kick somewhere else, they moaned.
And they could take those goddamned B&Ts with them.
Alig took them all to Tunnel, which held 3,500 and
admitted more than 6,000 people over the course of a busy night.
"In his best period at Tunnel, Michael was making between $4,000
and $8,000 per party, and doing two or three parties a week,"
remembers Rudolf, who wrote the cheques. Michael Alig, King Of The Club
Kids, was already a player on the New York club scene, with his own
nascent subculture in tow. He was 21.
eter Gatien had a
problem. The owner of the 2,000 plus capacity Limelight could see the
writing on the wall. When it opened in 1982, Limelight caused a stir
because it was big, loud and architecturally impressive, being located
in a deconsecrated Episcopal church on the corner of 6th Avenue and 20th
Street. But is soon fell from favour with the sneering scene makers, and
by 1989 was considered so irredeemably passť that the bitchy downtown
pack were calling it "Slimelight". It still made money and the
B&Ts had a good time, but is was definitely not cool.
And that wasnít the whole problem. The club
industry itself was beginning to seem moribund: the recession had
started; Aids had made casual sex less popular; older clubbers didnít
go out anymore; and dance music was factionalising, making it more
difficult to target youth groups.
Still, Gatien knew how to turn difficulties to his
advantage. At 17, he had lost his left eye in an ice-hockey accident,
and with the $16,000 insurance payout, he had opened a clothing store,
selling blue jeans opposite his high school in Ontario, Canada. He
traded up for a dilapidated country-and-western tavern, and converted it
into a rock club. In 1976, he bought his first real club, a bankrupt
2,000 capacity venue in Florida, and christened it Limelight. Two years
later, he opened another, in Atlanta, with live sharks swimming under a
In 1980, when discos such as Studio 54 and Xenon were
the benchmarks, Gatien arrive in New York. To make an impact, he needed
something that was architecturally unique. The abandoned mock-Gothic
church was perfect. But despite the black eye-patch that gives him a
Mephistophelian air, Gatien had never been considered hip by the
nightlife crowd, and without VIPs and stars in Limelight, he needed
something to attract the normals.
And then something happened; Rudolf, who had set the
pace in New York nightlife for almost a decade, slipped up. Having
decided to sell Tunnel and open yet another club a few blocks south, he
realised that his new target crowd - the hetero, conservative "Gap
generation" - was incompatible with Aligís camp freaks. The Club
Kids needed a new home. "And so Peter inherited Michaelís Club
Kid kit, ready assembled," says Rudolph, "and installed it in
The first few weeks were slow - only a hardcore of
Club Kids and drag queens turned out - but by the end of 1990, Aligís
"Disco 2000" party had a reputation for being outrageous,
fabulous and fun, fun, fun. Wednesday nights were soon packed with a
bizarre mix of jail-bait, freaks and faggots, voyeurs and fetishists,
and Club Kids in kiddie clothes - romper suits, pyjamas, even Pampers -
or trashy glitter, wigs and platforms. Drugs were easily available, and
- a really big plus - sex was back on the menu, even on the dancefloor.
("If someone wants to masturbate in one of my clubs, what can I do
about it?" Gatien once told the Village Voice.) Suddenly, Limelight
was hip again. "Only Michael Alig could have turned Limelight
around," says Fenton Bailey.
To capitalise on the clubís revival, Gatien added
Future Shock, a Friday-night techno club promoted by "Lord"
Michael Caruso, a young Italian-American from Staten Island who had
thrown warehouse raves in the outer boroughs. When Caruso injected his
rave crowd and their thunderous sound into 6th Avenue, Manhattan got
techno fever. Musically, at least, these suburban kids were more
avant-garde than their big-city counter-parts. Their scene was hot,
young, full of vitality, and downtown trendies were soon stomping and
sweating alongside them. And swallowing Ecstasy, too.
