On Wednesday, December 7, three days before the killing, Lillo Brancato Jr. decided to dress. Like a gentleman, as he later put it. He pulled on brown pants with a light pinstripe and a gray suede jacket. Earlier, Lillo had gone tanning. It came out great, and to show off the results, he chose a white shirt with French cuffs, and a beautiful pair of cuff links. He’d had his hair cut that day, too, and it also came out beautiful, parted in the middle, not one wavy, dark strand out of place. In his apartment, upstairs in his parents’ home in Yonkers, he grabbed a sweater, a pullover, then thought better of it. With his hair so perfect, he had to go with the button-down.
For a moment, Lillo stood in front of a mirror, considering himself. He had just enough heroin in his system to get normal, no pains or anything. He thought about doing more, decided against it. He was looking that good. Holy shit, he thought, I’m going to do damage tonight.
On his way out, Lillo called to his mother. “Ma, I need money,” he said. It was Lillo’s money, but his mother managed it, doling it out in $100 or $200 chunks. Lillo climbed into his leased Ford Explorer and headed to Scores in Manhattan. He always did well at strip clubs.
Strolling into the club that night, Lillo was 29 and by some measures already a has-been. He’d been 16 when he starred in A Bronx Tale, the part for which he’s still best known; 23 when he landed a role on a season of The Sopranos. In 2000, for six episodes, Lillo played an aspiring mobster. But that night, Lillo thought how great he looked. Like a movie star. He smiled and settled into a plush armchair, smoothing the creases on his pin-striped pants. His mother didn’t like him smoking at home. At Scores, Lillo bought himself a nice Macanudo. In a little while, two Russian girls recognized him—blondes with full, pouty lips, D cups easy. Lillo sometimes thought he must’ve been born with that quality of being cool. Right away he told them, “If you’re looking to make money, you ain’t going to make it with me.”
“No, no,” the Russian girls said, and sat down. When Scores closed at 4 a.m., Lillo and the girls climbed into the Explorer. The two spoke just enough English to let Lillo know that they wanted cocaine. Lillo steered toward Yonkers, where he knew how to score.
In the car afterward, they got busy with the drugs. The girls must have expected Lillo to bring up sex; guys always did. Lillo didn’t mention it. He didn’t have an appetite; drugs took care of that. With drugs, performance could be an issue, too. Lillo told himself he didn’t care. It was there if he wanted, so, really, it was done without doing it. Why take the extra step?
Later, recalling the evening from prison—his hair and his tan, his gentleman’s clothes, and two beautiful girls at his side—Lillo’s eyes close partway, like he’s calling up the memory. “It was a perfect night,” he says slowly and smooths the creases on his gray jumpsuit.
Yonkers is a bridge community, a pivot point between neighboring Bronx and suburban Westchester County. Growing up there, Lillo didn’t seem headed in any particular direction. The year he turned 15, he was escorted out of Catholic School. He was very smart, with an unbelievable memory—Lillo doesn’t punch phone numbers into his cell phone; he memorizes them. But Lillo craved attention, which was disruptive. And he got in fights. Lillo’s parents weren’t overly concerned. There was always the family business. Lillo’s father, an Italian immigrant, ran a construction company in Yonkers.
Not that anyone really pictured Lillo in construction. He didn’t like getting dirty. And he was antsy. When family got together—Lillo’s father has half a dozen siblings, many in the neighborhood—Lillo was the entertainment. He could impersonate anybody, though he had a special aptitude for Italian movie stars, particularly their mobster roles. Like Pesci, Pacino, or Liotta in GoodFellas, a movie he knew by heart. Lillo’s favorite, though, was Robert De Niro, whom everyone said Lillo looked like. Lillo loved De Niro. Sometimes Lillo thought he was De Niro. When Cape Fear came out, Lillo grew his hair long and put fake tattoos up and down his arms, like De Niro’s character. After Lillo saw Raging Bull, in which De Niro plays a middleweight, Lillo put an orange peel in his mouth, like a mouth protector, and sparred with his brother in the kitchen.
Then, one summer day fourteen years ago—it was July 5, 1992—Lillo was at Jones Beach with his brother Vinny and some cousins. People took Vinny and Lillo for twins —that summer, they were both 15. (In fact, Lillo was adopted three months before Vinny was born.) At the beach, Lillo was braving the water when Vinny shouted, “Hey, Li, the guy from the De Niro movie is here.” De Niro was to star in and direct A Bronx Tale. A scout was handing out flyers, hunting for a teenager to play De Niro’s son.