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.

By Paul Kix | Boston Magazine |
Illustration by Matthew Woodson

Illustration by Matthew Woodson

Jay Shaw asked around and heard that Bob Briggs was the man to see about hay. So when Briggs, in his aging white Ford, came plodding down Hogg Road that February afternoon, Shaw jumped into his Dodge Ram and flagged the old man down. Briggs stopped just off the side of the road and Shaw pulled up behind him.

Shaw got out of his truck and walked up to Briggs, who was gnawing on a toothpick that seemed to naturally protrude from his gum line. When Shaw asked about buying some hay for 12 head of cattle he owned, Briggs said they could work something out.

Just then a truck passed, a big black Chevy with dark tinted windows. When the truck reached the end of Hogg Road, about a half-mile away, it turned back, only this time with blue lights flashing. Behind it followed a cop car, also unmarked. And then a third police car came tearing down a nearby driveway. Soon a couple of sheriff’s deputies from Owyhee County, their lights ablaze, turned onto Hogg Road. The black Chevy screeched to a halt in front of Briggs and Shaw, and a man stepped out of the truck.

“Is that your car?” he shouted, pointing to the Dodge.

“Yes,” Shaw said.

“Are you Jay Shaw?”

“Yes.”

“I have a federal warrant for your arrest.”

Suddenly the guy from the truck — a U.S. marshal — and another federal agent were on him, grabbing each arm and looking to handcuff him. The remaining cop cars surrounded the scene, everybody out of the vehicles, with even more cars screaming up the road.

“What are you arresting him for?” Briggs asked another U.S. marshal on the scene.

“I can’t tell you.”

And then one of the marshals leaned in and said to Shaw, “Are you Enrico Ponzo?”

“I want my lawyer,” he responded.

 

One summer day in 2000, Jessie Jackson and her husband were leveling hills and pouring concrete for the foundation of a house they were building on 12 acres they’d bought a few miles south of Marsing, Idaho. As they worked, a car stopped in front of them.

A man and a woman climbed out. She had creamy skin and red hair and looked young — no more than 20. She stood a couple of inches taller than the man, who was a bit older and had glasses, a protruding chin, and thick black hair.

“Hi, I’m Jay,” he said. He introduced his wife as Cara, and told Jackson they’d bought the land two lots over. They wanted to stop by and introduce themselves to their new neighbors.

“You’ve got an accent,” Jackson said.

“Yeah,” he acknowledged. He was from New York, he said. “But I’ve been all over.”

In time, Jackson got to know her new neighbors well. His full name was Jeffrey John Shaw, but he preferred Jay. He fixed computers, set up Web pages, and did graphic design work for a living. He was 32 and Cara — Cara Lyn Pace — was indeed younger, only 22. Originally from Salt Lake City, she had a cousin in nearby Homedale, Idaho. One day they were visiting this cousin after coming down from Washington, or something like that, and they saw Marsing and its beauty — the skies cracked wide and blue, the Owyhee Mountains in the distance — and thought they’d like to live there.

There were other things that made them different in Marsing, too. They constructed their home in stages. When they had the money, Pace and Shaw put down the foundation. Then, after accumulating more cash, came the dry wall, then the plumbing, the electricity. It took time, but when it was done they’d built a split-level ranch-style home, tucked into a hill and looking out on Hogg Road and Marsing beyond. With the house and accompanying land, the property was valued at roughly $160,000.

Shaw may have worked in computers, but when he wasn’t building his house he seemed to spend an awful lot of his first months in Marsing learning how to farm. In truth, he wasn’t any good. He bought tree saplings without installing an irrigation system to nourish them. They died. In 2002 he decided to raise cattle and asked a neighbor named Bodie Clapier to teach him. Clapier was a rancher who’d lived in Marsing his whole life and looked the part: a full mustache, a weather-beaten face. Shaw, apparently dressing to impress, showed up for lessons one day in bib overalls and a straw hat. Clapier, wearing jeans, a durable button-down, and a baseball cap, just stared at him.