Everything clicked into place. With Wednesday and
Friday nights packed at Limelight, it was easy to fill Thursday and
Saturday nights too. Gatien moved swiftly to extend and consolidate his
business. In 1990, he bought the enormous Palladium on East 14th Street
and, a few months later, Tunnel from Rudolf. Alig and his Club Kids
moved back to their alma mater, and Caruso moved west with his B&T
crowd. With business booming, in 1992 Gatien could afford to build and
open Club USA at a cost of $8 million, although this would shut down
barely a year later through no fault of his own - the landlord who owned
the building went bankrupt.
Still, just for a moment, it looked as if the sky was
the limit. Aligís genius for finding a seemingly endless supply of
fabulous micro-celebs and installing them in Gatienís clubs was now
generating nationwide publicity and huge amounts of cash. It wasnít
just the fabulousness that brought home the bacon: Aligís intimate
knowledge of the industry and its social stratification was coupled with
extraordinary vision and business nous. "I had this idea that we
could corner the club market by having four clubs and rotating
them," Alig told Details magazine, explaining how each of
Gatienís clubs would cater to a different crowd, with its own in-built
life-cycle. The fabulous crowd would start off in, say, Tunnel, and
then, over four years, "it would go: hip, B-crowd, C-crowd, black.
Because thatís how it realistically works. Once youíre black, you
can go hip again." For a year, it worked perfectly.
Now making enough money to do things his way, Alig
started organising Situationist art events in the form of impromptu
"outlaw parties". He and his merry band would just turn up and
party in a public place, generating chaos and disorder. They set up
detour signs on the Washington Bridge and broke out the vodka, handing
drinks to astonished commuters; to celebrate the birthday of Disco
2000ís club mascot, Clara The Chicken, Alig and 100 others in blonde
wigs, chiffon, hot pants, feather boas and platform shoes boogied on the
platform of 34th Street subway station. These events rarely lasted more
than 30-45 minutes before the cops arrived and broke them up, generally
with good humour. Home video tapes showed the NYPD laughing and wishing
Clara The Chicken a happy birthday as the party engulfs the next
The Climax was Burger King on Times Square. Alig went
to the counter and paid for 80 Whoppers, and suddenly a small army of
glitter guerrillas were drinking vodka from paper cups and dancing to
techno from a boogie box, much to the alarm of the tourists. Tapes show
Alig wearing nothing but a pair of silver lamť leder-hosen with the
front cut away, his penis wrapped in aluminium foil. In the final shot,
he dances on a table, drink in hand, laughing hysterically as the others
trash the restaurant and pelt him with plastic trash bins and half-eaten
burgers. His cock-wrap has fallen off, and his penis is flapping around.
The outlaw party tapes confirm reports by those who
went to Disco 2000 or Tunnel during their heyday: Alig certainly knew
how to throw a party. He was the perfect host, generous to a fault, and
he could squeeze fun from any situation. "He always had this huge
group of people around him," says Angie, an English Club Kid who
worked on Limelightís door, "and he wanted everyone to have a
fabulous time: he simply wouldnít let you go home until you had."
But his lust for life had a habit of backfiring. "Anytime you went
anywhere with Michael," says Disco 2000 veteran Carlin Mann, now
aged 24, "you were guaranteed to get into chaos."
Disco 2000 would last for six years, with Alig
steadily upping the weirdness factor. For newcomers, the clientele was
bizarre enough. Besides statuesque drag queens, including the young
RuPaul, there were the Club Kids, the drop-dead gorgeous 20-year old
straight girls with lashings of lip-gloss. And, of course, there were
the drug dealers, such as the goatee-bearded Robert "Freeze"
Riggs, and Angel Melendez, who sported a pair of theatrical white wings,
making him reminiscent of the angel in Barbarella.
