Michael Alig — nightlife legend, party monster, convicted murderer — was released from prison last week after 17 years. In the Nineties, Alig was ringleader of New York City's "Club Kids," and the majordomo for Peter Gatien's nightclub empire (which included Limelight, the Palladium, and the Tunnel). But in 1996, Alig and his friend Robert "Freeze" Riggs argued with a drug dealer named Angel Melendez, killed him and dismembered his body in gruesome fashion before disposing of the corpse in the Hudson River. (The events were dramatized in the 2003 film Party Monster, which starred Macaulay Culkin as Alig.) Post-prison, Alig has returned to New York City to find that the world had changed, but that he was still the subject of media attention and tabloid headlines.
Can you explain why you killed Angel?
No, there is no reason. Not only is there no reason, there’s no justification. The actual killing was not done on purpose. I just saw Party Monster last week, watching it with James St. James [his friend, played by Seth Green in the movie]. I understand it’s a movie, and it’s not intended to be completely factual, but there are some things that never happened, especially involving the crime: they have Freeze hitting Angel over the head with the metal part of the hammer, with blood spurting all over. And that isn’t how it happened. He grabbed the claw and hit him with the wooden handle.
I think the difference is major because it shows intent. He did not intend to cause that much bodily harm to Angel. In fact, in the autopsy there was not even a cut on Angel’s head because he didn’t him that hard. The movie makes it look like Freeze went to town on him with a hammer — really upsetting to watch.
Do you remember the immediate aftermath of Angel’s death?
When he was unconscious, we didn’t realize right away that he was dead. We were on Special K and Rohypnol and cocaine and crystal meth and heroin, and we’d been up for four days and were sort of hallucinating. We put Angel’s body on the couch, thinking that he would wake up in a few hours. And Freeze did check his pulse and put a spoon to his mouth. And it seemed like he was breathing. I thought that I saw his stomach going up and down. I don’t know if you’ve ever done Special K. It’s a very powerful hallucinogen. Maybe we were hallucinating, maybe he was alive and he died later on the couch. I’m not sure. But we checked on him periodically. Anywhere between four and eight hours later, we realized he wasn’t moving. We filled the bathtub with water to put his head under the water to see if that would shock him awake or if we would see bubbles or anything. And we didn’t. And that’s when we realized, "Oh my God."
How did that lead to the decision to get rid of his body?
Well, again, there is no justification for what we did. I can tell you what we thought was the justification, and it will sound very selfish, but that’s the nature of drug addiction. We were junkies, and calling the authorities, that’s just not something that we did. We didn’t involve them in our affairs no matter what. And even worse, what would have happened if we had to go to jail that day? We would have been sick [from withdrawal] that night. How would we have gotten through that? Not only that, but I was directing four large clubs and we were being investigated by the DEA. We had almost a thousand employees, and Peter [Gatien], my boss, said "If you go to the police, they’re going to take my liquor license away, and a thousand people are going to be out of work. And I'm going to send them to you for an explanation." I’ve had this conversation with my therapist and with the parole board. They say, "Well, a person’s life is worth more than a thousand jobs." And it is. But he was already dead. The decision made sense to us in our drug-addled minds. Would I make the same decision now? No, I would do the right thing. I mean, that’s not going to happen again.
It seems like you were the least discreet criminal possible, telling everybody that you killed him.
That was our guilty conscience — Angel was friends with all our friends. And when we went out with other friends, they would say, "Where is Angel?" I felt that even saying "I don’t know" would be a lie of omission. And that later — because I knew we would be caught eventually — I didn’t want all my friends to say, "How could you have gone months and not said anything?" So I did what I always did back then: I tried to have it both ways. I told them in a very matter-of-fact way that "We killed Angel." And because I told them in such a matter-of-fact way, they believed that I didn’t kill Angel.
Was there a moment when you took responsibility for what you had done?
Deep down inside, I took responsibility for it the moment it happened. But, like everything difficult or painful in my life, I didn’t want to face it. So I continued to run and hide and cover up using drugs, and that continued during prison. After three to four years of being completely clean, and intense therapy to understand why I was using drugs, it wasn’t until then that I was able to verbally acknowledge and describe my remorse.
Heroin, especially, is a drug you take not to feel emotions, so when it appeared that I had no feelings, people would assume that I was a sociopath, and I can understand why. The symptoms of being a sociopath and being a drug addict are almost exactly the same: the selfishness, the self-indulgence, abuse, manipulative-ness, the lying. I wasn't that way before I used drugs, and I'm not that way now. I look back at my happiest memories, and they're all pre-drug.
What do you think you learned in prison?
The biggest thing I learned in prison was patience. I was demanding and self-centered, but in prison, you learn very quickly that you’re on their time. When Freeze and I went to the methadone clinic for the first time, we were there for almost 36 hours. You sleep in the waiting room.