Shaw had said he needed to know a few things about cattle, but it turned out that he needed to know everything. So Clapier began with, This is what a bull looks like. This is what a cow looks like.

Still, Clapier took a liking to the new guy. Shaw was inquisitive. He’d pepper Clapier and Jackson with questions, everything they knew about cows — and the next day ask more, because he’d read something the night before in a livestock book or on a cattle website that contradicted what they’d told him.

Shaw soon got a heifer, and then another, and then found a neighbor who had a bull calf. Jackson showed Shaw how to bottle-feed him. And with that, Jay Shaw began raising Black Angus cows.

But the neighbors wondered how the new couple was getting by. There was the mortgage on their place, and, in 2003, came their son, Gavin, and the next year their daughter, Fiona. That was quite a bit of overhead. Cara worked as a bookkeeper at Williamson Orchards, just northeast of Marsing, but their friends guessed that couldn’t have paid much more than $20,000 a year. Shaw and Pace did seem to be frugal: They drove only used cars, and Shaw would pay for new tires the same way he built his house — incrementally, which is to say one tire at a time. But everyone, especially the guy who would become Shaw’s best friend, Kelly Verceles, wondered what, exactly, Shaw did for a living.

Verceles — a mechanic and ex-Marine who was moving in when Shaw knocked on his door, offering beer and another hand with the U-Haul out back — drank six-packs with Shaw on enough nights to be pretty sure that he wasn’t doing after-hours website work. And during the day, Shaw stayed home with the kids. He adored them. His devotion, though, left little time for full-on ranching. Shaw never had more than a dozen head of cattle. He was a hobby rancher. So how were he and Pace affording that $10,000 fishing boat out back? And how was it that Shaw could talk of paying off his house in just 10 years?

Something else was strange, too. Shaw didn’t seem to have his name on any of the couple’s paperwork. Bodie Clapier knew this because he’d once had a small issue with a property line where his land bordered Shaw’s. When he went to the courthouse, he found that everything was in Pace’s name. Another time at Verceles’s place, Shaw leaned in and said that even though he and Pace wore rings, they weren’t really married. Why fill out paperwork for the government, Shaw told Verceles, when you know you love each other? Shaw even once told Jessie Jackson that he didn’t put his name on his children’s birth records.

It was, frankly, a little unsettling to discover any of this. The theory among Shaw’s friends was that he was avoiding a custody case; he’d said he had a child from a previous relationship back East.

But Shaw’s neighbors were more than happy to give him his privacy. He was a warm and friendly guy, and he could assuage any misgivings by the force of his personality. As the years passed, and as he took on the look of the Idaho ranchers — a full goatee, a baseball cap forever on his head — he also acquired their handiness. He helped friends and neighbors stack hay. He taught Verceles’s daughter how to bottle-feed a calf. In time, he even became the treasurer of the neighborhood water association, which included the ranch homes like his as well as the gaudy ones in the Whispering Heights development on the hill next to Shaw’s acreage — an area Verceles liked to call “Snob Knob.” Jay Shaw seemed at ease talking to everyone. He also seemed inordinately concerned with his neighbors’ well-being. One night a water pipe burst, but rather than have the association call someone to fix it, Shaw grabbed a shovel and walked outside, working until 2 a.m. to repair the break and saving everyone loads of money.

The company that supplied the neighborhood association with its water had a rule that demanded that each household pay its bill once a year, and if anyone failed to do so, no one in the entire association would get water. Shaw and Jessie Jackson showed up at county regulatory board meetings again and again to fight the policy, but were unable to change the rules. Outraged, Shaw began researching Idaho code and lugging a huge three-ring binder and two legal folders to the meetings, all of them overstuffed with passages and precedents that proved — proved! — that Shaw was in the right. Shaw labeled his papers by case file, and could display any page at a moment’s notice. “Jay,” Jackson would tell him, “you should be a lawyer.”