Freeze and Angel were typical Club Kids: isolated
young people who had come to New York full of dreams and had fallen
under Aligís spell. When Robert Riggs first came across the Club Kids
crowd, he was a serious young man from Florida who wore slacks and
shirts, and designed hats for Barneys. Within months, he had become
Freeze, a cool Club Kid with red hair whose leather body-pouch,
according to one source, contained five different compartments; one each
for ketamine, heroin, cocaine, Ecstasy and the powerful barbiturate
Similarly, Angel, who had arrived in New York 18
years before from his native Colombia with dreams of becoming a
film-maker/actor, felt completely at home with these creative people who
didnít categorise you. You could be who you wanted here - you could
even wear a pair of wings. It was this kind of acceptance - the way Alig
encouraged self-expression and fostered a sense of belonging - that
brought young dreamers from all over the US, and even from as far away
as Europe and South America, to party at Disco 2000.
And what a party it was. A minor Club Kid in a panto
outfit was paid by Alig, usually in drugs, to parade the dancefloor as
club mascot Clara The Chicken. In the midst of this frenzied freakshow,
you could also spot Woody The Dancing Amputee, George The Pee Drinker
and Dan Dan The Naked Man. Al this, and a cast of 3,000, in various
states of shock, euphoria, inebriation or sexual congress.
But Alig outdid them all. Like the time he gave a
drag queen a drink and told her afterwards that he had peed in it -
which might just have been funny if he hadnít had hepatitis. Was he
joking? Who could tell? That was his sense of humour - it depended on
someone elseís outrage. He certainly peed over the balcony at
Limelight one night, soaking a bartender, who complained, and was
promptly sacked. "Michael loved pee," says Fenton Bailey,
"It was his thing. Over balconies, in glasses. Even up your leg, if
you werenít being careful."
"The press was partly responsible for making
things go in a certain direction," says Sylvie Degiez, who jokingly
calls herself a Club Kid mother. In fact, sheís a Swiss-born,
classically-trained pianist and composer who worked regularly with Alig,
booking live music acts during the heyday of Disco 2000. "Anything
could happen at Michaelís parties, but only the weirdness was
reported," she insists, "never the incredible decor, the live
music, the DJs, the amazing atmosphere, or the way people dressed and
made themselves up. But very few outsiders could see that side of
The trouble, according to Degiez, was that Alig was
never satisfied; he never knew how to play safe. "If youíre
involved in pushing things further - and thereís lots of drugs for
such a long time - the edges of social constraint are going to get
By 1994, the party themes had not only crashed all
taste barriers but were brazenly illegal. Alig and his drug dealer pal
Freeze had set up the Emergency Room. "Youíd go in," says
Angie, "and thereíd be a "doctor" - usually either
Michael or Freeze - and youíd lie back on the bed and theyíd give
you either a Valium or a bump of ketamine or coke, and a glass of wine,
vodka, whatever you wanted."
Ketamine, which had replaced the increasingly
low-grade Ecstasy as the clubberís drug of choice, was the beginning
of the end for the Club Kids scene. An anaesthetic that had been
developed in the Sixties, ketamine was used in battlefield hospitals in
Vietnam. At low doses, therapists found that it worked in a similar way
to MDMA (the chemical term for Ecstasy), its psycho-active properties
facilitating creative problem-solving and emotional integration for
repressed patients. When taken in very large doses, however,
ketamineís anaesthetic properties produce total loss of bodily
sensation and intense hallucinations. and the Club Kids loved it.
"There were K-heads like you cannot believe," says Carlin
Mann. "Special K was the biggest drug, and the most destructive. I
mean, it was phenomenon. Everyone was doing it."
By early 1995, the sheer volume of hard drugs had
completely soured the scene. "Itís a lot more drug-oriented
today," complained Limelight doorman James St James (now a
successful promoter in his own right) to the Village Voice. "Itís
like everybodyís on a self-destruction binge. Itís all about who can
get the most fucked up, who can get their stomach pumped the most
times." Quoted in the same piece, Tunnel and Limelight playmate
Kenny Kenny was similarly disillusioned: "Thereís not enough
fabulousness in the after-hours clubs any more," he noted.
"Itís much more hardcore and nihilistic. Itís like people are
looking for beauty in horror."
