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.
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.
Vinny solved the problem by settling down with his high-school girlfriend. Lillo picked a few Yonkers hotels. By nature, he didn’t like to spend more than he had to, so he found one for $34.50 for three hours for the girls he could care less about. If the girl rated a little better, there was the Holiday Inn. The best ones he took to the Royal Regency and got the nice room, hot tub and everything, which cost $280.
Incredibly, one afternoon Stef caught Lillo at the front desk of the Regency. He was standing there with Jennifer from the movie set. Stef had broken it off the week before. But Lillo had been calling every day. “You said you missed me,” Stef screamed. She ran down the steps, crying. After that, Lillo couldn’t enjoy himself. He felt like asking Jennifer, “You got $140?”—he was so downhearted. Not that Jennifer expected much. With Lillo and drugs, Jennifer knew sex was iffy.
When Lillo gets out, he wants to make a movie. “In a way, I’m glad I went through this stuff,” he says, “because I can capture it on film and would know how to do it.”
The day after the Regency fiasco, Lillo called Stef but she wouldn’t answer. “I didn’t realize how much I loved her until we started quarreling,” he says. He sent roses. She responded with a text message: THE FLOWERS WERE BEAUTIFUL BUT THEY CAN’T HIDE THE PAIN. He bought her a ring, a pink sapphire, and it cost him. “By me spending this money meant that I really loved her,” he says.
Lillo finally got her to see him.
“You ain’t never going to meet anyone like me,” he told Stef. “No other Lillos.”
She laughed. “I know,” Lillo remembers her saying.
They got back together Christmas day, 2004, almost three months after the Regency situation. “It was the best Christmas present I could have got,” says Lillo.
The relationship was good for a time. Then in June 2005, Lillo was arrested for possession of heroin. For Stef it was awful. Her father chose drugs over being a father. She tried to get Lillo off the stuff, yelling, throwing things at him, feeling guilty if she went to school and wasn’t there to monitor him. “I never wanted to break up with him,” she says. Lillo kept promising to quit, then he’d sneak out of her bed to go score. When she caught him, she freaked out: “What, are you fucking kidding me?” By October, Stef and Lillo were over.
Lillo was devastated. “She loved me so much, and I hate to say it, but I had her in the palm of my hands,” Lillo says. “And then one day I didn’t, and it was so hard to accept.” Lillo built the whole thing up, as if Stef might be his only salvation. “It was like I had to get back with her because I knew I would have chosen her over drugs,” he says.
And so on December 8, Lillo drove to Stef’s house hopeful for one more reconciliation. It was 9 p.m. when he rang the doorbell. Stef wasn’t there. Her sister intervened. She wouldn’t let him in. “She just wouldn’t mind her business,” says Lillo. There was no way Lillo was coming in. She not only called the cops. At her instigation, the sisters petitioned the court for a protection order prohibiting Lillo from visiting or even phoning Little Stef.
For Lillo, drugs had been like a second career; eventually they became a first. After A Bronx Tale, De Niro helped Lillo land a featured role in Renaissance Man, the Penny Marshall film with Danny DeVito. It was a great character, a four-eyed kid from the Bronx who joins the Army. Lillo played a climactic scene, reciting Shakespeare in the rain. Then he won an important part in Crimson Tide, which starred Denzel Washington. It was another strong performance as a streetwise kid with a Bronx accent. “I saved the world,” says Lillo. All this before age 20. He thought, This is the way it’s supposed to be.
A manager urged Lillo to work on his accent so he could play something besides the outer-borough type—the hood, the drug dealer, the cop. Lillo, though, didn’t really think of acting as a career to be shrewdly managed. He’d never take acting lessons.
He did, though, take drugs. People told Lillo a person takes drugs for a reason. Lillo couldn’t see it. “I had the opportunity. When you were still in school, I was in Hollywood. It’s just different lives,” he says. The spur to drugs, as Lillo saw it, was free time. “I swear, a lot of the times I did drugs, it was straight up out of being bored,” he says. Most days, Lillo slept till all hours, then went partying at night. At nightclubs in Yonkers or White Plains, he’d run into trouble—guys making comments, picking fights, since their girlfriends sought Lillo’s attention (even with Stef holding his hand). So he gravitated to Manhattan clubs. He especially liked Veruka or NA, owned by his friend Noel Ashman. There he was ushered into the VIP section with David Wells, the ex-Yankee, or Leonardo DiCaprio. One night, Lillo ran into De Niro at Veruka. Lillo introduced him around, a small reunion.
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.
