The night began with a celebration of her 23d birthday. Then Diane Sussman de Tennen and her boyfriend left the café near the old Boston Garden where he was a bartender to catch a ride home in a co-worker’s brand new Mercedes.
“We were at a stoplight, and all of a sudden there was this noise, this continuing stream of noise, gunfire, [like] rocks throwing,” said de Tennen, her voice cracking as she told jurors at James “Whitey” Bulger’s racketeering trial in US District Court in Boston about the assault 40 years ago.
When the hail of gunfire stopped, Michael Milano, 30, lay slumped over the wheel, dying. She asked her boyfriend, Louis Lapiano, 35, seated in the back, if he was OK.
“His head was forward, his eyes were glazed, and he barely shook his head,” said de Tennen, adding that she heard him softly say no.
Her poignant testimony about how she cared for the quadriplegic Lapiana for 28 years until his death, even after marrying another man and having a family, left jurors visibly shaken. Two wiped tears from their eyes.
De Tennen was the first of a series of prosecution witnesses called to the stand Thursday to show the jury the impact of Bulger’s purported crimes. The sons, daughters, and brothers of some of Bulger’s alleged victims briefly testified about the day their relatives were killed and identified their photographs. The judge has barred testimony about the impact of their loss, ruling it would be too prejudicial.
Bulger, 83, is charged in a racketeering indictment with participating in 19 murders; extorting drug dealers, bookmakers, and businessmen; money laundering; and stockpiling an arsenal of illegal guns.
Earlier in the week, hitman-turned-government witness John Martorano testified that Bulger participated in 11 murders with him, including Milano’s, acting as triggerman in one slaying and an accomplice in the others.
Martorano said that on March 8, 1973, he and fellow Winter Hill gang members followed Milano from Mother’s café, mistaking him for Al Notarangeli, a man they were targeting who drove a similar car.
Martorano said he and fellow gang member Howie Winter fired machine guns at Milano’s car, while Bulger was driving nearby in a “crash car.” The crash car was assigned to keep police from chasing the shooters by staging an accident to interfere with the chase.
A brief smile flitted across de Tennen’s face as she identified a photo of Lapiana for the jury.
“I remember fighting with the police because they wouldn’t let me go in the ambulance with Louis,” said de Tennen, now 63, of Los Angeles. “I didn’t want to leave him.”
De Tennen said she was so worried about Lapiana, it took her a while to realize she had been shot in the arm and was bleeding.
De Tennen, who had been working as a dietitian intern at a Boston hospital, wanted to cancel a four-month internship she was supposed to start in Seattle days after the shooting. But she said police convinced her she should go because the people who killed Milano might target her to prevent her from being a witness, and she would be jeopardizing friends if she stayed with them in Boston.
She said she called Lapiana during the four months she was away, and though he couldn’t talk because of his injuries, nurses would hold the phone to his ear while she spoke.
DeTennen said she returned to her native California, married, and had two children, but stayed close with Lapiana and his parents, who were like grandparents to her children. Lapiana moved to a veterans hospital in California, near deTennen, and died in 2001.
“I am to this day emotionally connected to Louie,” de Tennen said. “Louie was part of my life the full 28 years.”
When asked by Bulger’s lawyer, J.W. Carney Jr., during cross-examination if she knew who shot Milano, de Tennen said, “No, I don’t” and refused to speculate.
Milano’s younger brother Donald, also offered emotional testimony, telling jurors that he was on his way to work when he heard on the radio that his brother was killed.
He said he had seen his brother the day before, when he had come by to show off the new car. “He was very proud of that.”
After leaving the courthouse, de Tennen said she didn’t want to testify at Bulger’s trial, but added, “I realized after reading the way the press was covering it all, I realized it was a three-ring circus for the bad guys. Somebody’s got to say innocent people were killed and it’s not a joke.”
In other testimony, Ralph DeMasi Sr. recounted how gunmen fired on a car he was riding in on Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester in March 1973, killing the driver, William O’Brien of South Boston, and shooting DeMasi eight times.
DeMasi said he had met O’Brien only that day through a friend, and that O’Brien was picking up a birthday cake at Linda Mae’s in Dorchester as DeMasi was meeting Bulger associate Tommy King there. He said O’Brien was giving him a ride after the meeting, when he noticed they were being followed by King and several other men and warned O’Brien, “Pay attention, I got a bad vibration.’’
Seconds later, he said, people started shooting. Martorano admitted killing O’Brien, while targeting DeMasi.Globe correspondent Javier Panzar contributed to this report. Shelley Murphy can be reached at shmurphy@ globe.com; Milton J. Valencia at email@example.com.