Blazing the trail - as always - was Alig himself. By
now, he was injecting heroin, and pretty soon he would be seen smoking
crack cocaine in public. In the same week that Village Voice ran its
piece on nightlifeís new sick aesthetic, he celebrated his 30th
birthday with a party at Limelight called Bloodfeast. The image on the
invitation is uncannily prescient: Alig lies dead, his skull shattered
with a hammer blade beside him, as a Club Kid eats a forkful of his
brains. The blurb around this picture promises: "Freeze, skinned
alive, melting in a bloodbath," and "Legs Cut Off!".
"Itís not that Michael was a bloodthirsty
maniac," says Fenton Bailey, pointing out that Bloodfeast is the
title of an early Sixties B-movie. "Itís just that he appreciated
ironic, bad-taste sensibility." Perhaps, but his invitation now
looks strangely prophetic.
Less than a year later,
Angelís body was lying on the floor of Michael Aligís bathroom, his
head caved in by three hammer blows. And, according to Freezeís
testimony, Alig was hacking his legs off with a meat cleaver.
And after killing Angel on March 17, 1996, and
dumping his body in the Hudson River one week later, Alig and Freeze had
a relatively easy task in explaining his absence. At least, it should
have been easy, since no one really missed him that much. The
disappearance of a gay, Colombian-born drug dealer with no fixed address
wasnít likely to be high on the list of police priorities, after all.
but when people did start to notice that Angel was missing, there were
two problems. First, nobody brought Alig and Freezeís story that Angel
had just left and never come back. Second, rumours were circulating,
rumours that came from Alig himself, who just couldnít keep his mouth
shut. And clubland being what it is, neither could anybody else. One
insider estimates that "at least 20 people knew exactly what had
happened to Angel before theyíd even got rid of the corpse. I did, and
I hadnít seen Michael for nearly a year, because heíd been so strung
out on heroin."
Barely a month later, Village Voice clubland
columnist Michael Musto ran a small piece mentioning Angelís
disappearance and alluding to the rumours. Alig responded by saying it
was all a hoax started by a vicious drag queen, and that Angel had gone
back to Colombia to see his family. Anyway, if Angel was dead, he
demanded, where was the body? Given Aligís penchant for sardonic
wind-ups, many refused to take the situation at face value. Any day now,
they knew, Alig would announce a "Welcome Back From The Dead"
party with Angel as guest of honour.
Only, it seemed Alig wouldnít be around to enjoy
it. In the days immediately after Angelís death, he enrolled in, then
walked out on, two separate drug-rehabilitation programmes, and was
suddenly sacked by Peter Gatien. After losing his apartment and his most
powerful friend, Alig fled New York in a hired car, driving to Chicago
to visit a friend; from there to South Bend, Indiana, to see his mother;
and then on to Denver, to visit an ex-boyfriend and undergo a
methadone-withdrawal programme in a bid to kick his heroin habit.
While Alig wandered the mid-west, the DEA concluded
its five-month covert investigation into Gatienís nightclubs -
involving informers, telephone taps and undercover agents wearing full
drag - with the indictment of Gatien and 23 others for conspiracy to
distribute a Schedule 1 controlled substance, namely Ecstasy. Among
those indicted were former Tunnel manager Steven Lewis and Joseph
"Baby Joe" Uzzardi, a 20-year-old student who worked for
Gatien at Tunnel as a party promoter.
According to these charges, during a tapped phone
conversation with a DEA informer, Uzzardi had "indicated Gatien was
extremely paranoid about selling narcotics at Limelight and Tunnel"
after the police raid of the previous September. Given the time,
manpower and money that the DEA had invested, these new indictments were
not particularly impressive, based as they were on four Ecstasy
purchases in Limelight - and none in Tunnel. But they were enough to get
both clubs closed down: Tunnel for six weeks, Limelight for six months.
Soon afterwards, the DEA added a second indictment against Gatien, for
cocaine distribution, and extended the period of conspiracy back to
The DEAís still less-then-convincing case took a
dent when its principal informer and key witness, a 19-year-old
convicted drug dealer, was arrested trying to sell ketamine in a new New
Jersey shopping mall - this time, without authorisation from the Feds.
