On the beach, Lillo started to walk like De Niro, the soft foot, the weighty arms. He put on De Niro’s expression, the downturned mouth. Then, in De Niro’s voice, he said, “How ya doin’?”
“Oh my God,” shouted the casting scout.
In his movie roles, De Niro could be talkative. On the set of A Bronx Tale, Lillo recalls De Niro was a quiet presence. “Think about what it is,” he directed Lillo, who thought of Mr. De Niro, as he first called him, as a father figure, protective. “Your life is going to change dramatically,” De Niro told Lillo shortly before the movie premiered. “You won’t know who to trust at times. People you think are going to be your friends, you won’t know anymore . . .”
On Thursday, December 8, two days before the killing, Lillo had a problem with his girlfriend, Stefanie Armento, whom Lillo called “Little Stef” because she was so young. It was like so many other scenes between them. This time Lillo freaked out, banging on the door. When the police arrived, Lillo was standing in the street, blocking traffic, screaming, “You don’t know who the fuck I am. All I was doing was trying to help this bitch.”
Lillo had met Stef when she was 18, two years earlier. He was working out at Gold’s Gym in Yonkers when this guy handed him a phone number and motioned toward the girl making the protein shakes. Beautiful body, thought Lillo, 26 at the time. But young girls, in Lillo’s experience, try to act cool, show off for their friends. This may be a girl I call up at four in the morning, he thought. Then, the first time he was at her house, a few minutes from his, she carried herself unbelievably. This girl’s got class, he thought. She was smart. Just the words she used really impressed him. Lillo hadn’t graduated from high school, but he liked that Stef was a college girl, hoping to be a doctor. “I could talk to her about anything,” Lillo says.
Stef lived at her father’s house in Yonkers—her parents had divorced years earlier. Her dad had never taken care of her. Mostly, she felt ashamed of him. “A thief” was how her father sometimes described himself. “A junkie,” Stef says. Most days he headed to the bar at 10 a.m., drinking away an inheritance that was supposed to be for Stef and her twin sister. He’d done a couple of short prison stretches. Later, when Lillo and Stef’s father started to buddy around, Stef didn’t like it. “I always told Lillo that one of his idiot friends was going to get him in trouble, always, always,” she says, “and it ended up to be my father.”
At the start, though, everyone got along fine. Lillo and Stef had so much fun. Lillo did voices all day long, like Stef’s personal entertainment machine. Her stomach hurt from laughing. And Lillo knew the best parties and clubs, and always got in for free. Sometimes it seemed like she’d loved him forever. One of her biggest crushes ever was on Lillo in A Bronx Tale, a movie she’d seen when she was 8.
Lillo was good for the family too. He encouraged Stef to give her dad another chance. After all, he let Stef live rent-free in an upstairs apartment, a favor he extended to Lillo, who soon spent most nights there.
For a while, the relationship went great. But one thing about Stef drove Lillo crazy. She got the code to his voice mail and listened to his messages. Lillo got angry, told her that maybe she should back off, make herself a challenge.
Of course, with Lillo there was reason to be jealous. He told his mother he wanted to break Wilt Chamberlain’s record for getting girls. And girls cooperated. To Stef, it seemed like every dumb girl that Lillo met wanted to tell her friends, “Oh, I had sex with that guy from A Bronx Tale.”
This one time in October 2004 was typical. Lillo was hired on a movie in New Jersey. It was a nothing, one-day job. Stef was on her way to visit the set, but Lillo took a look at how many beautiful girls were there and, of course, went after the most beautiful. He was kissing her when he spotted this other beautiful girl, Jennifer Harrison, an extra. Luckily, Stef got caught in traffic.
Lillo wasn’t allowed to have girls stay over at home. “What is this, a hotel?” his mother complained. It wasn’t just Lillo. His brother Vinny had stumbled into a modeling career. He worked for Versace, Armani; he was on a giant Mossimo billboard in Times Square. With both sons, there seemed no end to the girls.