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Survivor recalls night of terror in 'Whitey' Bulger trial

Reporters and television cameras are reflected in the glass doors as J.W. Carney, defense attorney for accused mob boss James "Whitey" Bulge
Reporters and television cameras are reflected in the glass doors as J.W. Carney, defense attorney for accused mob boss James "Whitey" Bulge

By Scott Malone

BOSTON (Reuters) - When she heard a machine gun blast outside the brand-new brown Mercedes she was riding in with her boyfriend and a friend one night in March 1973, Dianne Sussman ducked reflexively.

"That's probably the only reason I'm here," Sussman, 63, told the jury at the federal murder and racketeering trial of accused Boston mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger on Thursday.

When the shooting ended, Sussman turned to the driver of the car, Michael Milano, and found him unresponsive. She asked her boyfriend, Louis Lapiana, if he was OK and all he could muster was a weak "no."

Milano, a Boston bartender, is one of 19 people Bulger is accused of killing, either directly or by order, in the 1970s and '80s while running Boston's brutal "Winter Hill" crime gang.

He was not the man the gang intended to kill that night, according to former associate John "The Executioner" Martorano. He testified earlier in the week that he pulled the trigger that night thinking he was shooting at gang rival Al Notarangeli.

Milano knew Notarangeli, admired his sense of style and had bought the Mercedes because it was similar to the car Notarangeli drove, witnesses said Thursday.

"He was very proud of it," said Milano's brother, Donald.

After three days of chillingly subdued testimony by Martorano, who dully recounted a dozen murders he committed that he said involved Bulger, the trial took a more emotional turn on Thursday as the survivors of those named by prosecutors as Bulger's victims appeared tearfully on the stand.

Bulger, portrayed by his attorneys as a mild-mannered loan shark, extortionist and drug dealer but not a murderer, has pleaded not guilty to all charges. Now 83, he faces life in prison if convicted.

Long on the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" list, he evaded the law for 16 years before being caught in June 2011, hiding in a seaside apartment in California. His story inspired Martin Scorsese's 2006 Academy Award-winning film "The Departed."

Bulger's trial, which is expected to last three to four months, is one of the most anticipated in Boston history. The most feared criminal in the city fled after a 1994 tip from a corrupt federal agent that his arrest was imminent.

SURVIVORS TESTIFY

Sussman recalled the machine gun fire that pierced the car on that late night in March 1973.

"We were at a stoplight and all of a sudden there was this noise, a continuous stream of noise of gunfire. ... It was just nonstop ... I ducked," she said.

Sussman said she screamed at a passing taxi driver for help and fought with police to be allowed to ride in the ambulance with Lapiana, she recalled. It took some time for her to realize that she, too, had been wounded in the attack, taking a bullet to the arm.

Several days passed before hospital staff allowed her to visit her badly wounded boyfriend, barely recognizable under the bandages - only his mustache looked like the man she knew.

Unlike Milano, Lapiana survived the attack, though he never fully recovered from his injuries and spent his remaining years in hospitals, eventually moving to a Veteran's Administration facility in California, near where Sussman had moved and lived with a husband and children. They were friends until Lapiana's death in 2001, she recalled through tears.

The survivor of another shooting that same month, Ralph DeMasi, was released this year from federal prison after serving 21-1/2 years on charges related to a plot to rob an armed car.

After being ordered by the court to testify, DeMasi recalled being attacked after a meeting with Tommy King, another rival of Bulger's who prosecutors say was among the murder victims. DeMasi said he got a bad feeling after seeing King leave their meeting and get into a car with three men he did not recognize.

DeMasi advised the friend who was driving him that day, William O'Brien, to be wary.

"I said, 'Billy keep your eye on the side mirror. If a car comes up fast, hit the gas.' ... He laughed," DeMasi said. "All of a sudden, a car pulls up, people start shooting at us. When it was over, Billy O'Brien was dead, I got eight bullets in me."

(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Douglas Royalty)

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