He was also carrying counterfeit currency.
It was clear from the transcripts of various tapped
phone calls, however, that the DEA was also very interested in
"Lord Michael" Caruso, the Staten, Island promoter who had
first brought techno to downtown Manhattan and, with it, hordes of young
B&T ravers to Limelight. But Carusoís true role in Gatienís club
empire posed several unanswered questions: was he, as the DEA alleges,
the prime mover in a huge drug ring based at the Limelight? If so, did
he act with Gatienís full knowledge and co-operation? And did he
enforce his drug trade, as many insiders claim, with the backing of a
Coney Island criminal gang called 2Gether4Ever?
The most pressing questions, however, concerned Damon
Burett, a young drug dealer who shared Carusoís $3,000-a-month luxury
apartment. It was there, on April 18, 1993, that Burett apparently
committed suicide by shooting himself in the face, just below the left
eye. Investigators were puzzled by this, since Burett was right-handed.
There were doubts, too, about the authenticity of the suicide note found
with the body, which didnít appear to be in Burettís handwriting.
Then there was the matter of Carusoís record label,
which had its recording studio in the basement of Gatienís Palladium
nightclub and was rumoured to be a money-laundering front for drug
profits. Ironically, before it went out of business, the label released
some very good records, encouraging and stimulating the local techno
scene. "Lord Michael actually understood the music", says a
former associate. "If heíd stuck to that, heíd be okay
When asked about Caruso, Gatien said heíd known him
"for about a year and a half", though he no longer employed
him and had "no idea" where he might be found. (In fact,
Caruso was last heard of promoting parties at Expo, an edgy, decidedly
unfabulous techno club on 38th Street, just below Times Square. A few
weeks ago, his name disappeared from the club flyers.)
At the start of June,
Michael Alig returned to New York from Denver to find Angelís photo on
the cover of Village Voice, flagging a long, speculative feature that
would later turn out to dovetail with Freezeís account, down to the
smallest details. English reported Frank Owen had been following Gatien
and his Club Kids for some time; the previous summer, he had gone to
Limelight and bought ketamine from Angel for a Voice cover story on the
latest drug craze (which probably helped to fuel the DEAís interest in
Gatienís clubs: although Owen named neither venue nor dealer, his
description of a man wearing wings in a nightclub narrowed it down a
Owenís piece on Angelís disappearance had been
prompted by a visit from Johnny Melendez, the missing drug dealerís
elder brother. Melendez, a 28-year-old salsa DJ who played for Latin
American nightspots, had scoured the downtown scene for two months,
taping "Missing" posters to lamposts and asking anybody and
everybody for news of his wayward sibling. Nobody seemed willing to
talk, except to give him ominous warnings that a "lot of important
people" were involved in Angelís disappearance. The last time
Melendez had seen his brother was when he had dropped him off at the
Riverbank West apartments, where he stayed with his friend, Michael
Alig. Now the only trace left was a beeper number that went unanswered.
Soon after, Angelís father arrived in New York to
join the search. But after getting short shrift from the 10th-precinct
police - and unable to find anyone who would actually admit to being
Angelís friend - the Melendez family finally turned to Owen, the
reporter who had bought ketamine from Angel and written about it in the
Owenís cover story about Angel blew the story wide
open. It was no longer clubland gossip; everybody was talking about it.
A new joke started going around: Why did Freeze hit Angel over the head
with a hammer? Because the hat didnít fit. It would have appealed to
Aligís sense of humour.
In the continued absence of a corpse, this macabre
media dance - Michael Alig: Killer Or Hoaxer? - dragged on through the
summer and into autumn 1996. Each week brought another detail, another
off-the-record corroboration. Each week, Alig and Freeze altered their
story, or threw in another red herring, until it got to the point where
they couldnít be bothered even to mount a public denial.
"Whatever Michael says is what happened," Freeze told Details
magazine last October.
