The Illusionist

By Paul Kix | Boston Magazine |

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.”

 

Listen to Paul Kix as he talks about his experiences researching Enrico Ponzo and reveals snippets of his interviews from his Idaho visit. 

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