Lillo Brancato From Jail: 'The Drugs Always Win'

In first interview since trial, actor on the crime that killed his career.

February 18, 2009, 5:16 PM

Feb. 19, 2009— -- In the Riker's Island jail, where he spent much of last three years, 32-year-old Lillo Brancato couldn't help but agree with a grim assessment.

"You threw it away," he was told.

"Yeah, I did," he said. "I'm ashamed."

That's because back in 1993, when his young face lit up the screen in "A Bronx Tale," Lillo Brancato looked to the entire world like a teenager on the brink of showbiz greatness.

For Brancato, "The sky was the limit," thought Chazz Palminteri, who'd created "A Bronx Tale" from the hard-won lessons and stories of his own life.

Then just 16, Brancato was plucked from obscurity to work with actor/writer Palminteri and actor/director Robert DeNiro to play a starring role in what would be one of the era's most fondly regarded films.

"I remember it so clear, as we were shooting -- I remember, I said, 'I hope we're not cursing this kid,'" said Palminteri in an interview with "20/20."

Brancato was given a once-in-a-generation opportunity in the movie business. But 16 years later, opportunity of any kind is nowhere to be found.

"I squandered it," he said, in his first interview since his trial.

The events that brought Brancato from celluloid fame to a prison cell still reverberate in the lives of so many; events that culminated in one horrific night in a Bronx driveway, on Dec. 10, 2005. When it was over, Daniel Enchautegui, a 28-year-old police officer, lay dead and Brancato -- the movie star -- would be charged with the officer's murder.

Fame 'Gets to Your Head'

Amazingly, Brancato's acting career started with a day at the beach.

As a teenager, Brancato loved to do impressions for his brother Vinny, so when a man came up to the two Brancato brothers and handed them fliers about the film version of Palminteri's play, "A Bronx Tale," Vinny knew who'd be perfect.

"I was like 'Li, do Joe Pesci for him. Li, do DeNiro for them,'" Vinny Brancato said.

Brancato re-enacted scenes from "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull"; weeks later, without any acting experience whatsoever, he was cast as DeNiro's impressionable teenage son in the film, which was to be DeNiro's directing debut as well.

"It was unbelievable," Palminteri said. "I mean, the kid just was a natural. I said, 'Listen to me right now. What you are given right now is an incredible opportunity. You have been hit by lightning.' I said, 'What happened to you is more rare than winning the Lotto. Do you understand that?"

"It just came so easily for me," said Brancato.

It was all so easy that Brancato once got high on dope during filming of a key scene.

"He could be such a good kid -- like such a loving good kid, and then the next minute be so irresponsible," recalled Palminteri. "I couldn't understand it."

Palminteri wasn't the only one trying to caution Brancato during filming. DeNiro paid Brancato a visit right before the film was released.

"He said, 'a lot of people are going to want to be your friends, you know, and they don't have your best interest at heart. So you got to be careful and you got to choose your friends wisely,'" remembered Brancato. "I kind of shrugged it off. It was kind of like, 'yeah, I understand what you're saying, but not me, I'll be fine, Bob.'"

But he wasn't.

"A Bronx Tale" was a success, and Brancato was cast in "Crimson Tide" and Penny Marshall's "Renaissance Man." Meanwhile, he also got VIP treatment in every hot club in New York.

"Let's face it, it feels, feels great. I mean, you know, it does feel great, but after a while, I guess it gets to your head, it definitely gets to your head," he said.

"It was people that changed my brother -- free drugs, free booze, free women, you know," Vinny Brancato said.

By that time, Brancato had found a way to keep the party going: cocaine. He was using it at least as far back as 1999, when he was cast in the second season of the HBO series "The Sopranos," playing an enjoyably thick-headed hunk with a notably violent streak that would eventually cost him dearly at season's end.

Was he high when he did "The Sopranos"?

"I may have been, yes. I may have been, yes," he said.

Yet, even as his partying continued, Brancato never moved out of his parents' house in Yonkers, N.Y., where his mother doted on him like a favorite son.