Alig started to joke openly about this growing
reputation as a murderer, according to a magazine article that quoted
him saying of a cute busboy, "if he doesnít flirt back with me,
Iíll kill him. Iíve been known to do it." He was also quoted as
saying that drug dealers were paid to stay at Gatienís clubs; and that
he threw wild drug parties for Gatien (an accusation Owen had already
made in the Voice).
This indiscretion wasnít simply due to Aligís
continued use of heroin, cocaine and crack. By this point, he was
working with the DEA in its case against Gatien, and telling people that
his friends in the DEA were "helping" him to avoid answering
for Angelís death. Since the police hadnít even questioned him about
Angel at this point, it must have looked like a done deal: he probably
thought he could trade Gatienís scalp for Angelís torso.
Then, in September 1996, a homeless woman, fishing
off a pier near 134th Street, pulled a badly-mutilated corpse out of the
water, where it had been submerged for six months. The man had been
strangled and had weights attached to his arms before he was dumped.
After checking dental records, police realised it was not Angel, but
just another of the "floaters" that turn up with numbing
regularity along the Manhattan shoreline.
However, press reports linking the body to Angelís
disappearance jogged the memory of police officers in Staten Island.
Back in April, a patrol car had responded to a call at Oakwood Beach,
where children playing by the water had found a box containing the
legless body of a man in his twenties. An autopsy had shown that the
victim had been asphyxiated after being struck on the head with a blunt
instrument. At the time, it hadnít matched anyone on the
missing-persons list. Now, a quick check of the dental records proved
that it was the body of Angel Melendez. The obvious suspects were
already known to the district attorneyís office. All they needed was a
Detectives knew that Alig had been dividing his time
between Toms River, New Jersey, where he stayed in motels with his
22-year-old boyfriend, and the Chelsea Hotel, where he now lived, along
with his friend Brooke Humphries, a 26-year-old party promoter. On
December 10 last year, undercover cops posing as buyers busted Humphries
at the Chelsea Hotel for selling cocaine. Faced with 25 years in jail,
she agreed to co-operate with the murder investigation and gave a
detailed account of Aligís confession to her.
Michael Alig was arrested in New Jersey the following
day. He denied any knowledge of Angelís murder. Freeze was arrested a
few hours later. At the district attorneyís office, Freeze surprised
detectives by making a full written and oral confession, which was
videotaped. According to Freeze, Angel had attached Alig, battering him
against the wall, and when Alig had screamed for help, Freeze had
grabbed a hammer and hit Angel, who turned and grabbed for the hammer.
Freeze had hit him again, and then a third time, at which point Alig
held a pillow over Angelís face. Freeze said he pushed Alig off Angel
and then left the room, but when he went back in, there was a syringe by
the body and Alig was pouring Drano, a n industrial cleaning fluid, into
Angelís mouth. After a brief altercation, Freeze said he had helped
Alig seal Angelís mouth with gaffer tape.
The credibility of Freezeís account must be judged
in light of the autopsy: the cause of death was asphyxiation - it was
the pillow, or the gaffer tape, or the Drano, that actually killed
Angel, not the hammer blows. When I challenged one of Aligís close
friends with this version of events, he told me with a straight face
that Aligís explanation was that he had panicked, what with Angel
convulsing and puking on the floor, and placed the pillow over his face
to stop him vomiting. The Drano was an attempt to clean up the mess.
Freeze didnít explain why Alig and Angel fought so
viciously in the first place: his version had him entering the room when
the fight was already in progress. But from the various rumours and
unverifiable reports, a more plausible scenario emerges: Angel had
already saved $20,000 of his £100,000 target which he kept at Aligís
apartment, along with his stash of drugs. A couple of months earlier,
Alig had stolen either $1,000 or $2,000 from Angelís savings, and
Angel had been demanding his money back for some time. When Angel
confronted him again, Alig had replied that since he had been staying at
the apartment for months without paying shit, he should write it off as
his share of the $1,000-a-month rent. Angel had countered that he
hadnít even been given a key and that Alig had better get his money,
and quick, or heíd call the DEA and tell them everything that had been
going on in Gatienís clubs. Freeze, who was in the next room, had
heard all this and became more than a little anxious.
