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Racketeering rap doesn't faze Ponzo; Smiles all around after 14 years on lam.

Byline: Lee Hammel

WORCESTER - Fourteen years overdue, Enrico Ponzo yesterday faced a federal magistrate judge and pleaded not guilty to racketeering, conspiracy to murder and other charges.

His demeanor did not appear to be that of someone facing charges carrying mandatory minimum sentences of 30 years and up to life. He smiled broadly, despite having both wrists and ankles cuffed and wearing jail scrubs.

Mr. Ponzo, 42, appeared to be an affable man, balding at the crown of his head, who has spent years ranching in Idaho, not the thick-haired tough guy charged with shooting the man 22 years earlier who was about to become the don of the New England Mafia.

Yesterday he seemed glad to see everyone in Magistrate Judge Timothy S. Hillman's courtroom, especially his lawyer, David Duncan.

He was so affable that, at one point, Judge Hillman stopped the arraignment and told Mr. Ponzo to "zip it up."

Judge Hillman said he was inclined to allow Mr. Ponzo to choose his appointed lawyer, over the objections of Assistant U.S. Attorney James D. Herbert. Mr. Duncan, a law partner of Norman Zalkind, Mr. Ponzo's longtime lawyer, represented Mr. Ponzo through yesterday's arraignment.

Mr. Ponzo, who is being held without bail, pleaded not guilty to 10 charges, including racketeering, conspiracy to murder and to racketeer, use of a firearm while committing a crime, extortion, and conspiracy to distribute cocaine and marijuana. He was arrested by the FBI in Idaho last month raising cattle, on the lam from his 1997 federal indictment. The end of freedom came after he petitioned for custody of his children once his relationship with their mother dissolved.

Most of the 14 people indicted with Mr. Ponzo in 1997 were convicted and some served their sentences and were released. Others are back in prison again.

The 15 were charged in a 40-count indictment with trying to take over the Patriarca crime family between 1989 and 2004 and beyond. A faction headed by Michael P. Romano Sr. allegedly conspired to kill 14 people, three of whom were murdered.

Two of the defendants were acquitted. Although one, Paul A. DeCologero, was convicted in another case of murdering a witness.

Vincent "Gigi Portalla" Marino, got 35 years. He and Mr. Ponzo were charged with being among the four men involved in the shooting in 1989 of Francis "Cadillac Frank" Salemme Sr., who survived and became head of the Patriarca family.

The jury did not find that Mr. Marino took part in the shooting beyond conspiring. But Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton found - after a 58-day trial in Worcester ended with a hung jury and a 32-day trial ended in conviction in 1999 - that Mr. Marino had participated and sentenced him accordingly.

Some people thought Mr. Ponzo was dead. There was no shortage of people, including some of his alleged co-conspirators, who wanted him dead.

Mr. Romano's son was killed Sept. 1, 1994, reportedly by Salemme loyalists who mistook him for Mr. Ponzo. Michael Romano Jr., who had been arrested weeks earlier with Mr. Ponzo, was shot after he accompanied Mr. Ponzo, allegedly to shake down someone aligned with Mr. Salemme.

Bobby Luisi Jr., a Salemme partisan, said that he had been looking to kill Mr. Ponzo and other renegades.

Part of the plot involved the shooting of drug dealer Matteo Trotto Oct. 31, 1994, in Worcester, to put fear in other drug dealers and bookies that the renegade faction intended to shake down. Eugene A. "Gino" Rida Jr. of Worcester pleaded guilty to that and was sentenced to 10 years.

ART: PHOTO

CUTLINE: Mr. Ponzo
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Mar 26, 2011
Words:597
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