MARSING -- Mafia members have taken the stand against Enrico Ponzo, a man who was an alleged mob associate and hid out as a Marsing rancher for a decade. At least one more member is expected to do so.
Ponzo is one of more than a dozen mafia men indicted in 1997 for crimes including trying to kill a New England Mafia boss known as Cadillac Frank. He also faces drug and gun charges.
Ponzo trial significant in New England Mafia history
Boston Globe Metro Reporter Milton Valencia is covering Ponzo's trial in federal court in Boston. Valencia says the trial is highly attended and anticipated because of the story line itself and the trial's significance in Boston mafia history.
"So it's twofold. You have one, this history of the mafia that's unfolding once again in federal court, but then you have just this great tale of this man who was involved in this underworld, who was found 17 years later posing as a cattle rancher in Idaho," Valencia said.
In the 1980s and 90s, mafia conflict was escalating and power struggles were mounting with different factions wanting to go different directions with leadership. Ponzo is accused of crimes in that time period, including the attempted murder of Frank "Cadillac Frank" Salemme, who was rising to power.
"It was a significant case in Boston at that time. There were some mafia wars, power struggles going on. It was a bloody time within the New England Mafia," Valencia explained.
Attempted murder allegation: An Uzi at an IHOP
Ponzo wasn't high up within the organization, but Valencia says the entire case became significant when some of the mafia members and associates started being put away on this one indictment, some now serving 40 years in prison.
"Enrico Ponzo was low on the rung of the ladders, but he was involved in the significant indictment that kind of stopped this bloodshed," Valencia said. "There is a lot of controversy with the FBI's involvement with the prosecution of the mafia and what happened years ago, but what is key here is a mafia war was going on. Fifteen people were indicted. That indictment disrupted this bloodshed hitting Boston."
Salemme was gaining power when the group allegedly tried to kill him while he was at a restaurant. Though Valencia said mob code kept Salemme from saying what happened, the shooting was investigated.
"I think [there were] seven shootings within a short time frame, and Enrico Ponzo was allegedly involved in some of these shootings, including the attempted murder of Cadillac Frank Salemme," Valencia said. "On June 16, 1989, a car rolled up on an International House of Pancakes ... in Saugus, just outside of Boston. Frank Salemme was having kind of a mob meeting there. He walked out to a hail of gunfire. He was hit twice, remarkably survived."
Hiding in Idaho used by both sides to support cases
After Ponzo was indicted, he fled, eventually ending up with his home near Marsing. He was finally found and arrested in February 2011. His hiding out under a new identity with a stash of money and guns in Idaho is bolstering the prosecution's case, aiding in proof he had a consciousness of guilt.
But Ponzo's attorneys are saying he was actually a victim of these power struggles within the mafia, and so he left in fear for his own safety. In opening statements, Valencia says that was brought up.
"They're saying Enrico fled not because he committed crimes but because he was getting sucked into this power struggle, and people were turning on him. So they're saying he fled for his own life, not to escape anything else," Valencia said. "They noted one of his associates at the time was suspected of approving a hit on Enrico because of his suspicion in other crimes."
Connections to Boston's 'most notorious gangster' James 'Whitey' Bulger
Ponzo's story is also interesting to the Boston community because of the connection to another big mafia storyline involving a man named James "Whitey" Bulger, who was just convicted this year after more than a decade as a fugitive.
The connection is with Cadillac Frank. Bulger and Salemme's names come up together a number of times throughout history, including when they were indicted together in 1995 and an FBI agent was accused of warning them and eventually was convicted of racketeering and second-degree murder.
Click here to see Boston NBC-affiliate WHDH's coverage of the recent Bulger trial. He is set to be sentenced next month.
Ponzo very 'animated in court', taking active role in his defense
"[Ponzo] seems pretty aggressive, getting involved. He whispered into his lawyer's ear," Valencia said. "He seems very anxious and interested in seeing this happen. He's jumping at chances to talk to his lawyer."
Because this case involves allegations many years ago, Valencia says this case is reliant upon old evidence, old stories, and old memories.
"I think that's actually helping Ponzo as he's fighting these charges because the more and more you tell the story, the more and more it gets convoluted and confusing, and I think he's trying to play that for jurors," Valencia said.
As the trial plays out for up to six weeks, Boston is taking notice, watching to see what will happen with this last defendant in a case full of New England Mafia history that in some ways marked the end of an era in crime in the city.
"This is a big deal... again, this was gang wars. We haven't seen a gang war like this in the mafia since that time," Valencia said.