Robert “Big Red” Benvenuti was “around a 7” on the drunk meter and had popped a Molly — the illicit party drug MDMA — on the June 2014 night that gunfire rang out on Bourbon Street and he was shot in the buttocks, he testified Wednesday.
But he insisted he was lucid enough to see a crazed man walk up to his group of West Bank friends with a gun under his arm before a buddy, Trung “Joe” Le, pushed Benvenuti out of the way, stepped forward and fired at the unknown man.
“When an incident like that’s going on, you sober up quick,” he said.
Assistant District Attorney Laura Cannizzaro Rodrigue called Benvenuti, 23, to the witness stand on the second day of testimony in Le’s trial on counts of manslaughter, attempted murder and obstruction of justice from the June 29, 2014, melee that fatally wounded 21-year-old Brittany Thomas, of Hammond, injured nine others and rattled the city.
Benvenuti was among the wounded, but he was anything but a friendly prosecution witness during two hours of testy exchanges.
Claiming Le “saved a lot of people’s lives” in the early morning shootout, he traded bitter barbs with Rodrigue while also admitting he lied to police and withheld from them the names of Le and a friend, Justin Odom, when police first questioned him about the deadly fracas.
It was Odom, he testified, who had blurted out, “What you looking at?” — apparently spurring the other, still-unknown shooter to approach Odom as the West Bank clan stood on Bourbon.
Odom and Le fled to Mississippi following the shooting.
“I didn’t want to get my friends in trouble. It’s simple,” Benvenuti said.
Rodrigue argued that Benvenuti saw little of what happened, as he admittedly turned away after claiming to see the other man pull a weapon from under his arm before the gunfire rang out. Benvenuti said he was gearing up to run, then fell to the ground from four gunshots to his lower body.
“You were too wasted to see anything!” Rodrigue shouted.
“I’m done talking to her. I’m so done talking to her,” Benvenuti replied before Criminal District Court Judge Byron C. Williams called for a pause.
What followed was an exchange reminiscent of the movie “A Few Good Men.”
“You’re trying to get me to say stuff I didn’t say!” an agitated Benvenuti said.
“I want the truth!” Rodrigue shouted.
“I’m telling you the truth! Everything I say is the truth!”
Prosecutors claim Le, 22, fired four shots before the other man fired back. Those four bullets struck five victims, prosecutors claim, based on the location of the victims.
One of those victims, Amy Matthews, of Australia, said a shot to the mouth destroyed teeth and fractured her jaw, requiring a stabilizing bar across her upper jar. In a second surgery, “They did my lower jaw, pulled out the rest of the teeth and loose bone and pulled a lodged tooth from my cheek out the bullet hole,” she said.
Prosecutors acknowledge that Thomas, a nursing student, was fatally struck in the back of the head by a .40-caliber bullet fired by the other man, whom police have not found.
Le and his friends claim he fired in self-defense after he’d joined his friends on Bourbon Street, a regular haunt for the group, and where Benvenuti reluctantly admitted he sold drugs.
Odom took the stand next, admitting he drove with Le in a taxi to the West Bank after the shooting, then picked up a shotgun from a friend before they fled to Mississippi.
Odom, 21, the first “person of interest” identified by police, disputed Rodrigue’s claim that the shooting was sparked by an earlier drug deal gone bad, when the other shooter robbed Odom of some pot. The man never took the drugs, Odom testified, and it was no big deal.
Odom recalled locking eyes with the other shooter and trading words before the man got in his face. He said he pushed the man back and watched him raise a gun and point it in Benvenuti’s direction before Le came up and fired.
Like Benvenuti, Odom complained of being treated like a criminal.
“I lied about Trung’s identity. At the time I was trying to protect my friend,” he said.
“From what?” Rodrigue asked.
“From the same thing that’s going on now. All we did was try to protect ourselves, and now we’re on trial.”
The trial continues Thursday.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.