BOSTON — A woman who survived a gangland hit that left her boyfriend paralyzed and his friend dead choked back tears Thursday at James “Whitey” Bulger’s trial as she recalled ducking down in the front seat of a new Mercedes Benz when she heard a hail of gunfire.
Diane Sussman de Tennen, who was shot in the arm, was the first of a series of witnesses who described being wounded or losing a loved one in shootings allegedly orchestrated by Bulger and his gang. Family members of several victims gave emotional testimony describing how they learned their relatives had been killed.
Bulger, now 83, is charged with playing a role in 19 killings during the ’70s and ’80s while allegedly the boss of the mostly Irish-American Winter Hill Gang. He has pleaded not guilty. His lawyers say he made millions through drugs, illegal gambling and loan-sharking, but they have said his former associates have fabricated or exaggerated his role to get reduced sentences for their own crimes.
Bulger became one of the nation’s most wanted fugitives after he fled Boston in 1994. Prosecutors say Bulger had secretly worked as a high-level FBI informant and provided information on members of the rival Italian-American Mafia, once the top federal crime-fighting priority.
Sussman de Tennen said she was in a car driven by Michael Milano – a 30-year-old bartender – on March 8, 1973, when a car pulled up next to them at a stop light in Boston’s North End neighborhood.
“All of a sudden, there was this noise, a continuous stream of gunfire. … It was just nonstop,” she said.
After the noise ended, she got up and saw Milano, who was leaning forward into the steering wheel.
“I looked at him and I asked him if he was OK, and I got no response,” she said.
When she looked in the backseat, she saw that her boyfriend, Louis Lapiano, was seriously wounded. She later learned that he had been paralyzed and spent the next 28 years as a quadriplegic before he died in 2001.
Prosecutors say Milano was killed because he was mistaken for another man who was the intended target.
Milano’s brother Donald also testified, crying as he recalled how he was on his way to work when he heard on the radio that his brother had been killed. He had seen him the day before when his brother gave him a ride in his new Mercedes.
“He was very proud of it,” Milano said.
Under cross-examination by Bulger’s attorney, J.W. Carney Jr., Sussman de Tennen said she did not see who shot at the car.
When Carney asked if she knows who shot Milano, she declined to answer, saying it would be speculation.
“In my mind, I do know,” she said.
Former hit man John Martorano testified this week that he shot Milano in a case of mistaken identity. Al “Indian Al” Notarangeli, the leader of a rival group, was the intended target.
Sussman de Tennen said she stayed with Lapiano for two years. She cried as she described breaking off their relationship.
She eventually married and had children, but kept in touch with Lapiano for the rest of his life. Her children knew him, and his parents were like a second set of grandparents to them, she said.
“To this day, I am emotionally connected to Louis,” she said.
Relatives of several other victims also testified.
Deborah Scully, who grew up in the same South Boston housing project as Bulger, said she was 9 months pregnant in March 1973 when her boyfriend, William O’Brien, was shot and killed. Scully said she was unable to go to O’Brien’s funeral because she had just given birth to their son.
Ralph DeMasi, a man who was in the car with O’Brien but survived the shooting, also testified. DeMasi, who was released in March after serving 21½ years in federal prison in an unrelated case, did not want to take the stand but was ordered to do so by Judge Denise Casper.
DeMasi said he had a meeting the day of O’Brien’s shooting with Tommy King, a Bulger rival who prosecutors say was later killed by Bulger’s gang.
After the meeting, DeMasi said he got a sinking feeling when he saw King get into a car with three other men. He said he told O’Brien – who had given him a ride to the meeting – to speed up if a car came up alongside them.
DeMasi said O’Brien laughed.
“All of a sudden, a car pulls up, people start shooting at us. When it was over, Billy O’Brien was dead. I had eight bullets in me,” DeMasi said.
DeMasi said he did not see who shot them.
During cross-examination, Bulger’s lawyer asked DeMasi if during his time in prison, he learned that inmates who become government witnesses know they can get “extraordinary benefits,” an obvious reference to plea deals struck by Martorano and two other Bulger associates who are also expected to testify against him.
“Absolutely,” DeMasi said.
When he asked if the benefits of cooperating were generally known to inmates, DeMasi gave an answer that appeared to reference Martorano specifically. Martorano, who admitted killing 20 people, served just 12 years in prison after cutting a deal with prosecutors.
“Guys are walking the street after they killed 20 people, if they cooperated,” he said. “That’s the way the government works. You kill 20 people, go testify against somebody, you can walk.”