Boston mob trial reverberates in Vt.
By Brent Curtis
STAFF WRITER | June 22,2013
The late Louis Lapiana is seen in a family photo with Diane Sussman de Tennen after he was paralyzed..
Louis Lapiana wasn’t supposed to live more than 48 hours after hit men, who federal prosecutors say worked for Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, severely damaged his spinal cord in a Boston shooting 40 years ago.
Instead, the Rutland native lived for almost three decades and, despite injuries that left him paralyzed from the neck down, he lived a full life, according to his brother.
“Everybody knew him,” his brother Michael Lapiana of Fair Haven, said Friday. “All you had to do was go to the hospital at Long Beach and mention his name. I think he got a wing named after him. He never stopped living.”
Louis Lapiana was 35, living in Boston and dating a 23-year-old Californian beauty in March 1973 when he was shot multiple times by gunmen who federal prosecutors say mistakenly targeted the Mercedes Benz he was riding in because it looked like a vehicle belonging to a rival mob boss.
The Mount St. Joseph Academy graduate and U.S. Air Force veteran had moved from Rutland to the big city years earlier in search of work and an adventurous night life, Michael Lapiana said.
He found both by opening “Louie’s Nightclub” in Brighton, Mass., and by traveling back and forth to New York to manage a nightclub there.
“He enjoyed life,” his younger brother recalled. “He loved to party.”
But during the early-morning hours of March 8, 1973, Lapiana and his friend Michael Milano were looking forward to nothing more exciting than a late-night chess match when a car full of killers rolled up beside them at a traffic light in Boston.
Lapiana’s spine was severed in the hail of bullets that followed and Milano was killed. Lapiana’s girlfriend Diane Sussman de Tennen, who was riding in the front seat, was shot in the arm.
The doctors expected Lapiana to die but he didn’t. Instead, unable to move or even breathe on his own, he went on to live a full life that his brother said he never would have dreamed possible.
“I don’t know how many times I asked him how he did it or what he lived for,” Michael Lapiana said. “He said he would grasp for every breath of life he could get and he said when I was in his situation I would know what he was talking about.”
Still, there were many hardships that both Lapiana and his family endured.
Michael Lapiana said the hit put an end to his brother’s hopes of one day marrying Sussman de Tennen. The pair remained lifelong friends and Lapiana relocated to Long Beach, Calif., in part to be closer to her and her family.
“He told her ‘You’ve got no life with me, no future. You need to go on without me,’” Michael Lapiana said. “He didn’t want her to feel bad and she did get married and had children but kept him as a friend.”
“He always loved her. He never stopped loving her but it was difficult times back then. He didn’t know if he would live and the doctors told him it would be a miracle if he did,” he added.
Lapiana’s injury also taxed his parents, who used all of their financial resources and left Vermont for California for the good of their son.
“My mother and father had to sell everything,” Michael Lapiana said. “They gave up everything for him and moved to Anaheim because he needed to have family out there before they would move him. My parents drove 20 miles to Long Beach every day.”
Lapiana said he too made frequent trips to the West Coast and spoke nightly with his brother on the phone.
“He would call me every night at 8 o’clock on the button,” he said. “He was our life. Everyone in my family traveled back and forth all the time just to go and see him.”
Decades passed without Louis Lapiana or his family knowing why he was targeted in the hit or who carried it out.
It wasn’t until September 1999 — two months after the brothers’ father died and years after the passing of their mother — that the family learned that confessed hit man John Martorano had told prosecutors he had carried out the hit on the orders of Bulger.
Martorano testified in Bulger’s months-long trial this week that he shot Milano, Lapiana and Sussman de Tennen in a case of mistaken identity. He said Al “Indian Al” Notarangeli, the leader of a rival group, was the intended target.
In 1999, Martorano agreed to a plea bargain that sent him to jail for 12 years in exchange for his testimony. It was the first time that Michael Lapiana or his brother had heard of the involvement of the hit man or Bulger, who went on the run in 1994.
“We’ve been waiting a long time and I followed news about Bulger all over the place,” Michael Lapiana said about the decade that passed before Bulger was found and arrested in 2011.
His brother didn’t live to see that day. He died in 2001 and his remains were returned to his hometown where he’s buried between his parents on a plot in Rutland’s Calvary Cemetery.
Michael Lapiana hasn’t gone to any portion of Bulger’s trial — Sussman de Tennen testified this week — because he doesn’t think there’s anything he could do or say there that would make a difference in the outcome.
But he’s been reading the transcripts and thinking about his brother while the trial plays out.
Far from the least remarkable aspect of his brother’s life was his ability to put the past behind him, Michael Lapiana said.
In 1999, after Martorano admitted to his role in the botched hit, Michael Lapiana said his brother told him, “I don’t hold grudges. I’d like to see justice done but I’m over it. I’m just happy I lived to see who it was.”
In an interview with the Rutland Herald in September 1999, Louis Lapiana said, “My future was taken away from me but I got over being bitter about my injury. I’m enjoying life. This never stopped me.”
For Michael Lapiana, letting go of the past is harder. After reading the trial accounts, he said it’s tough to see how easily the shooting and the course of his brother’s life could have been avoided.
But Friday, he said having the 83-year-old Bulger finally held accountable for his crimes would be enough.
“I think he’s already got the justice he deserved just knowing that they got him,” he said. “His life and what he went through deserved to be recognized.”