I was in solitary confinement for many years, and there you really learn patience. If you’re freaking out and suicidal and want to see a therapist, you have to write a letter. Maybe three or four days later, somebody will come and knock on your door, open the window and ask — if you’re alive — "Well, what’s the problem?"
Why were you in solitary?
I went to prison addicted to heroin and it’s a very difficult drug to get off — especially in prison. I would wean myself off, go through the withdrawal, and expect to be feeling better a week or a month later. And when that didn’t happen, I decided, "Fuck it. I’ve committed this horrible crime, nobody’s ever going to forgive me, I might as well just get high and not have to deal with it."
I went through that for eight, nine, ten years. At one point, there was even a two-year stretch of sobriety, but it was never long enough for my brain to become rewired back to the way it was before I started using drugs. It wasn’t really until I was off for four years that my brain really started to get wired again. But you asked about the solitary. Any time your urine tests positive, they give you another year of solitary confinement. If you’re in a drug program, they kick you out. And then when you’re in solitary confinement, all the more reason to use drugs!
Was it hard to get heroin in prison?
Unfortunately, no. When I was in solitary, the porter — the inmate who brings you breakfast, lunch, and dinner — was the heroin dealer. Generally, when you go to a new facility in solitary confinement, you just assume that the porter is going to be the drug dealer: he’s the only person who gets to walk around and deliver things to you. And if they’re not the drug dealer, they’ll become a drug dealer because there’s so much money to be made.
What’s been the biggest surprise since you’ve got out of prison?
The positive welcome I’m getting from my friends and from people who don’t even know me. I missed my subway station coming home last night because two girls across from me on the train wanted to take my picture and we just got into a conversation. The next thing I knew, I was five or six stops past my station. It’s just unreal — TMZ was following me yesterday through the West Village. I mean, I’m ambivalent about it, to tell you the truth, because on the one hand I committed this horrible crime — I actually don’t think people are paying attention to me because I killed somebody, but it can give that impression. I know that the attention is because of what I did before, but it’s very strange.
I would say it’s both — if you had lived in a cabin in Nebraska for 17 years, would you be getting this kind of attention?
If I came back to New York? I think I would. It’d be more positive: there wouldn’t be a lot of the naysayers attacking me. But, you know, it is what it is.
What’s the biggest surprise about how the world’s changed?
I didn’t have the Internet or a cell phone in prison. I knew what they were, but I was not prepared for the onslaught of information. The day before I left prison, I made a list of things that I wanted to Google: there were, like, ten things on there, and I was thinking, "Oh, I probably won’t find this or that because it’s too obscure." But now there is no such thing as too obscure. Not only is there RuPaul’s new video, but there’s video of RuPaul moving to New York thirty years ago, and coming to my house. It’s crazy! Things I don’t even remember happening.
I went to Wendy's and I had this Tuscan chicken with asiago cheese on an artisan roll. At Wendy’s? Are people so decadent that even our fast food has to be high-end?
All of my friends from the last thirty years, 99% of them are in touch with me. I’m getting 500 emails a day. On the one hand, I feel closer to everyone then I’ve ever been in my whole life, but on the other hand, I don’t have time for any of them. I have more superficial relationships than really strong ones because there’s no time! It’s pretty depressing.
In prison, did you have any strong relationships?
Well, I was dating somebody in prison. The first week that I was arrested, seventeen years ago, I met somebody — it was also his first time being arrested and he was arrested with me. We went through the whole reception process together. They give you an IQ test when you come to prison, but they won’t tell you what the score is. Some people say it’s to place you for a job in prison, but others say, "Answer all the questions wrong because if they think you’re too smart, they’ll think that you’re an escape risk and they’ll put you in a higher classification."
Luckily, we ended up in the same facility four times. It was a very laid-back existence; we got to have coffee and play backgammon, almost like a married couple. It’s hard to forge real friendships in prison. You can be awakened on any day, at 6:00 in the morning — they come to you and say, "Pack your things; you’re moving to a new facility." And there’s nothing you can do to stop it, so people don't put a lot of effort into forging any relationships. On top of that, there are a lot of criminals in prison — not exactly the people you want to get too close to or trust with your emotions.
I can tell you his first name is Mike. He’s married and he has two kids. He's in for burglary — he's got between two months and three years left. Even if he has to do the whole three years, we'll be fine.
What do you want to do with your life now?
I want to devote the rest of my life to something a lot less self-indulgent. In the beginning, with the Club Kids thing, we were presenting this notion that there was a place in the world where you would not only be accepted, but celebrated for your differences. I'm really good at spreading that message — I've got movie ideas, I've got TV ideas. I think that's my calling in life. I'll never be able to make up for what I've done, but I'll be able to go in that direction.