 

Last summer, the calm that had characterized much of Jay Shaw’s life in Idaho ended abruptly when Cara Pace packed up the couple’s kids and moved back to her parents’ place in a Salt Lake City suburb. The move wasn’t entirely a surprise. Verceles says that shortly before Pace left, Shaw had discovered Facebook chats she’d been having with other men. Still, the allegations that followed shocked Shaw’s neighbors, and had a profound effect on Shaw himself.

Pace filed an affidavit in which she claimed Shaw “has been a heavy drinker for many years. His aggression was growing toward me so much that I was fearful for my life. I do not want my children exposed to this abuse or for them to think it is natural for men [to] treat women that way.”

Pace, her lawyer, and her family all declined to comment for this story. Bodie Clapier, Jessie Jackson, and Kelly Verceles all say that the person described in Pace’s affidavit is not the man they know. They never saw signs of physical abuse on Pace, and while Shaw did drink, it was only socially — he’d even given up alcohol at Pace’s request prior to her leaving town. He had also agreed to try marriage counseling. But nothing worked — or rather, Verceles says, things had quit working some time ago. After Shaw found the Facebook chats — this even before the couple had officially split — he snapped photos of the conversations as evidence for a custody battle he seemed to have sensed was coming.

When it arrived, it consumed Shaw. “That’s all he did,” Verceles says. It was like the water-association squabble all over again, only magnified many times: foot-high stacks of paper, briefcases crammed with custody-case precedents. Making things worse, according to Shaw’s friends, Pace’s parents refused to allow Shaw into the house when he came to pick up Gavin and Fiona for a visit. They made him stand in the street, waiting for the kids to run out. He fumed.

Shaw and Pace argued through their lawyers for months about visitation, childcare payments, everything. Once, when Clapier asked Shaw how he was doing, his friend just sobbed. Shaw lost a lot of weight, and his mood would turn so dark so often that Verceles once made him promise not to discuss the case in public just so everyone’s day could be salvaged.

Shaw tried to focus on other parts of his life. He took great pride in his cows. Which is what led him to flag down old Bob Briggs’s truck on the afternoon of February 8. Shaw’s cows needed hay, and Briggs had some for sale. It was then, of course, that Shaw was taken away in handcuffs by U.S. marshals.

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.

A mugshot of Enrico Ponzo, from an earlier era. Photograph courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

A mugshot of Enrico Ponzo, from an earlier era. Photograph courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

It’s been six weeks since the feds arrested Ponzo, and I’m approaching Marsing, Idaho, from the hills of Highway 55. The town, 35 miles east of Boise, is green, a fertile valley that supports everything from vineyards to apples to wild speculation about its most infamous former resident.

With just under 1,000 people, Marsing is small enough for everyone to have an opinion about Ponzo — and they all do. But nobody’s life has been transformed the way Kelly Verceles’s has. Ponzo called Verceles after the arrest and asked him to move into his place, to pay the property taxes and sort through his personal effects.

One evening I pull up the gravel driveway, past the open cattle gate, and park next to the green Dodge Ram that Jay Shaw used to drive around town. Other cars and trucks in varying states of decrepitude circle the driveway. A black dog barks just outside my door.

Verceles walks out of the house and yells at the dog. He still has the barrel chest of a Marine, but now the softened facial features and stomach of a workaday mechanic. He is cheerful and speaks in something of a controlled shout.

“Come on in!” he says, and leads me into the home, which opens to a basement staircase and, straight ahead, a hallway that leads to a living room.

The arrest somehow seems to have only deepened the friendship between Verceles and Ponzo. “I thought he was just some computer nerd,” says Verceles, who has developed a newfound appreciation for, and fascination with, the friend he’s learning to call Enrico Ponzo. “This guy is probably the smartest guy I have ever come across.”

