The New York Times

December 16, 2005


2 Accused of Killing Officer Are Arraigned in the Hospital

By KAREEM FAHIM and MATTHEW SWEENEY

Two men accused of killing an off-duty New York police officer on Saturday were arraigned early yesterday in a Bronx hospital, hearing the charges against them while wearing white hospital smocks and handcuffs that kept them locked to their wheelchairs.

One of the men, Steven Armento, 48, who prosecutors say has admitted to shooting the officer, Daniel Enchautegui, faces charges including first-degree murder.

The other suspect, Lillo Brancato Jr., 29, an actor who the authorities say accompanied Mr. Armento on a mission to steal Valium just before the shooting, was charged with second-degree murder, burglary and weapons possession.

The men, who are both recovering from gunshot wounds, did not enter pleas yesterday, and after separate proceedings in a sixth-floor conference room at Jacobi Medical Center, Judge Michael R. Sonberg ordered them held without bail.

Early Saturday, Officer Enchautegui woke to the sound of glass breaking and found the two suspects in the alleyway next to his house, the police said. During the gunfight that followed, Mr. Armento fatally shot the officer, prosecutors said. Wounded, Officer Enchautegui fired back, striking both men many times, the police said.

Terry Gottlieb, the prosecutor, said that after Mr. Brancato's arrest, the actor told investigators that he and Mr. Armento had left a club early that morning and headed to steal Valium from the house of an acquaintance. They encountered Officer Enchautegui in the alleyway.

Ms. Gottlieb quoted Mr. Armento as telling investigators, "I thought I'd shoot him first because I thought he was going to shoot us." Both men have said that Officer Enchautegui identified himself as a police officer, Ms. Gottlieb said.

Mr. Brancato's lawyer, Mel Sachs, stood with the actor's family outside the hospital yesterday and said that his client did not have a weapon that morning and did not know that Mr. Armento had a gun. "Lillo Brancato is not criminally responsible for murder," he said. "He's not responsible for the acts of someone else."

The president of the police officer's union, Patrick J. Lynch, who was present during the arraignments, reiterated his call yesterday for the death penalty in cases when police officers are killed. "If you think about taking the life of a brave New York City police officer, then and there you are determining your fate," he said.