Steve drank Glenlivet that night. Lillo isn’t a big drinker. Maybe a Johnny Walker Black with a splash of club soda, Sinatra’s drink. They didn’t have much to talk about. Steve sometimes told stories about his burglaries. He stole a backhoe once, drove it away. Or he talked about real estate. Steve had inherited property, which he’d been selling off, mostly, it seemed, to finance his drinking. At least, thought Lillo, there’s a chance to talk about Stef, though it was a disappointment when it came.
“I really don’t care or anything,” Steve said eventually, “but, like, maybe sometimes you should wait for her to call you.”
That night, Lillo was doing heroin, plus some coke. Toward 4 a.m., he thought Valium would make for a soft landing. Steve later suggested that the plan was to score, then go see Lillo’s girlfriend, as he tantalizingly referred to his daughter.
Lillo couldn’t reach his guy, his dealer. Then he thought of a Vietnam vet in Yonkers with a full medicine chest. His name was Kenneth Scovotti, and he was a Bronx Tale fan. Lillo knew this because he’d been in the area one day and Kenny had given him a ride home. “This guy seemed happy-go-lucky,” says Lillo, “a pushover.” Lillo and Steve headed to Kenny’s on Arnow Place, a few minutes from Lillo’s home. They must have knocked. When no one answered, Lillo broke a window. “Kenny! Kenny!” he called in a loud whisper.
A next-door neighbor apparently heard the commotion.
Walking away from Kenny’s, Lillo and Steve took an alley next to the house. They heard a voice. “Hey, what are you guys doing?” It was a little after 5 a.m. and still dark.
Later, Steve said that when he saw the guy’s gun, he reached to his waist and pulled out his own.
Shots were fired. Lillo says he was hit first. A bullet tore through his chest below the pocket on his Liz Claiborne shirt. Steve got hit, too. By 5:23 a.m., the time cited in the first police report, the next-door neighbor, an off-duty cop, lay dead. Steve had shot him near the heart.
At Lillo’s parents’ home, a stately six-bedroom brick house built by Lillo’s father, people drift in without knocking. “My door’s never locked,” says Lillo’s mother, Domenica. Anthony is there and so is his wife, Lillo’s first cousin. A couple of neighbors’ kids have shown up, including Nicky, Lillo’s favorite. Most of the time, the Brancatos have company. “This house is Grand Central,” says Vinny, whose girlfriend of thirteen years soon walks in. This evening, Lillo’s lawyer is with the family. Mel A. Sachs, a top Manhattan criminal-defense attorney, has represented high-profile clients like David Wells, Lil’ Kim, and Mike Tyson, and has a reputation for winning some tough cases. Not long ago, he won the acquittal of a cop charged with attempted murder.
The visitors settle in a family room across from a giant TV screen. It’s a present from Lillo and a reminder of happier days. Lillo Sr., who has a bad heart, has been disabled for the better part of ten years and works when he can. Lillo used to help financially (not that he’s ever had a real Hollywood payday: $25,000 for A Bronx Tale, scale for The Sopranos). His mother sometimes hoped for Lillo to land a nice part, “help us out a little more.” In the meantime, they’ve decided to rent out his two-room apartment.
Lillo would love a gathering like this. “You wouldn’t get a word in edgewise,” says Vinny. Lillo couldn’t get enough of his family. If he traveled to Hollywood, he’d call home every day. “Mom, oh, I miss my bed,” he’d tell Domenica. Mother and son have a special relationship. She prepared his meals and bought his clothes. Lillo didn’t drive until he was 27; he still doesn’t know how to write a check. “We have honestly no secrets from each other,” she says. “My son comes to me with everything.” Often, she waited up for him. “Ma, I’m home,” he’d call and then tell her about his girls and, later, his drug habit, though not the heroin. To her, Lillo is a “momma’s boy,” which she finds irresistible. Trouble, when it came, only drew them closer. She sees all the bad in Lillo, and none of it. “He’s selfish, but he’s not selfish,” says Domenica.
Domenica is short, redheaded, and shaped like a teapot. Around her neck, she wears a medal to St. Rita, the patron of impossible cases. She’s laid out a table of homemade pizza, a mozzarella dish, plates of out-of-season fruit, olives.
“She’s the best mom, and the best chef,” says Lillo Sr., 58.
“But not the best wife, did you hear that one?” says Domenica, who’s 54. They’ve been married 36 years. She motions with her hand like a roller coaster. “We love each other, but the kids come first,” she says. Lillo first of all. “I think he got more out of me, all of us,” she says. “Because he had more needs. He was first love, true love. He is in my blood.”
