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.

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.