NEW YORK — Lillo Brancato Jr. was a young actor with a solid resume: He made his debut in 1993 in "A Bronx Tale" opposite Robert De Niro, went on to appear in more than a dozen movies and played a doomed mobster wannabe in HBO's "The Sopranos."
Now, however, at the age of 32, Brancato faces charges of second-degree murder and other crimes in the 2005 killing of police Officer Daniel Enchautegui. Jury selection for his trial begins Monday.
Brancato's real-life troubles began not long after he befriended Steven Armento, a reputed low-level Genovese crime family associate banished for drug addiction, prosecutors say. Then his life went into a tailspin with a pair of drug-related arrests and the death of Enchautegui.
Brancato drove himself and Armento to the home of Enchautegui's next-door neighbor and the pair broke in to steal prescription drugs, prosecutors said. When they were confronted by Enchautegui, who was off duty, Armento shot the officer. Brancato and Armento were both wounded.
Sentenced to life in prison
Armento, 48, was convicted of first-degree murder Oct. 30 and was sentenced last week to life in prison without parole.
Brancato's attorney, Joseph Tacopina, said his client's case is very different.
"Lillo didn't have a gun. Nor did he know anyone had a gun. Lillo was shot. Lillo wasn't burglarizing anyone's home," he said.
Family and friends of Brancato have said he was a good guy with a drug problem who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"He obviously had problems he kept well hidden, but that doesn't mean he should be held accountable for the actions of the man he was with, especially if that man was under the influence," former "Sopranos" castmate Chris Tardio wrote in an e-mail.
Brancato was discovered at age 15 at Jones Beach on a summer day by the casting director of "A Bronx Tale," directed by co-star De Niro.
He worked consistently through his teenage years with small roles in "Crimson Tide," and "Enemy of the State," but he never became a huge star. He appeared in half a dozen episodes of "The Sopranos" as soldier Matt Bevilaqua in 2000; his character was killed off in the mob hit's second season.
Along the way, Brancato had befriended Armento while dating one of his twin daughters.
Hunting for valium
In December 2005, prosecutors said, the actor and the older man decided while drinking at a strip club to break into the basement apartment in a hunt for Valium.
Armento, who had a lengthy rap sheet dating to 1979 that included convictions for possession of stolen property and attempted burglary, was armed with a .357-caliber handgun.
Enchautegui, who had just finished a late-night shift, heard glass breaking next door. He alerted his landlord, dialed 911 to report a possible burglary in progress, then grabbed his badge and a gun and went outside to investigate.
Enchautegui shouted "Police! Don't move!" Shots were fired. Enchautegui was struck once in the chest. Armento was hit six times. Brancato, who was unarmed, was shot twice.
Jurors in Armento's trial rejected prosecution arguments that he knew Enchautegui was a police officer, declining to convict him of first-degree murder of an officer. He was instead found guilty of first-degree murder while committing a felony.
Brancato's attorney says he's not criminally responsible for the shooting.
"We're looking forward, after three long years, for Lillo to get his day in court," Tacopina said. "It's a tragic case, it's tragic in a lot of ways. But that doesn't mean he's behind the crime."
Tardio wrote of the slain officer: "One life was already ruined. The jury will have the power to prevent that of another."
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