Vinny too is devoted to Lillo. Like his brother, Vinny had watched a career happen to him. At a photo shoot with Lillo, photographer Bruce Weber fell for Vinny’s look and set him up with Click, the modeling agency. Vinny, though, quickly tired of that world. “I wasn’t so about myself like those people are,” he says. “I never felt comfortable being there.” He’s a Yonkers civil servant now and lives at home.
“My brother’s always there for me, always,” says Lillo. In recent years, though, Vinny’s pulled back. He stopped going out with Lillo at night. “I just couldn’t deal with always having problems with people,” he says, referring to the guys who picked fights because Lillo is a celebrity. Vinny tried to get Lillo to work with him and their dad when Vinny was trying to shore up the construction business. Lillo, though, couldn’t wake up on time. “I gave up after a while,” Vinny says.
Maybe Domenica senses a tone. Does Vinny’s weariness seem like blame? For her, there’s one cause of Lillo’s problems, and it’s beyond Lillo’s control. Two weeks after she learned she was pregnant with Vinny, the adoption agency called. Lillo arrived from an orphanage in Bogotá, Colombia, at 4 months old. For Domenica, adoption is the hole into which everything falls. “Abandonment’s abandonment, I don’t care what anybody says,” she says. “He was left, so at times I’m sure he questions. Why I wasn’t good enough to be with my mother and father?” Domenica is sure adoption is why Lillo did drugs.
Vinny knows that Lillo often thought about adoption. He’d get depressed, wondering if he belonged. That he and his brother were so different rattled him.
But to Vinny, adoption seems another dead end, Lillo liking his trouble too much. “Listen, if that’s a problem for you, let’s go to Colombia, let’s find your parents,” Vinny told Lillo. “We’ll do what we have to do.”
“No, you’re my family,” Lillo said. He couldn’t have created a better family. With Lillo, it was always the same. There was nothing to do.
Domenica’s eyebrows are narrow, orange-colored. Suddenly, they arch. It doesn’t matter what others say, how fed up they are. Domenica won’t budge. “I cannot hate Lillo, you understand what I’m saying?” She pauses, touches the medal around her neck. “If somebody does something to you, you can’t forgive them,” she says. “I do. I forgive him.”
On Saturday, December 10, the day of the killing,Lillo was taken by ambulance to Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx. He’d been shot three times. Lillo’s mother and father tried to see him, but for four days, police turned away everyone, including a lawyer. (His parents only saw Lillo after Sachs intervened.) In the interim, Lillo confided in the police. He told a detective that he’d climbed through Kenny’s broken window. The place was empty. It was a junkie’s caper. Kenny had died in July.
As Lillo and Steve Armento walked away, New York City police officer Daniel Enchautegui, dressed in civilian clothes, came around the adjacent house, where he lived. Enchautegui, 28, had been a cop for three years, patrolling the Bronx, where he grew up. To his partner, he seemed a teddy bear with a shaved head, heavyset and easygoing. He’d never fired his weapon at anyone. Enchautegui’s shift had finished by midnight though it usually took a few hours of TV or Vice City to unwind. When Enchautegui heard a noise next door, he called 911. He put a badge around his neck, grabbed a gray jacket and his off-duty gun, the one cops have to buy themselves. He headed to meet the squad cars. He didn’t wear a bulletproof vest. Cops aren’t supposed to take them home.
Lillo told a detective that Enchautegui “asked who we were.” Steve told a detective that Enchautegui said, “Don’t move.” Lillo says that his back was toward Enchautegui. He turned quickly toward him, not knowing he was a cop. In the initial police report, he identified Enchautegui as “the bald guy.”
Steve reacted differently. Steve told a detective, “I took out my gun when I saw him.” Then, adjusting his statement, he said, “I saw his gun so I pulled out my gun.” Lillo wasn’t a gun guy. In his half-dozen minor offenses, he hadn’t had a weapon. Lillo says he didn’t know Steve had a gun.
“I thought I[’d] shoot him first,” Steve told a detective, “because I thought he was going to shoot us.” The cop, though, fired first, says Lillo. He told a detective, “He shot Steve and Steve shot back,” as if Lillo had seen the exchange. Later, Lillo said he was already running when he heard Steve’s shots. To Lillo, the cop’s rounds sounded dinky, like firecrackers. Then Steve’s gun, a .357, discharged. “I hear, BOOOOOOMM! That gun, it shook everything. It shook the ground.” Then Lillo didn’t hear anything else.
In January, a month after the killing, Lillo is at Rikers Island. He’s charged with second-degree murder and being held without bail while awaiting trial. In prison, he’s detoxed (even cigarettes are mostly gone) and quickly gained twenty pounds. Lillo feels terrible about the dead cop. “Too painful to talk about,” he says. Still, he’s not sure why it involves him. “I was in the wrong place, wrong time,” he says. Like drugs or acting, murder happened to Lillo. People misunderstand. “It kills me every day, being in here, knowing that I’m innocent,” he says. “I’m not a person who should be here. I am a good person.”
