Kathleen Patterson was just a tourist, heading to a breakfast restaurant with her family in Saugus, when she heard the shots ring out 24 years ago.
“We heard noises, like firecracker-type noises . . . my dad got back into the car, and said those guys have guns,” the Illinois resident testified Wednesday in federal court in Boston.
She did not know it at the time, but prosecutors said the shooting was an assassination attempt and part of a broader power struggle within the New England Mafia that led to more shootings and murders.
Patterson was the first witness called in the long-awaited trial of Enrico M. Ponzo, an alleged former New England Mafia associate who fled the area in 1994 and has been posing in recent years as a cattle rancher in Idaho. He was arrested by a team of FBI agents and a US Marshals Service task force in February 2011.
Ponzo, now 45, is accused in a sweeping racketeering indictment of multiple violent crimes including extortion, drug trafficking, and attempted murder. Prosecutors say he was one of the shooters on June 16, 1989, in the attempted assassination of Francis “Cadillac Frank” Salemme, a leader in the New England Mafia who was later named the don of the criminal organization.
Ponzo associated with a rival faction that wanted to kill Salemme, assistant US Attorney Karen Beausey told jurors in opening arguments Wednesday.
“He was part of the group that was trying to seize control,” she said.
Patterson seemed uncomfortable with her association with a mob trial as she took to the stand for about a half-hour and described the shooting. She said she could not identify anyone by face — “They were wearing some type of Halloween masks over their heads,” she said — but she described the dark blue car that pulled up to the restaurant. At least one person got out of the car as the occupants fired toward the entrance of the restaurant, the International House of Pancakes.
Salemme was shot twice but made his way into a nearby restaurant. The shooters fled in the dark blue car. She said she saw a bullet hole in one of the booths.
Patterson said she and her family made sure to note the car’s license plate. Authorities later determined it was a rental car.
Joseph Thomas, 66, a former owner of a Thrifty Car Rental service, testified Wednesday that the car was one of his and it had been stolen. And Robert Gaff later told jurors that he was fishing off a bridge in Revere when he found an Uzi that authorities believe was used in the shooting. The bridge is several miles away from the shooting scene.
Wednesday’s testimony marked the beginning of what is expected to be a six-week trial, featuring testimony from a range of former Mafia figures and their associates.
Prosecutors initially named 15 people in the 1997 indictment, what they called the disruption of a bloody power struggle.
Prosecutors say the faction killed three men, attempted to kill seven men, including Salemme, and plotted to kill seven more.
Ponzo allegedly fled in 1994 after he was first charged in state court with drug dealing and attempted murder, and had been hiding as a cattle rancher in Idaho over the last 10 years before he was captured.
“He changed his lifestyle, he changed his appearance, and he changed his name, he tried to become a new person,” Beausey said in her opening arguments. “Mr. Ponzo’s criminal activities span over 20 years. The time has come for him to be held accountable.”
But Ponzo’s lawyer, John Cunha, told jurors in his opening statements that Ponzo was never a made member or even an associate of the Mafia. He said the allegations are being made by questionable witnesses who made agreements with government prosecutors to help themselves in their own cases.
“These people are not credible,” said.
He denied that Ponzo had any role in the Salemme shooting, and he and other lawyers have also downplayed the so-called power struggle within the Mafia. He said the shootings that the faction was charged with had more do to with personal disputes, and he said Ponzo fled because he feared he, himself, could be killed.
“I suggest to you that the evidence will show that the Mafia in this case is a red herring,” said Cunha.