BOSTON — With his East Coast accent and tales of living in New York, Jay Shaw stood out when he moved to the tiny farm town of Marsing, Idaho.
But he was friendly enough, even helpful, to his neighbors, and they never suspected him of having a dark secret.
After about a decade of living the quiet life of a would-be cattle rancher, his past closed in on him one day in 2011 as he was negotiating a purchase of hay near his 12-acre ranch. Massachusetts authorities had caught up with him, more than 16 years after he disappeared.
His real name was Enrico Ponzo, and he was wanted on numerous federal charges in a racketeering indictment, including the 1989 attempted murder of Francis “Cadillac Frank” Salemme, who went on to become the boss of the Patriarca crime family.
As his trial got underway in Boston last week, his former neighbors in Idaho watched the news coverage closely, some still stunned that the novice rancher they knew was accused of being mixed up with mobsters in Boston.
“It was almost unbelievable,” said farmer Bob Briggs, who was talking about hay with Ponzo when he was arrested. “People couldn’t understand why and what for and how come.”
In Idaho, where he had lived for a little over a decade, Ponzo owned a handful of cows and spent a lot of time with his two young children.
“He told me he was from New York and that he had been in the Army,” said Briggs, who farmed land across from where Ponzo lived and got to know him.
In August 2010, Ponzo’s longtime girlfriend, Cara Pace, left with their kids and moved to another state.
“It almost killed him,” Briggs said. “He took care of them, he fed them, he did everything for them. He was just devastated when she took the kids.”
Six months later, Ponzo was arrested.
“It was almost unbelievable,” Briggs said. “I sure had him pegged wrong.”
Prosecutors said Ponzo was a mob associate who teamed up with a faction of mobsters that wanted to stop Salemme from becoming the boss.
In a 1997 indictment, Ponzo and Vincent Marino are named as the triggermen who shot at Salemme as he walked into an IHOP in Saugus, north of Boston. Ponzo was among 15 people indicted by a grand jury investigating organized crime.
Charges against Ponzo include conspiracy to murder, conspiracy to distribute cocaine and firearms counts. He faces a sentence of up to life in prison if convicted.
In opening statements to the jury, Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen Beausey said Ponzo, now 45, was an associate in the Patriarca family, the New England branch of the Mafia. During the late ’80s and early ’90s, she said, Ponzo and his co-conspirators participated in extortions, assaults and attempted murders while rival factions were vying for control of the crime group.
“He was part of the group who was trying to seize control,” she said.
Beausey said Ponzo “re-invented himself” while he was on the run, first as a large-scale marijuana distributor in Arizona, then as a cattle rancher in Idaho. She said Ponzo used the money he made illegally in Arizona to re-establish himself and his girlfriend in Idaho.
“They bought land there, they bought a house. They started to raise a family there,” she said.
Ponzo’s lawyer, John Cunha Jr., told jurors that Ponzo was not a made member or an associate of the Mafia. He also challenged the credibility of the government’s witnesses, including mob figures who cut deals with prosecutors for reduced sentences.
“As you listen to these people, keep in mind the powerful tool that the government has to elicit testimony that it wants,” Cunha said.
Ponzo believed he was on a hit list created by a mobster whose son was shot to death while changing a flat tire, Ponzo’s lawyer said.
“So what did Mr. Ponzo do?” Cunha asked. “He left. He wasn’t going to get killed.”