"I guess 'cause my mom made it easy for him, you know?" said Vinny Brancato.

"This kid had so much natural ability but did nothing with it. Nothing. Zero," said Palminteri. "Never went to acting school. Never really read scripts. Never networked the business. Didn't do anything."

Lillo Brancato's Downward Spiral

By 2005, with time on his hands, Brancato started getting into hard drugs, like cocaine and heroin, full time.

"Instead of having two drinks, you'll have four. And then from the four drinks, then you'll snort a line of cocaine," he said. "And then from that line of cocaine, to come down, you'll do some heroin. And then it, it doesn't end, it doesn't end -- the drugs always, always win."

His family staged an intervention and got Lillo into rehab.

"His personality was going away. He had no personality anymore," Vinny Brancato said.

But nothing took, and his brother felt he knew the secret that had driven his brother to drugs: Brancato had been adopted from an orphanage in Bogota, Colombia.

"He'd be going in my mom's room at 3 o'clock in the morning talking about that," Vinny Brancato said. "He must have felt that he wasn't accepted in life, at an early age, from his mother and father. It always bothered him."

By December 2005, his drug use was out of control.

"I was a lost cause." Brancato said. "I was getting worse every day."

"I thought he was going to die," his brother said.

But Brancato didn't die. Somebody else did in the early morning hours of Dec. 10, 2005.

Brancato and pal Steven Armento had spent the night at a strip club. By 4 a.m., they were out of drugs and craved more.

"The crack cocaine was eating the heroin to the point where I was, I was noticably dopesick -- where I felt every ache and pain," said Brancato. "I needed a fix."

To get that fix, they drove to the apartment of Brancato's friend Kenny Scuvatti. Brancato broke Scuvatti's window, and that sound apparently awakened Officer Daniel Enchautegui, who lived next door. He went outside to check and called 911.

"OK, what's the address and what borough?" the 911 operator asked.

"Bronx. 3119 Arnow Place," he said. "I'm not sure they're still in there."

It would be the last phone call of Enchautegui's life. Seconds later, as the 28-year-old officer came upon Brancato and Armento, shots rang out.

"I remember walking and I remember hearing someone say, 'Don't move,' and I was startled," Brancato said. "So I turned around quickly and I was shot, I was shot twice."

Racing to the scene, Officer Courtney Mapp saw Brancato and Armento staggering down the Arnow Place driveway. Both had gunshot wounds. Armento was still holding his .357 magnum as he collapsed. Yards away, his gun in his hand, Enchautegui was dying -- cut down by two bullets from Armento's gun.

'I Am a Good and Decent Person'

For his involvement in Enchautegui's death, Armento would be sentenced to life without parole. The charges against Brancato were attempted burglary and felony murder. For Brancato, the murder charge would hinge on whether he knew Armento had a gun.

Brancato said he didn't know and that he wouldn't have permitted a weapon in his car.

"I mean, he knew that I wasn't that type of person," Brancato said. "So he probably never told me or showed me that he had a gun because he knew that that's something that I would be against and I wouldn't allow it in my car."

Mapp, the officer on the scene, doesn't buy that excuse.

"He may be a junkie, but he's not a dummy," Mapp said. "He knew what was going on that night. Whether he pulled the trigger or not, he committed that murder along with his buddy."

In the end, a jury found Brancato guilty of attempted burglary, but not guilty of felony murder.

"It was a slap in my face," said Yolanda Rosa, Enchautegui's sister.

In his message of remorse read before sentencing, Brancato wrote, "While I have made mistakes, at my core, I am a good and decent person." Brancato was sentenced to 10 years, three of which he has already served.

From the man who created "A Bronx Tale," Palminteri, there is deep sympathy -- but solely for Enchautegui's family. For Brancato, there is frustration -- and anger.

"He said those words in the movie. I wrote those words. 'The saddest thing in life is wasted talent and the choices you make will shape your life forever,'" Palminteri said. "I mean, what else do you want to hear? What else do you want to know?! How could you do this? How?"

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