January 10, 2006

'Sopranos' Actor Arraigned in Officer's Murder

Associated Press

"Sopranos" and "Bronx Tale" actor Lillo Brancato Jr. and a co-defendant were arraigned on murder charges yesterday in the shooting of an off-duty police officer last month.

As dozens of police officers and relatives of the defendants looked on, Mr. Brancato, 29, and Steven Armento, 48, were arraigned on charges of second-degree murder, burglary, and weapon possession. Mr. Armento, the alleged triggerman, was additionally charged with two counts of first-degree murder.

Both men, who entered the courtroom in handcuffs, pleaded not guilty before state Supreme Court Justice John Collins. The Bronx courtroom was filled to capacity with spectators including the parents of the slain officer, Daniel Enchautegui. Pedro Enchautegui sat in a wheelchair in the center aisle near his wife, Maria. The families of the defendants and the police officers filled the remaining seats. About 150 off-duty police officers stood outside the courthouse. Enchautegui was shot on December 10 as he tried to intercept a burglary in a Bronx apartment.

According to prosecutors, the defendants told police that they had been together at a strip club before deciding to break into the apartment in search of prescription drugs. Enchautegui, who lived next door, confronted them in an alley. Mr. Brancato has said that Mr. Armento opened fire after Enchautegui identified himself as a police officer and ordered them to freeze, authorities say.

Enchautegui was hit once in the chest. The mortally wounded officer returned fire, striking Mr. Brancato twice and Mr. Armento six times. "Lillo Brancato is not a murderer," Mr. Brancato's lawyer, Mel Sachs, said as he left the courthouse with the defendant's family. "Lillo Brancato is not criminally responsible. Lillo Brancato did not have a weapon and did not know there was a weapon."

At a news conference afterward, the president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch, pointed to the 150 police officers behind him and said, "We are here to make sure that the celebrity that murdered a New York City police officer is not treated any different.