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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 regular crowds.

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 you."

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.

Peter 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 glass dancefloor.

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 Limelight."

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 downtown train.

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 Rohypnol.

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 it."

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 blurred."

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 January 1995.

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 now."

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 bit).

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 Voice.

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 witness.

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 like."

"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 head."

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