The Illusionist

Jay Shaw moved into a small Idaho town 11 years ago and set about building his new life. But secrets—even on the high desert plains—won’t stay buried forever.

Illustration by Matthew Woodson

Illustration by Matthew Woodson

The night of Shaw’s arrest, Bodie Clapier’s phone rang. It was Kathleen Kreller, a reporter for the Idaho Statesman newspaper.

“Do you know someone named Enrico Ponzo?” Kreller asked.

“No,” Clapier said.

“What about Jeffrey John Shaw?”

He thought about it for a second. “Do you mean Jay Shaw?”

Yeah, Kreller said.

Clapier explained that Shaw was his friend. He’d known him for years.

Actually, it turned out, he hadn’t known him at all. Kreller explained that Shaw’s real name was Enrico Ponzo, and the FBI believed he was a member of the Mafia. He was from Boston, and in 1997 he’d been indicted on charges including extortion, racketeering, drug dealing, and the attempted murder of a mob boss.

What?” Clapier said. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

The next day the story ran on the front page of the Statesman. Clapier read it with disbelief. Jay Shaw — the guy who stayed home to raise his kids — that guy had dealt drugs and tried to kill a mob boss? Maybe so: Law enforcement officials had found a safe in his bedroom containing $15,000 in cash, a silver bar, ammunition, and 38 weapons. To Clapier, the whole thing seemed surreal.

The following day, Jessie Jackson drove the half-hour to Boise, where Shaw was to appear in court. She wanted to see for herself if her friend Jay Shaw would admit to another identity, another life. He stood shackled before the judge and said, “My name is Enrico M. Ponzo.”

 

Enrico Ponzo was 17 the first time he came to the attention of the police. It was 1986 and Ponzo (pictured below), whose parents had divorced, was living in the North End with his father, who managed an Italian restaurant, Dom’s, and also worked at the post office. A ghastly double homicide led investigators to an informant, who said the killers had gotten their guns from Ponzo, who, according to published reports, kept a cache of weapons in his bedroom.

Law enforcement officials allege Ponzo liked the brotherhood of organized crime as much as its mystique, perhaps because of his fractured home life. But those were tumultuous days for the New England mob. The boss, Raymond Patriarca, died in 1984, and his son eventually took over. But Junior Patriarca proved inept, and it wasn’t long before everyone — from the made guys to the associates to the wannabes like young Ponzo — sensed it. In this leadership vacuum, two competing factions developed, each hungry to control the entire region.

The establishment faction was led by “Cadillac” Frank Salemme, a longtime Mafia soldier just off a 15-year prison stretch. The rogue faction, which included mobsters loyal to the Patriarca family, united around the belief that Frank Salemme should not be boss. Ponzo attached himself to this group.

On a Sunday morning in June 1989, Salemme stood in an IHOP parking lot off Route 1 in Saugus. He was supposed to meet with members of the rival group in an effort to mend relations. Instead, men in an approaching car opened fire, hitting Salemme in the leg and stomach (he wound up surviving the attack). Police officers later found a discarded Uzi, as well as shell casings from a handgun and a rifle. It would take nearly a decade, but the government eventually charged Enrico Ponzo and his friend Gigi Portalla with the attempted murder.

Ponzo and Portalla — known on the streets as Rico and Gigi — weren’t exactly discreet in the years after the alleged Salemme hit. Portalla, a coke dealer, would fan hundred-dollar bills as he posed for photos. Ponzo, after acquiring a hand grenade, once proposed using the explosive to blow up a club owned by a friend of Salemme. “They were crazy,” says Steve Johnson, a detective lieutenant with the Massachusetts State Police. “They weren’t typical of [the Mafia] at all.”

On the surface, it appeared that either the law would lock them up or a mob boss or rival drug dealer would kill them. But Ponzo was too smart for that. Though seven years younger than Portalla, he was the wiser of the two. He read a lot, history mostly. He used to run his hand through his thick black hair and jut out his butt of a chin and tell Portalla all about, say, the Civil War. “He was very bright,” Portalla says today from a federal prison in Louisiana, where he’s serving a 35-year stint. Others apparently noticed. In 1992 the Globe reported that Ponzo was a “Mafia up-and-comer.”

 

By 1994 Ponzo was moving in on the tributes that were supposed to be paid to Salemme himself. According to court testimony from an FBI informant, Ponzo told Joseph Cirame, a reputed bookie who owned an Everett sports bar, that from now on the envelopes Cirame had been giving to Salemme were to go to him instead. In September 1994 Ponzo headed out to Everett to collect from Cirame and brought along Michael Romano Jr. and a third associate. Romano Jr. was the son of Michael P. Romano, a higher-up, the government would later claim, in the rogue mob faction. As the three set out to collect from the bookie, their car got a flat. Romano Jr. began fixing it. The other associate left to grab some food. Ponzo said he had to make a call and walked off. As Romano Jr. changed the tire, a van pulled up, and he was shot in the head.

In his grief, Romano Sr. grew suspicious. Why hadn’t Ponzo fixed the tire? It was his car. And why had Ponzo, who had a cell phone, left the scene to make his call? Had Ponzo flipped and ordered the hit?

A couple of weeks later Ponzo met with Portalla and a few other guys at the Northgate mall in Revere, according to subsequent trial testimony from an FBI informant. Romano Sr. had asked to talk to Ponzo, but was late to the meeting. The longer Ponzo waited, the more anxious he became — until he couldn’t take it and left, saying that if Romano doubted his allegiance, then he’d go, right now, and kill someone loyal to Salemme. The message was relayed to Romano Sr., but he wasn’t pacified.

Ponzo now had reason to fear his own faction, and also had plenty to worry about from Salemme’s crew. Then in December, the state police filed drug charges against him and Portalla.

Right about then, Enrico Ponzo disappeared.

  • http://www.tumblr.com/blog/hftendonitis Idella Tanna

    This is one of the best posts I have seen on this topic. Let me know if you do any further related posts and I’ll come check them out!