A longtime fugitive from charges of attempted murder for the Mafia has been returned to Massachusetts. In U.S. District Court here on Friday, Enrico Ponzo plead not guilty to nine counts of an indictment that was handed down in 1997.
He was arrested last month in a small town in southwestern Idaho, where he was living a quiet life on the lam among kids and cows. And now, with a graying goatee, a bald spot and a hearing aid, Ponzo is back home on the range in Massachusetts. Known out in cattle country as Jeffrey "Jay" Shaw, he — with U.S. Marshalls at his side — flew in from Marsing, Idaho. But his story shouldn't be confused with "Lonesome Dove."
Standing in an august, largely empty courtroom at 42, Ponzo comes back as a time capsule from a violent era in Boston when Mafia factions were killing each other and the FBI that was out to get them was infiltrated and corrupted by the Mafia's rivals, Whitey Bulger's Mob.
“At least from the intelligence we knew [Ponzo was] a very dangerous individual,” says retired State Police Sgt. Bill McGreal. McGreal tracked drug dealers and gangsters as a member of the Suffolk County Narcotics unit in the 1980s. Out of the North End, Ponzo was on the scene at 20, with a reputation for being brutal, hot-headed and wild.
“The group was known to us as ‘We Deliver’ ” McGreal says. “There were two people in each vehicle and they would deliver packets of cocaine.”
State police reports identified the young Ponzo as a potential shooter for the local Mafia. One tip off? The cops found a silencer and a rather big gun in his Revere apartment.
“It was a machine gun, a fully automatic machine gun, according to the Revere Police report,” McGreal says.
That's hardly in keeping with how one Idaho neighbor described Ponzo. She fondly called him "Mr. Mom." In the tiny high desert town of Marsing, people knew him as Jay Shaw. Marsing is in the Snake River Valley, but a neighbor on the other side of the field from Ponzo’s house wouldn't characterize him as a snake.
That Frank Salemme was shot in front of the IHOP, escaped into a Papa Gino's, and some of the perpetrators were arrested at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet said it all ... It had become “disorganized crime."
“Just an outgoing, friendly guy,” says Shari Kinney. “We always knew there was something different about that deal, but we never pried.”
She says Ponzo told her he came from New York.
“The thing I thought was kind of strange was that the house, the property, everything was in his girlfriend's name,” Kinney says.
Ponzo fixed computers, and herded 12 cows and two kids while his girlfriend and mother of the kids went off to work each day. He called himself a cowpuncher and farmer, which amused Kinney.
“True farmers around here don't have 12 acres. They have hundreds, if not thousands, of acres. And you know if you didn't think he was a true farmer/rancher, he was insulted by it.”
Ponzo had a lot of guns (they found 38 in the house after his arrest), but that didn’t seem to impress neighbors. It’s Idaho after all. “We all have guns,” Kinney said.
The real gun-slinging story was years ago here in Massachusetts, with his friend and now-convicted drug dealer and mobster Gigi Portalla.
In a now infamous episode in Boston history, Portalla and his crew, including Ponzo, according to accomplices, allegedly tried to assassinate the head of the New England Mafia in June 1989.
The target was "Cadillac" Frank Salemme. The scene: the International House of Pancakes on Route 1 in Saugus. Retired cop Bill McGreal takes us back.
“As he got out of his car, shots were fired, and as he continued to flee, they continued to shoot at him.”
One accomplice who later plead out and testified for the government said Ponzo was riding in the passenger seat and firing an Uzi machine gun.
The gunmen hit Salemme in the chest and the leg, but they never got out of the car to try to kill him. As McGreal puts it, "They tried to shoot cowboy style, and that's all they were. They were wannabes.”
McGreal never had trouble remembering the license plate of their stolen car. It was 801-NRA. If anything, these guys weren’t NRA marksman, McGreal notes: “They couldn’t shoot straight.”
Calling them “cowboys” would come as an insult to Ponzo's neighbors in Idaho, of course. But in Massachusetts, Salemme had nothing but contempt for his would-be assassins.
“Hi, Mr. Salemme. Welcome back to Boston,” I greeted him several years ago after tracking Salemme down on Beacon Street in Brookline when he was widely thought to be in the Witness Protection Program. One of the things he told me over the course of several days was that Ponzo and Portalla didn't have "the stones" to get out of the car and come after him to finish him off that day. But in a sense, the Mafia was already finished off.
That Salemme was shot in front of the IHOP, escaped into a Papa Gino's, and some of the perpetrators were arrested at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet said it all. Like fast food, the "family business" had been franchised out to the likes of Gigi Portalla and the “We Deliver” crew. It had become “disorganized crime."
“You're not trying to get back in the game?” I asked Salemme.
“No,” he replied. “Shame on me if I ever get back in the game or even attempt to.”
Salemme, who'd been lured to his attempted execution that day by a FBI informant, later became a witness for the government against FBI agent John Connolly and the Bulger Mob. He got out.
Ponzo and 14 others were indicted for attempted murder and racketeering in 1997. But by 1994, he’d already skipped out of town, so he missed the trial in which most of his co-defendants were either convicted or plead guilty. He ended up in his Own Private Idaho, as it turns out. “Jeffrey Jay Shaw” was doing just fine until his girlfriend left him, calling him abusive and a drunk. When “Shaw” went to court to file for custody, she dimed him out, according to police sources.
“She said she didn’t know what he did, but that he was a fugitive,” according to one cop. That was more than enough.
“Hi sis. Nice to see you,” he smiled to his older sister as he came into court here. She said she hadn’t seen him or heard from him since before he went on the lam.
“Not guilty,” he replied to the charges that had long ago sent his friend Gigi Portalla to prison for 35 years. If you count up the maximum number of years Ponzo could be sentenced to if convicted of every charge, it comes to 135 years and two lifetimes.
He’s a time capsule all right. He’s back in Massachusetts again.
And his 12 cows are still in the Snake River Valley.
This program aired on March 25, 2011.