Woman who survived shooting linked to Whitey Bulger describes ducking hail of bullets that wounded boyfriend, killed friend

Diane Sussman de Tennen broke into a bright smile this morning during the trial of James “Whitey” Bulger when shown a photograph of the man who was her boyfriend some 40 years ago, who, like her, survived a barrage of gunfire meant for somebody else.

18bulger - Michael Milano crime scene photo. Whitey Bulger Trial Evidence Jun. 17, 2013. (US Attorney's Office)
The crime scene after the March 8, 1973, shooting
US Attorney's Office

Sussman de Tennen and her then-boyfriend, Louis Lapiana, were riding from the North End toward Brighton on March 8, 1973, in a Mercedes Benz proudly being driven by their mutual friend, Michael Milano.

After Milano applied the brakes and the car rolled to a stop at a traffic light, bullets started slamming into the car. First one, then another, then another, then another.

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“All of a sudden there was this noise, this continuing stream of noise, gunfire, rocks throwing,’’ Sussman de Tennen testified in US District Court in Boston today. “Nonstop. Dozens and dozens of shots. It was a machine gun.’’

“When I heard the sound, I ducked,” she said. “That’s probably the only reason I am here today.’’

When the noise stopped, she turned to the driver, Milano, who was slumped forward into the steering wheel. “I asked him if he was OK,’’ she said. “And I got no response.’’

Lapiana was sitting the back seat, his eyes glazed with pain. When she asked him if he was OK, all he could manage was a slight movement of his head “and a very low noise of ‘No,’” Sussman de Tennen said.

Louis Lapiana was paralyzed in the shooting. He died in 2001. (US Attorney’s Office)

She hammered on the car horn to attract attention and a passing taxi driver summoned Boston police. Milano was dead; Lapiana was paralyzed from the neck down, and Sussman de Tennen had a bullet hole in her arm.

Confessed killer John V. Martorano testified earlier this week that he was the person who fired into Milano’s car after mistaking it for a car being driven by the killer’s real target, Al “Indian Al” Notarangeli, whose death the Boston Mafia had outsourced to Bulger and Martorano’s Winter Hill Gang. Notarangeli was finally killed by Martorano on Feb. 21, 1974.

Sussman de Tennen was the first of what is expected to be a number of prosecution witnesses on the stand in Bulger’s racketeering and murder trial today describing how they were victimized by Bulger, a ruthless gang leader whose allies heedlessly shot the innocent to protect their criminal businesses.

Bulger, 83, is charged with participating in 19 murders, extortion, money laundering, and stockpiling guns. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges and is being held without bail.

During three days on the witness stand that ended on Wednesday, Martorano linked himself and Bulger to 11 murders, including the attack on Milano, Sussman de Tennen and Lapiana.

Sussman de Tennen said that when she was nearly killed, she was 23 years old, a recent college graduate who was living in Brighton. Lapiana had started working at Mother’s, a North End nightspot where Milano was a bartender.

In testimony that left some jurors wiping away tears, Sussman de Tennen smiled when a federal prosecutor showed her a photograph of Lapiana from the 1970s. At times, she stopped and looked skyward as she struggled to hold back her own tears.

After the shooting that left Lapiana a quadriplegic, their romance ended — but not their friendship. She returned to California, married, had two children — all the while caring for Lapiana, who spent 28 years in a Veterans Administration hospital in California.

He died in 2001.

“I am to this day emotionally connected to Louie,’’ the innocent victim of gangland warfare told the jury today. “Louie was part of my life the full 28 years. He moved to Long Beach VA hospital. My children grew up from infancy with Louie.”

She added, “I was married and my children were not Louie’s. But part of my life was Louie.”

During his brief cross examination, defense attorney J. W. Carney Jr. asked Sussman de Tennen if she knew who shot him.

No, she acknowledged.

Outside the courthouse, Sussman de Tennen said she did not want to testify, in part, because she did not think it would help with the prosecution of Bulger.

But she changed her mind after observing media coverage of the Bulger case and his high-profile trial.

“I realized, after reading the way the press was covering it all, I realized it was a three ring circus for the bad guys,’’ she said.

Sussman de Tennen added: “Somebody’s got to say innocent people were killed and it’s not a joke.’’

Follow the Globe ongoing coverage of the Bulger trial on boston.com’s live blog.