Life And Death In The BronxPart Two: Getting Away with Murder
By J. R. de Szigethy
It was the performance of his career, delivered to members of his receptive home-town audience; on a cold, December day in late 2008, actor Lillo Brancato, Jr., best known for his role in the Mafia-themed motion picture A BRONX TALE, as well as television’s THE SOPRANOS, tearfully portrayed himself as a victim, a victim of drug addiction, and that it was the heroin that coursed through his veins that was responsible for the murder of a New York City Police Officer, and not the person who injected such drugs into his body, that person being himself. Brancato will not receive an Oscar for his performance, nor an Emmy, but those critics who reviewed his latest acting gig bestowed upon the young perp an award even more precious; acquittal on charges that could have sent him to prison for most of the rest of his life for his actions on the evening of December 10, 2005, in which he and an accomplice, in search of illegal drugs, engaged in a confrontation and shootout with a young Police Officer, Daniel Enchautegui.
Brancato’s critics were in fact members of his jury pool in his native Bronx, the streets upon which Brancato grew up, and in which Office Enchautegui was brutally murdered. Residents of the Bronx are quite proud of those celebrities spawned by their Borough, and while Lillo Brancato Jr. was not in the same league as Jennifer Lopez, Bronx residents identified Brancato with their Borough from the moment they first became aware of the young actor. That was in 1993, when Brancato starred with Robert DeNiro in A BRONX TALE, a motion picture produced by nightclub owner Peter Gatien in which Brancato portrayed a young man growing up in a Mob-controlled Bronx neighborhood during the 1950s. For obvious reasons, a large number of Bronx residents flocked to their local movie house to experience this film, which received favorable reviews but was not a box-office blockbuster. The movie, in addition to making Brancato a Hollywood star, also had the effect of ‘Prejudicing’ in his favor his future jury pool.
In recent years, two Hollywood celebrities accused of murder, O. J. Simpson and Robert Blake, were acquitted in sensational trials in which substantial evidence was introduced in regards to the alleged guilt of the Defendants. Many legal scholars who followed these cases expressed through various Media outlets their conviction that both men were acquitted due to their status as celebrities in a culture that has become obsessed with such stature in recent decades. Recognizing this, Prosecutors in the Bronx District Attorney’s Office took measures during jury selection to identify and eliminate those jurors who were admitted fans of actor Brancato. Once testimony was complete, the Judge in Brancato’s trial explained to the jury that under New York State Law, if a person is committing a felony which leads to the shooting of a police officer, that person is also legally responsible for that person’s murder. To the astonishment of many in New York, the jury found otherwise.
New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, and PBA President Patrick Lynch each expressed shock and outrage over the acquittal of Brancato, as did Yolanda Rosa-Nazario, the sister of Officer Enchautegui. However, to those who first encountered Brancato over a decade ago on the radar screen of a New York City nightclub owner, the rise and fall of Brancato came as no surprise. Brancato Jr. was just 17 years young when he was discovered by a talent scout seeking a teenager who could act and talk like Robert DeNiro, the veteran actor of numerous Mafia motion pictures who was hired to Direct and star in a motion picture being Produced by nightclub King Peter Gatien. At that time in 1993, Gatien owned the four most successful nightclubs in Manhattan; the Limelight, an abandoned Episcopalian Church located in Chelsea, The Tunnel, a former warehouse fronting the Hudson River, Club USA of Times Square, and The Palladium located on 14th Street. A native of Canada, Gatien’s nightclub empire made him rich and famous, as well as infamous, given that wherever Peter Gatien went, drugs and drug dealers followed.
Gatien’s nightclubs were virtual warehouses of drugs, but they also succeeded because of Gatien’s innate ability to recognize talent within those he hired to run his empire. One of Gatien’s bouncers at the door of The Tunnel would go on to become the action film star Vin Diesel. Working the door at the Limelight was a Bronx native, Chazz Palminteri, who wrote a stage play called A BRONX TALE which Gatien would then turn into a Hollywood movie. A motion picture would also be made later in regards to Gatien’s party promoter at the Limelight, Michael Alig, who became known as the “King of the Club Kids,” those being young people who created a fantasy world for themselves in the nightclubs of major cities, in which they adopted outrageous monikers as well as costumes. And, the Club Kids consumed enormous quantities of drugs, primarily the new “designer drug” Ecstasy, as well as the scourge of the 1960s, heroin.
Inevitably, young people who sold or used drugs inside the nightclubs of Peter Gatien ended up dead, some as the result of drug overdoses, and some through drug-induced homicides. Once such was that of Angel Melendez, who was murdered by Michael Alig and his accomplice “Freeze” for the drugs and money he was carrying the night in 1996 when he visited their apartment. Daniel Auster, son of famed novelist Paul Auster, was in the apartment doing heroin at the time of the murder, and admitted to taking $3,000 from the deceased Angel Melendez. Al Guart, a reporter for the New York Post during that time, and this reporter, played crucial roles in solving the murder of Melendez, who was dismembered and discarded into the Hudson River. Michael Alig and “Freeze” would later confess and are still incarcerated in New York State prisons, but Daniel Auster, who could only claim minor celebrity status via his father, did not do any jail time. Actor Macaulay Culkin portrayed Michael Alig in the film version of the rise and fall of the Club Kids, entitled PARTY MONSTER.
Peter Gatien, facing many years in prison for income tax evasion, spent only 90 days on Rikers Island in a plea bargain agreement, disappointing many observers of this case. Gatien was one of only 2 members of his nightclub empire acquitted of Federal drug trafficking charges; the many others either accepted plea-bargain agreements or were convicted at trial. Eventually, the INS deported Peter Gatien back to his native Canada.
The Motion Picture PARTY MONSTER begins with a scene in which Peter Gatien accepts Michael Alig’s invitation to enjoy his perverted version of Christmas Dinner at his humble apartment in the Bronx, during which Alig pitches to Gatien his idea of turning the Limelight into a venue in which heroin, Ecstasy, and Alig’s own urine would eventually become an integral part of the menu. The drug dealers and their hangers-on would become a necessary support system of such schemes, and, as any member of law enforcement can attest, wherever drugs - and drug dealers go - death, and murder, are the inevitable consequence.
The murder of New York City Police Officer Daniel Enchautegui is one such consequence.
Related Features by this author:
The Agony of Ecstasy: The Fall of Sammy Gravano and Peter Gatien
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