New York Post
December 16, 2008

Ex-Actor Denies Knowing of Gun That Killed Officer

By RALPH BLUMENTHAL

Denying that he was following a scripted defense, a sometime actor who has played mob roles took the witness stand in his real-life murder trial on Monday, trying to convince a Bronx jury that he had been a desperate drug addict, but not a partner in the killing of an off-duty police officer.

“Mentally, I was a mess,” said the actor, Lillo Brancato Jr., 32, who is also charged with a burglary that led to the slaying of the officer, Daniel Enchautegui, in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx on Dec. 10, 2005.

Mr. Brancato, who appeared in “The Sopranos” and “A Bronx Tale,” among other television shows and movies, testified in State Supreme Court in the Bronx that he was “dope-sick,” with the shakes, hot flashes and cold sweats — “even my hair was hurting” — when he and a companion went to the home of a drug supplier and smashed a window.

But he denied trying to gain entry to the house at Arnow Place and Westchester Avenue, and said he had no idea that his companion, Steven Armento, was carrying a .357 Magnum.

Officer Enchautegui, 28, a neighbor, was awakened by the sound of breaking glass and went over to investigate. He was shot by Mr. Armento, 51, who was convicted of first-degree murder in October and is serving life without parole.

Mr. Brancato is charged with burglary and second-degree murder. Prosecutors are trying to prove that although he did not pull the trigger, he committed a felony, burglary, and is thus responsible under the law for the officer’s death.

But Mr. Brancato insisted in court that, for years, he had been a welcome guest at the house of the drug supplier, Kenneth Scovotti, free to enter at will, and was just trying to wake him up by banging on a window.

He said he did not know that Mr. Scovotti, a disabled Vietnam veteran, had died months before.

He also said he did not know how a screen that was later found lying on the ground came to be removed from the window. And he said that neither he nor Mr. Armento were wearing the latex gloves that were found at the scene and that a prosecution expert testified bore both men’s DNA.

Mr. Brancato, a slight figure with close-cropped dark hair, insisted that he was telling the truth despite the prosecutor’s repeated attempts to suggest that he was acting for the benefit of the jury.

“You make what’s fiction appear to be reality,” said an assistant district attorney, Theresa Gottlieb.

Ms. Gottlieb interrupted his testimony at one point by saying, “I got the script,” drawing a furious objection from Mr. Brancato’s defense lawyer, Joseph Tacopina, and an admonishment from Justice Martin Marcus.

But Mr. Brancato appeared to slip at one point. “No, no script,” he said when asked how he and his lawyer prepared for his testimony. “We discussed what I was going to s— ,” he said, suddenly breaking off and continuing, “what I would talk about.”

Mr. Brancato — whose character in “The Sopranos” suffered a hideous death in an early episode after a botched attempt to kill the nephew of the family boss, Tony Soprano — was shot twice by Officer Enchautegui, who also wounded Mr. Armento. The Bronx district attorney’s office charged that Mr. Armento executed the officer when he confronted the pair.

But Mr. Brancato said they were surprised by the officer. “I remember someone saying, ‘Don’t move,’ ” he testified. “I was startled and I was shot twice.”

He said that when other officers arrived, he pulled up his shirt to show his bullet wounds and identified his assailant as the officer.

Staring him down in court on Monday were several rows of police officers and Officer Enchautegui’s sister Yolanda Rosa.

Outside court, Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, derided Mr. Brancato. “He’s lying,” he said. “He’s reading from a script.” Of the jurors, he said, “I hope they’re not fooled by his fame.”

On the stand, Mr. Brancato said he began acting at 16. He was discovered at Jones Beach by scouts for Robert DeNiro and was cast as the actor’s son in “A Bronx Tale.”

It was on that set that he was introduced to drugs, he said. “It became a daily thing.”

In the movie, Mr. Brancato’s character, Calogero Anello, known as C, says he learned some lessons. “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent,” he says, “and the choices you make will shape your life forever.”