Robert “Big Red” Benvenuti testified Wednesday that he was drunk the night gunfire rang out on Bourbon Street this summer and he took four bullets to his legs and buttocks.
But when police rousted him for questioning days later and showed him a video of the incident, one thing came into clear focus. He realized from the footage, he said, that his friend, Trung “Joe” Le, saved his life when an angry man in a chef’s hat took dead aim with a pistol.
“You see as the dude pulls a gun out. He’s got it pointed to the back of my head. You could see Joe pushing me to the side. ... He’s my hero. He saved my life,” Benvenuti testified at a bond hearing for Le, who pleaded not guilty Wednesday to one count each of manslaughter and attempted murder.
The bizarre hearing offered the most detailed witness accounts to date about what happened before bullets sprayed around 2:45 a.m. June 29 on the city’s most storied strip.
Benvenuti was one of three witnesses — all of whom said they were out partying with Le that night — who testified that Le fired his weapon only after another man pointed a gun at them. Their stories supported a self-defense claim advanced previously by Le’s attorney, Martin Regan, who over the past week has gone further to cast his client as a lifesaver.
Yet Assistant District Attorney Laura Rodrigue suggested that Benvenuti and two other 20-something friends were overreaching in their interpretations of the video, which Regan argues the state is trying to conceal.
Rodrigue chided the witnesses over their claims that the video which police showed them plainly showed a black man swinging a gun down the street and looking for a fight with Bourbon Street partiers before turning his wrath on their group. The video had annotations made by police, they said.
“A video showing a black man waving a gun doesn’t exist,” she said.
Two police detectives testified that the only video they marked up in the way the witnesses described was far more ambiguous. It left unclear, for instance, whether the other shooter could be seen with a weapon.
A New Orleans police spokesman also rebutted claims Wednesday from one of the witnesses, Jasmine Parent, that Mayor Mitch Landrieu was there at police headquarters when she sat down to watch the video.
The shooting claimed the life of a 21-year-old Hammond woman, Brittany Thomas, and injured nine others, including Benvenuti and a friend, Christopher Kelley.
Le, who fled to Mississippi after the shooting, initially was booked on a count of first-degree murder and nine counts of attempted first-degree murder.
A grand jury indicted him last week on lesser charges: manslaughter in Thomas’s slaying and attempted second-degree murder in the shooting of an “unknown black male,” a likely reference to the second, unidentified shooter.
The witnesses who testified Wednesday said they’d gone out that night in a group of about a half-dozen partiers who would become innocent victims, and that Le met up with them later.
The crew said they often went to Bourbon Street on weekends. On the night of the shooting, they started out playing billiards at Tom’s Pool Hall in Marrero before making their way to the French Quarter, where they continued to imbibe.
“I’m sure we had a couple of hand grenades,” Benvenuti said.
In the group that night was Justin Odom, whom police initially named as a “person of interest” in the case. Odom was never arrested in the shooting spree.
According to Chris Cooper, who also testified, Odom ended up in a confrontation with the shooter seconds before the gunfire began.
“I remember Justin kind of pushed him a little bit. (The other man) said, ‘I got that .40 for you,’ walked to the corner, pulled up his gun, started shooting.”
Cooper said Odom also had an altercation earlier in the night with a different man over some marijuana. Cooper, Benvenuti and Parent all testified that man wasn’t the second gunman.
All the witnesses denied seeing Le fire. None of them claimed even to know he had a gun.
Benvenuti said it wasn’t clear whether the other man was intoxicated, but “if he was sober, he was really messed up in the head,” he said.
“If somebody’s crazy enough to walk down Bourbon Street with a gun out, he has to be not right in the head. If you point a gun at a group of people you don’t know, something’s wrong with you.”
Benvenuti said he was too drunk that night to know whether Odom was drunk as well. He chafed at Rodrigue’s questioning aspects of the shooting and whether he was recollecting them only from the video.
“In real life. It happened. I got shot four times. I was there,” he said. “One black dude shot everybody and you see it on the video. That’s obvious.”
“I would be dead right now” if not for Le, he said.
Odom did not testify Wednesday, although he lingered outside the courthouse smoking while his friends testified. After they left the stand, Benvenuti, Parent and Cooper joined him.
The four groused about how their friend had been maligned as a murderer while the man they said started the entire altercation remained free.
“How hard can it be to find a guy who works as a chef on Bourbon Street?” Benvenuti said. “If the cops can’t find him, I will.”
He said it was nice to see his friend Le again, albeit clad in an orange jumpsuit.
Regan had sought the hearing to try to get a reduction in his client’s $1.5 million bail, but also to air allegations that police and prosecutors were withholding key evidence in the case that might cast Le as a savior, not a villain.
The hearing morphed into a half-baked evidentiary hearing, however, as retired Judge Dennis Waldron, sitting as an ad hoc judge, allowed testimony over Regan’s claim of withheld evidence.
Regan seemed satisfied to call only his first witness, Parent. But Rodrigue then took the initiative to call Benvenuti, whom she pressed about his level of intoxication during the evening.
Waldron gave prosecutors a week to turn over their video evidence in the case, with the bond hearing to resume Sept. 11.