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

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?”


“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.