Early on, Lillo got into cocaine, though coke sometimes set off this paranoid thing. Later it was Vicodin—he built to 50 a day. Then someone told Lillo that heroin would save him money. Stef remembers Lillo saying, “ ‘That’s economical.’ Like a bad dream.”
Soon heroin was Lillo’s drug of choice. He snorted, too vain for needle marks. Lately, it was an everyday thing, just to get normal. “It’s all about being able to get in touch with my guy,” Lillo says. “If I don’t get in touch with my guy, everybody in the world could be going away, I’d be the only person left at home.”
As acting took up less of Lillo’s time, drugs moved in, further diminishing his prospects. “Acting is all about what’s behind the eyes,” says one of Lillo’s managers, “and I’m looking in his eyes and there’s this fog.” Still, Lillo took professional disappointment hard. In 2004, he had a shot at another Denzel Washington movie, Tru Blu, about a Harlem drug dealer, but the studio pulled the plug. The decision had nothing to do with Lillo. But rejection shook him. “He would react that he wasn’t good enough, that was his answer,” says Lillo’s mother. In the face of disappointment, drugs helped. “When you’re high, you’re fine,” he says, “ ’cause it’s like it’s coated. There’s a mask so you don’t see or feel the pain.”
As last winter approached, Lillo got worse. Everybody saw the signs. He smoked four packs of Marlboro Reds a day. He dropped twenty pounds, down to 130. In photos, his cheeks look sunken, his chin came to a point, which to Vinny, knowing what a girl Lillo was about his looks, meant that things were really bad.
Vinny got a drug counselor involved, and in November, Lillo’s family, along with the counselor, waited for him around his parents’ kitchen table. Even Stefanie showed up, though she and Lillo were broken up.
“You just got to get over these f-ing drugs,” his mother told him. “They’re going to kill you one day.” Lillo sat down, cried a little. Everyone was so dismissive, like he was nothing more than a junkie, a term that always sent him into a rage. “I wasn’t worse of a person because I did drugs,” Lillo says.
The most awful part of the evening, though, was Little Stef. The drug counselor urged her, “Sweetheart, you should get away from this guy.” Stef cried. Maybe she wanted to be on Lillo’s side. “I love you, please stop,” she said, which is what she’d told him every day of their relationship. But, also, she thought something else: “You see someone drowning, and you want to try to save them, but at the same time, are you gonna let that person pull you in . . . drown me in sorrow?”
Lillo felt she was pushing him further and further away. “In a way, I felt that was selfish on her part,” he says. Lillo was high, and got defensive. After a while, he ran out of the house.
On Friday, December 9, the day before the killing, Steve Armento, Stefanie’s father, phoned Lillo shortly before midnight. They’d stayed friendly despite Lillo and Stef’s not seeing each other. Earlier that evening, Lillo had driven to the city to discuss a film he hoped to co-produce. It’s based on the life of his friend, club owner Noel Ashman, who’s produced four movies. “I was trying to help him,” says Noel, about bringing in Lillo. (Lillo had managed to get them a meeting with actor Chazz Palminteri, who wrote A Bronx Tale.)
Back in Yonkers, Lillo was in a great mood. His favorite neighborhood little kid, Nicky, whom Lillo called his “brother from another mother,” was at the house. “We’re playing and I’m loving every minute,” Lillo says, “ ’cause I’m home, and this is my little buddy, and I love him, and my mother’s there, and you feel safe.”
On the phone, Steve asked, “What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” said Lillo, “going to watch TV.”
“I feel like doing something,” said Steve. They hadn’t really hung out before, only to make drug runs. Lillo professed not to like Steve all that much. If he ever needed help, Lillo figured Steve would be there. He was all right that way. But Lillo told himself that his angle in seeing Steve was to catch a few words with Stef. “Only to see my girl,” says Lillo, though she wasn’t his girl at the time.
Like drugs or acting, murder happened to Lillo. “It kills me every day, being in here, knowing that I’m innocent,” he says.
“Okay,” Lillo told Steve. “Forty-five minutes. I’ll meet you at your house.”
Lillo dressed nice: a leather jacket like in Donnie Brasco, a Liz Claiborne shirt, faded boot-cut jeans, an expensive Tag Heuer watch. Lillo picked up Steve, and by 1:30 a.m., they were sitting in a Bronx strip club, mainly, Lillo says, because he knew the manager and didn’t have to pay for drinks. The club was the Crazy Horse, also the name of a club Tony Soprano frequents.