When I ask what he means, he leads me to an office to the left of the hallway. Shaw used to keep this door shut and padlocked at all times, he says. Verceles opens it. At first it looks like any other home office. Then I glance at the wall: entire shelves of law books — United States Code, law journals, a legal dictionary, “law books, law books, law books,” Verceles says. “Every night he would work on his case.”

I ask how he knows that. “Cara told me,” Verceles says. “‘Every night he would work on his case.’”

So his ex knew about his past? Verceles gives a pained look. “Well, that’s my assumption if she’s telling me that.”

They met in Phoenix, Verceles says, where Ponzo lived after he fled Boston. It can be difficult to piece together the past of a man who’s taken such deliberate steps to conceal it, but Verceles’s account does seem to square with what I could dig up. Online property records show Pace living in a Phoenix rental in the 1990s. Her former landlord, George Davidson, remembers her and the boyfriend she lived with, mostly because he had to evict them. According to Phoenix property records, the name of the male on the eviction notice was Laramie Giddeons. Davidson issued that eviction notice not long before Pace and Jay Shaw turned up in Marsing.

Sitting in his living room, Verceles tells me he still speaks with Ponzo at least once a week, and that he thinks he now understands why Ponzo never wanted his name on anything. That explains, among other things, why he was self-employed, Verceles says, and why he and Pace never formally married. Ponzo thought everything through, Verceles says. He settled down in some of God’s sparsest country, Owyhee County, with only three sheriff’s deputies to cover roughly 300 miles. And look at the house he built: At first it could be any ranch home. But notice how it’s set at the back of the property, at the end of a long driveway. All the windows look out onto the driveway, and the lone door is at the house’s rear. Ponzo would have plenty of time to see anybody coming. He also trained his dog in German, so that no English command from anyone approaching would quiet the dog.

Then there’s the master bedroom downstairs, where Ponzo kept his safe. The room has no windows and only one door, and Verceles keeps finding stuff down there. He excuses himself now, heads down to the bedroom, and brings back a large, menacing metal rod with a square rubber base on one end. At first Verceles didn’t know what it was — until he saw that it was made by MasterLock. It was a door jam.

“Can you imagine having to go to sleep every night and the last thing you have to do is put that thing against your bedroom door?” he says. “It gives me chills.”

Verceles races downstairs again. He comes back up and says, “I found this and the FBI didn’t take it.” He’s holding what looks like a black mask of the sort worn by hockey goalies. “It’s Kevlar,” Verceles says. “I looked it up online. I’ve never seen one of these before…. It’ll stop a .223 round” — the kind of bullet used in semiautomatic weapons. Verceles found it with a bulletproof vest and a helmet.

After discovering the mask, Verceles called Pace. She was not surprised to hear of it. In fact, Verceles says, she knew all about it. “That’s expensive,” she told him.

So how did Ponzo’s 17 years on the lam end? We may never know for sure, but Verceles has his own idea. He thinks it was Pace who turned Ponzo in.

Three days after my visit with Verceles, Ponzo arrives in Massachusetts. He’s been extradited from Idaho to face federal charges that were filed against him years after he left Boston. As he shuffles into a small courthouse in Worcester for an arraignment hearing, his goatee is flecked with gray and his hair has thinned to wisps.

Despite the seriousness of the charges against him, Ponzo talks cheerfully with his lawyer, David Duncan. A little later, the government argues that Duncan, on a technicality, should not be allowed to represent Ponzo. Irritated, Ponzo whispers furiously with Duncan. He whispers for so long that the judge stops the proceedings. “Mr. Ponzo, I can’t hear myself think,” he says. “Zip it up.” Moments later, Ponzo pleads not guilty to each of the 10 counts against him. (A trial date had not been set by press time.)

A few nights later I call Kelly Verceles to clarify a few small points for my story. He cuts me off before I can ask anything.

“I don’t know if I should tell you this,” he says.