Alig had been talking to Freeze about killing Angel
for some time, but would never have the nerve to do it and, anyway, he
was far too reliant on Angel for drugs. But when Angel started first
screaming about going to the cops and then beating Alig, Freeze - who
resented Angel, but put up with him because Michael wanted him around -
got really angry, rushed into the bedroom, grabbed
the hammer in the closet and smashed Angelís head
in. After Angelís death, Alig stole the remaining $18,000, gave some
to Freeze and bought some new furniture for the flat, which he then
resold to finance his sudden departure to the mid-west - taking the rest
of Angelís belongings, including his green card, with him
Michael Alig and Robert
"Freeze" Riggs re now both in jail awaiting trial for
second-degree murder, which in New York State carries a maximum life
sentence. Alig has also been indicted for drug distribution, although
the substance involved has not yet been made public.
After arrangement, both were sent to the Anna M Kross
Centre on Rikerís Island, a notoriously violent institution. Alig, who
had canary yellow hair at the time, was beaten by other inmates and
forced to grant sexual favours, and had iced water poured down his pants
when he soiled himself during his heroin withdrawal. According to his
mother, Alig lay in his unheated concrete cell in this condition for
five days: he dared not venture out, for without heroin or methadone, he
was too weak to defend himself against further attack.
In February, in return for his continued co-operation
with the DEA, Alig was moved to the Metropolitan Detention Centre in
Brooklyn, an altogether more salubrious and safer environment. (The Anna
M Kross Center is a state-run jail, while the MDC is a federal prison)
"The DEA has made it quite clear," says his mother. "They
told him, "You can go back to Rikerís Island any time you
"Thatís a hell of an incentive to tell anybody
what they want to hear," says Gatien. "Itís got to the point
where thereís no turning back (for the DEA). Theyíve spent so much
money and theyíve gotten so much press on it, that they canít back
out now. Which doesnít do much for my peace of mind. I didnít do
what theyíre accusing me of, and thatís scary."
Scary is a good word for it. On March 20, 1997,
almost exactly one year after Angel was battered with a hammer and then
smothered as he lay convulsing, the DEA announced a superseding
indictment, under the Ricoh statues which were designed to tackled
organised crime, that added racketeering to the charges against Gatien.
The DEA now claims, that between 1990 and 1996, Gatien was the head of
an organised criminal network that distributed Ecstasy, cocaine,
ketamine and flunitrazepam (a downer commonly known as "roofies")
in Limelight and Tunnel. These new charges added three new defendants to
the original 23 charged with drug-dealing conspiracy: top of the list,
after Gatien, is Michael "Lord Michael" Caruso.
Nineteen defendants charged with various federal
narcotics offences involving the distribution of Ecstasy and cocaine in
Limelight and Tunnel have already pleaded guilty. Many are former Gatien
employees - doormen, bouncers and executives - some are convicted drug
dealers; all of them have co-operated with the federal authorities in
return for some degree of leniency. Since Gatien is the main target,
their testimony presumably concerns his alleged role in the drug trade.
According to the DEA, Gatien allowed Alig and Caruso to select
"house dealers", who sold drugs openly in the clubs, while
rival dealers were ejected after having their drugs confiscated (and
distributed among Club Kids or house dealers). The DEA concludes that
Gatien operated his clubs as "virtual drug supermarkets".
Gatien has also been charged with throwing drug
parties at luxury hotels such as the Four Seasons and the Mayfair.
"At these parties," says the DEA report, "Gatien would
distribute crack cocaine, cocaine, ketamine and roofies to members of
the enterprise and their associates, who, together with Gatien, would
binge on these drugs for days at a time."
