A Second Chance At…Redemption

In some ways, it’s a testament to his acting ability that so many people were not surprised when Yonkers resident Lillo Brancato, Jr.—the actor most famous for his wannabe-wiseguy roles in A Bronx Tale and The Sopranos—was arrested and sent to prison for his role in an armed robbery that led to the killing of an off-duty police officer. After all, his best-known characters—Calogero Anello and Matthew Bevalaqua—both had had a taste of crime and brushes with the law, though the former ended up choosing the “right” path and the latter ended up murdered, was torn apart by a hail of bullets. 

However you look at Brancato’s story, and regardless of whom and which accounts you believe, the saga contains a certain amount of art imitating life and vice versa. But this time, Brancato’s “role” was no act. This time, he was an accused perp and the blood and the bullets were real. And this time, it was a cop, NYPD Officer Daniel Enchautegui—not an actor portraying a petty criminal—who was dead.  

It happened in December 2005, when, according to Brancato, he and Steven Armento, the father of Brancato’s girlfriend at the time, went to the Bronx home of Kenny Scovotti, an “eccentric Vietnam vet” whom Brancato had known for years, to steal drugs. “I knew Kenny would have been okay with it,” he says. “He used to leave his door open at night and, from when I was a kid, he would offer me stuff. He’d say, ‘You want a Valium to calm down?” Though Brancato broke a window at the house at 3119 Arnow Place, he says he “did not consider it an attempted burglary” because of the rapport he had had with Scovotti. “I was really desperate. I was high on crack and heroin.” He also says that, since he hadn’t seen Scovotti for at least five years before that night, he had no idea that the man had died that summer. “Enchautegui heard the glass break and he came outside,” Brancato recalls. Brancato started to run, yelling, “Kenny! Kenny! Kenny!” Brancato says that he was shot first and was shot twice. Armento, who was shot nine times, claimed that he fired when he saw Enchautegui’s gun. Armento was sentenced to life without parole for the murder. There was no evidence that Brancato fired any shots. He was found not guilty of the murder charge, but guilty of first-degree attempted burglary, for which he was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison. He served eight. 

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“God gave me a second chance,” says Brancato of his conviction on the lesser charge and his release from prison on New Year’s Eve 2013. “And it was to turn my life around, to not go back and be doing what I did before.”

Though there are many who feel that Brancato didn’t show any remorse and didn’t pay enough of a price for his crime, the 39-year-old says,“They made me out to be a monster, and I’m not. I have expressed remorse time and time again, but the guy who actually did it, people can’t even tell you his name.” 

In prison (Brancato spent three years in Rikers before moving to Oneida Correctional Facility in Rome, New York, and finally, in 2011, to Hudson Correctional Faciity), Brancato eventually got clean—because he had no choice—after overdosing on heroin he got from another inmate in 2006, for which he spent 80 days in solitary. That year, a visit from Brancato’s cousin, who talked to him about how he was hurting himself and his loved ones, helped Brancato to realize that he did have people who cared about him. He says he’s been clean ever since. In prison, Brancato—who had only gone as far as 10th grade before being discovered by a talent scout on Jones Beach and cast in A Bronx Tale in 1993, the summer before his junior year—earned his bachelor’s degree through a correspondence course paid for by his family. He also started longing to make movies again.

“I wish I could change the outcome, but we can’t change the past.”

“I still had my manager from before I went away, and we kind of picked up where we left off [after his release],” Brancato says. The Colombian-born Brancato, who was adopted as an infant by Italian-American parents and grew up in Yonkers, auditioned, from his house, for the role of Tony, who he says was described as “a salty seadog with a ‘cholo’ flair,” in American Sniper. “I was offered the role,” he says, “but Clint Eastwood couldn’t do it formally, because I couldn’t go to Morocco because of my parole stipulations.” It would have been a great opportunity, but Brancato is philosophical, explaining: “That was God saying, ‘This time, I’m gonna make you work a lot harder. Look what happened the last time. The work you didn’t do the first time, you’re gonna do now.’” 

Brancato has been cast in other films, though. His friend and fellow Sopranos actor William DeMeo gave him a small part in his film Back in the Day, though DeMeo knew he was taking a risk in doing so. “I met with Lillo, and saw he was 100-percent rehabilitated. He was like, ‘I just want to get my life on track,’ and he kept talking about how sorry he was and how he wanted to help other people struggling with drug addiction,” DeMeo says. “I knew that Lillo, hands down, was capable of this role. The dilemma I had is when everything’s going so great, did I want to have negative feedback?”

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And there certainly has been a lot of negative feedback, starting with Enchautegui’s family. “He doesn’t care about my family,’’ Officer Enchautegui’s sister Yolanda Nazario told the New York Post in March. “He never cared about my family.” The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, an NYPD union, called for a boycott of Back in the Day, with PBA President Pat Lynch saying in March, “We will never be able to forgive and forget the role that junkie played in the death of hero Police Officer Daniel Enchautegui.” Even Chazz Palmentieri, who wrote and co-starred in the semi-autobiographical A Bronx Tale, in which Brancato’s character was loosely based on a young Palmentieri, told the New York Daily News, “Here’s a guy who was in the quintessential movie about not wasting your life, and that’s exactly what he did. As far as I’m concerned, he’s made monumentally bad choices and has to live with the consequences.” Still, though DeMeo feels deeply for the officer and his family, he says, “I wanted to give him a chance.”

Brancato, who now lives in Yonkers with his girlfriend, Kristina Chen, is thankful for that chance—and for all the others he’s received since being released from prison. Today, he does a lot of “wheeling and dealing on the phone” for acting gigs and film-related business, but he also uses his “time and experiences to go to rehabs, colleges, and high schools to help deter young people” from drugs and from bad choices. “I get messages from people struggling with addiction and try to help them through their struggles,” Brancato says. He works out regularly and is determined to stay on the straight and narrow for his 3-year-old nephew, Vincenzo, whom he calls “the love of my life.” He also is intent on making his parents proud. 

Brancato says he thinks about that fateful night in 2005 and about Officer Enchautegui every day. “He was like my angel. Because of him losing his life, I got my life back,” he says. “I wish that I could change the outcome, but we can’t change the past. We can only learn from it.” He says he has tremendous sympathy for the officer’s family. “He was a year younger than me. I remember seeing a picture of his funeral, of his mom and dad. I saw his father in a wheelchair with his head down and I was in tears. That could have been my dad.” 

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