Something’s happened, he says, something he knows could hurt Ponzo’s case. He spends the next 15 minutes talking around the issue. Finally he decides the whole truth will be public record soon enough. Here is the story he lays out.

About three weeks ago, before my trip to Idaho, he heard from Pace’s cousin and her husband that there was a second safe in the house. Apparently the cousin’s husband had helped build the home 11 years ago, and Ponzo showed him a hole that had been carved into the foundation of the master bedroom, a hole for a safe.

Given that the cousin’s husband was known to exaggerate stories, Verceles was skeptical of the claim. Still, he couldn’t help but wonder. A second safe might explain how Ponzo and Pace, with few visible means of income, had managed to pay off their home in 10 years, and how Ponzo had afforded — what? — five trips to Utah after Pace took the kids.

Verceles lost sleep thinking about this safe and what it might contain. “My curiosity got me going crazy,” he says as we talk on the phone. So one day he borrowed a metal detector and used it to scan the bedroom. In a walk-in closet, he got a faint beep. He tore up the carpet and found a round disk made of plaster. On the disk itself was a piece of cloth. Verceles pulled at it, the disk lifted, and he saw the lid of a safe.

The lid had a combination lock on it. Guessing the combination could take years, so Verceles first took a jackhammer to it, and when that failed he brought over one of his blowtorches. Working meticulously, he finally got the lid off.

“Motherfucker,” he said, looking at the contents of the safe.

He found paperwork, documents, and a bag. Inside that bag were bundles and bundles of hundred-dollar bills. He also found 16 Canadian 1-ounce gold coins, 21 Liberty gold coins, and one Australian gold coin. On the Internet, it said that the gold was worth roughly $65,000.

At some point, Verceles then called over another man, whose identity he would not reveal to me. The two of them set in on counting the cash, which came to $102,000.

So what to do with the loot? Burying it outside seemed stupid, and he couldn’t put it back in the damaged safe. He wanted to keep the money for his friend, he tells me, so he brought over his gun locker, put everything in there, and locked it. After that, he felt better about the situation.

That is, he says on the phone, until last night, when a neighbor called him after he got off work to say that the FBI was at Ponzo’s place looking for him. He rushed home and, on the way, an FBI agent phoned his cell.

“We have a search warrant for the house,” the agent said. “We need to talk with you about what we found in the master bedroom walk-in closet.”

When Verceles pulled up the driveway, three stern agents were waiting for him. They walked him into the house. According to Verceles, one of them said, “You’re at a crossroads. You can either go down Enrico’s path, or you can go down the path you’re on, with an unblemished record.”

“I don’t want to do anything illegal,” Verceles said. So he led them to his gun safe and started telling the story.

The agents stayed for roughly four hours, taking pictures of the money. Verceles’s story matched up with what the agents were seeing, so they didn’t arrest him. (The FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s office, and Ponzo’s lawyer declined to comment on the second safe.)

That night, Verceles kept going over what one of the agents said to him before leaving: “The guy that you call your friend was one of the most wanted people in America.” Had Verceles had his friend all wrong? Had he been defending a monster? That money could be drug money, or worse: money from a hit. Was his friend Jay Shaw really nothing more than a wanted criminal? And though it chilled him to think about it, he wondered what all of that might mean for his own safety.

The next morning, he saw that he’d missed a call from Ponzo. He didn’t want to return it. After what had just happened, he was nervous and a little scared to confront Ponzo. But he decided that he owed it to his friend to call him back. So he dialed Ponzo’s holding cell in Massachusetts.

When Ponzo came on, Verceles rushed through the whole story: the safe, the FBI visit. All of it. Then he stopped, waiting to see whether it was Shaw or Ponzo who would respond.

“All I want to tell you is that I’m sorry I put you in that situation,” came the reply. “Don’t worry about it. And I love you.”

On April 15 Kelly Verceles was arrested along with two men who prosecutors say helped him break into the safe. They were charged with, among other things, criminal conspiracy.

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2011/05/the-illusionist/