Lillo still looks remarkably like De Niro, the fleshy nose, the soft eyes. He sometimes imagines he could be a better actor than De Niro. “He can do some things I can’t, and I can do some things he can’t,” says Lillo. In his last movie role, Lillo had been cast as De Niro. It wasn’t a compliment. It was a one-day gig as a kind of tribute band. That’s behind him now. The prison’s interview room is the size of a closet. A steel grate separates Lillo from visitors. Lillo, five seven, wears a gray jumpsuit many sizes too big. He doesn’t seem to mind. He propels himself out of his green plastic chair, launches into his repertoire. He does De Niro and Pesci. Lillo’s lawyer, Sachs, looks on. (Passing guards shout to Sachs as if he’s the celebrity; not long ago he won the acquittal of a corrections officer accused of murder.) Sachs laughs appreciatively at Lillo’s easy gifts, his obvious talent. Encouraged, Lillo shifts. Perhaps, in his mind, it’s just a slight shift. He’s going to be a filmmaker. Like De Niro. “That was what I was put here for,” he says, referring to this Earth. Lillo hasn’t yet written, directed, or produced a film. He started one script but couldn’t find a ghostwriter to his liking. Prison, though, is bracing. “I think one day I could be one of the best filmmakers, ” he says. “It’s in me.” Once he gets out, he’s going to do a movie, one he’s long contemplated. It’s about his life.
“In a way, I’m glad I went through this stuff,” he says, “because I can capture it on film and would know how to do it.” His bottom lip juts forward, and he nods slowly. He’s casting the parts. “I want to get Richie from The Sopranos to play my father,” he says. He’s thinking through shots, angles, music. Lillo works himself up. His movie is about family relations, two sons, one good, one bad. “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” the father says to the bad son, the character Lillo will play.
As if in answer, Lillo, in that floppy gray suit, sings, “I’m wicked and I’m lazy!”—an old David Byrne lyric that he definitely wants in the movie. “And then you see me in the living room still in my clothes, sleeping,” he says. “I want to make everything real.” In the tiny interview room, he’s blocking his movie, thinking out loud, as if pitching a script. “No,” he says, redirecting the scene. He decides it will open on a clock. It’s 2:18 in the afternoon. The camera pans. Lillo puts his forefingers and thumbs together to represent a camera, and slides them slowly across the steel grate. Then in the movie, you see Lillo. He does his own line now: “Oh, shit.” He’s late. He kisses his mother. “Hey, Mom, I’ll meet you guys later,” he says. And then boom, the scene cuts to kids playing dice against a wall. Lillo narrates the audience’s view: “You’re saying, ‘What the fuck is going on here?’ ” Lillo likes that. He smiles, showing his teeth, going dark in spots. Before, he needed a ghostwriter. Now he feels invigorated, focused. “I should be out, home, with my laptop, writing,” he says. “I think I’m a pretty good writer.”
Lillo has long counted on others’ forgiveness. In prison, he’s found a way to repurpose the past, make it come out better. Maybe the killing will show up in his movie, Lillo unluckily ensnared. There’d have to be a love interest. Perhaps Little Stef would inspire a character. The neighborhood sweetheart who finds her way back to Lillo, realizing his goodness, redeeming his troubles. Why not? Since the killing, Lillo feels their relationship works better. “She just does it for me,” he says happily. Stef visited Lillo at Rikers. She sent him a Valentine’s card. In Lillo’s mind, she finally understands. “Ultimately I took bullets, even though it was, indirectly, because of her,” he figures.
Stef, always more realistic, isn’t thinking along the same lines. College is just about over. She’s considering becoming a physician’s assistant, less stressful than a doctor. About Lillo, she says, “I still love him.” Then she flashes with anger. “I forgave him too many fucking times,” she says. She feels terrible for Lillo, but, at least, now she knows where he is every second of the day and that he can’t get drugs. “I’m not scared for you anymore,” she told him, and then told him that she just wants to be friends.
Lillo told her he doesn’t want her pity. And anyhow, he doesn’t see himself with her forever. He says, “At this point, I need to think about myself and get out of here.” He’s working out again. His arms, even his abs, which have a long surgical scar from the shooting, are coming back. Lately, he’s thinking about his hair, how he’ll do it when he gets out, maybe for his movie. He’s weighing a new look. Long in the back, he’s thinking, like a soap-opera star.
Additional reporting by Matthew Philips and Merry Zide.