The Ricoh statute is a
draconian piece of legislation. If found guilty, Gatien faces a minimum
sentence of ten years and a maximum of life imprisonment, plus a
$4-million fine. All his property and money is subject to forfeiture if
the DEA can prove that, "in whole or in part", it was derived
from, or intended for, his alleged drug trade. The DEA has already
demanded forfeiture of the Tunnel and Limelight clubs.
So could Gatien have been ignorant of the widespread
and open drug dealing in his clubs? Since Ecstasy became an intrinsic
part of the club scene in the early Nineties, many club owners have
turned a blind eye in order to keep the crowds. Testimony to the DEA
suggests that Gatien enjoyed the perks of this drug trade, treating
himself and others to lavish drug parties, but whether he actually
conspired to sell drugs and organised his businesses around this goal,
as the DEWA claims, is still a matter of conjecture.
Perhaps because of this, Gatien is not wearing his
trademark eye-patch when I interview him at the Tunnel offices, opting
instead for dark glasses. Gazing out at the sunlight sparking on the
Hudson River -the club is just a few blocks along the waterís edge
from the spot where Angelís body was dumped - he seems nervous,
answering my questions as if already on trail, cautiously, and with lots
of qualifications. His hands are trembling. No, it was not true that
Alig had a special place in his affections. No, he didnít know Freeze,
the hat-designer-turned-drug-dealer, although, of course, he had met
him. No, he didnít know Angle, though, of course, heíd met him, too.
What about Caruso? Gatien claims to have known him
for only "about a year and a half" - which is a laughable
assertion, given that Caruso started promoting in Limelight in 1990 -
and then volunteers the following: "From what I know of him, he was
clean. At times, people had mentioned he was perhaps a dealer or
whatever, and I had people look into it and he was clean. He used to be
a rave promoter years ago, so I donít know if, back then, he knew
about it or did some stuff or whatever. I donít know."
Talk money, though, and Gatien is more forthcoming.
He says that the closure of Tunnel cost him approximately $280,000 in
fines along, plus $100,000 in legal fees, plus six weeksí loss of
business, at roughly $150,000 a week, or nearly $1 million in total.
Limelight has been closed now for five-and-a-half months, losing him
another $125,000-£150,000 a week. Gatien estimates his total losses so
far as approaching $4 million, plus $430,000 in fines and legal fees.
Such huge sums lead Gatienís friends and supporters
- and even some of his rivals - to dismiss the drug-conspiracy charges
against him. They say it simply wasnít worth his time. "Peter was
making millions every year." says Rudolf, who is now based in
Paris. "It doesnít make any sense for him to be involved in
dealing drugs. He didnít need the money, and the risk to his business
was just too great. He would have been putting a gun to his own
Gatienís considerable woes stem directly from Alig,
who fingered his former boss in order to stay out of Rikerís Island.
But how much of what he says is true? All of Aligís friends testify to
his brilliance, and with his mind no longer obliterated by drug
cocktails, his intelligence is clearly at work. Alig knows he must buy
himself time, by giving the DEA information, though only in dribs and
drabs in order to increase his own chances of survival. So what is the
real story of Gatienís involvement with Alig, Angel and Freeze, and
all those drubs and boys and girls and dealers and prostitutes and drag
queens in those VIP rooms and luxury hotel suites
The full truth will probably never emerge. Alig and
Gatien will want to avoid a court trial because, culpability aside, both
are completely unsympathetic characters, the kind a jury would love to
convict: Gatien because of his money, power and cold, unemotional
bearing; Alig because of his sexuality, drug habits and sick humour.
Over the coming months, the respective lawyers will
meet their prosecution counterparts, argue and haggle. Angelís short
life and brutal death will be reduced to a bartering chip, flipped back
and forth across the table, as the legal teams devise some
mutually-acceptable fate for the fallen Gods of Gotham Nightlife. In
fact, thereís no alternative.
"In the end," Fenton Bailey says,
"thatís how the American justice system operates. Itís not
about guilt or innocence. Itís all about cutting a deal.
The Weekend Guardian - April 19 1997