Monday, March 14, 2011

Somewhere to hide

One of my favorite scenes in any movie, ever, is the culminating moment in 1994's The Shawshank Redemption in which Red (played by Morgan Freeman), recently released from prison, meets his friend Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) in the small Mexican coastal town of Zihuatanejo (2005 Population: 104,609, but its population boomed from 6,000 or so in the 1990s).

Pictured in the film as an idyllic, small town where Andy fulfills his dreams of buying a small house on the beach and a boat on which he can take tourists out on the crystalline blue waters of the Mexican Pacific Coast. Zihuatanejo was the place Andy insisted Red meet him after Red was released from prison in Maine.

Andy fled to the town after escaping from prison--after being wrongly convicted for murder. He took with him the money he laundered for the prison administrators, who had earned it through less-than-acceptable means and then used Andy's skills as an accountant to hide it from the government. As an escaped convict, Andy knew that if he were to make it down to such a small, rural, halcyon Mexican town like Zihuatenejo, he would be free to live out his life without worrying he would be caught and sent back to prison. In a way, Andy used the wide open space of the beach in rural coastal Mexico to hide from his previous life in the United States.

It seems that many people use rural places--where anonymity or fresh starts can be relatively easy--to hide from their past. On March 10th, the New York Times reporter William Yardley reported that a Boston gangster, Enrico Ponzo, who disappeared in 1994 after he and 14 others were indicted on federal racketeering charges, was brought in by Federal Marshals on February 7th of this year after living as a rancher in Idaho for the past decade.

People in the town where Ponzo--who went by Jeffrey John Shaw--lived knew that he wasn't from there, and that he had no previous experience with ranching when he arrived.
The accent from back East and his inexperience with cattle gave him away quickly as another newcomer reinventing himself in the West. 'He wore bib overalls and straw hats,' said Brodie Clapier, a neighbor and a longtime rancher. 'People did wear bib overalls here — in the 1930s.'
Rural communities often see newcomers, either former city-dwellers or other people seeking work or a new beginning, in their communities. The lack of governmental regulation seems like a great reason for criminals, such as Andy Dufresne or Enrico Ponzo, to move out to the country and hide in plain view. As described in the article, Ponzo was heavily involved in his Idaho community, and his friends in Idaho were absolutely stunned when Ponzo's true identity as a hardened leader of organized crime was revealed.

Ponzo was not hiding in the country; federal marshals, through undisclosed means, learned of Ponzo's location and surveilled him for only one week before taking him into custody.

And yet, the popular perception persists that rural places are safe places. Safer, surely, than cities like Boston, from which Ponzo came. It seems much more likely that one's neighbor in a rural place is a child molester, even if he lives much further away, than the person in the apartment next door in the City. There is obviously no lack of press coverage about people like Ponzo being brought to justice, and yet the perception persists.

While we may never know how many people who have mysteriously disappeared from law enforcement over the years have just been the victims of crime, it seems likely that a few, if not many, have managed to escape to relative obscurity and safety by moving in to small, rural, insular communities. While Ponzo surely missed some of the creature comforts easily accessible in Boston (such as, pizza delivered at 3am), he became completely enmeshed in his new identity and still identifies himself as a rancher from Idaho, despite being outed as "Enrico Ponzo," rather than "Jeffrey Jay Shaw."

And one must wonder how federal marshalls actually tracked him down. Was it newly expanding broadband internet that tipped them off? Or Shaws notoriety in his Idaho community? We may never know.


vlshaw said...

Great post! I love the gangster element crossed with Shawshank Redemption. I have often fantisized about living on the LAM, and where would I go. I wonder if it would be easier from someone from Idaho to hide in New York City than visa versa. As the locals said, the guy from Boston stuck out like a sore thumb. How much would he have stuck out in Mexico? Interesting stuff..

Sarah J said...

For some reason I think it would be easier to hide out in a big city than it would be in rural America, or even small town, coastal Mexico. Ponzo seems to have gotten lucky for a little while, and Red and Andy might be hard to find by virtue of the fact that they are in a different country. But wouldn't being in the big, anonymous city shelter you even more effectively than in a small town where "everybody knows your name?" It's an interesting fantasy regardless, and I admit that "escaping" to a rural place has also crossed my mind.

RH said...

Whether it is easier to "hide" in a rural area is an interesting question. Based on my experience visiting friends in Northern CA, there really is a feeling of privacy when you live miles away from any neighbors, and that may help create the impression that you can hide more easily. You can do what you want without being noticed. But as you alluded to, I think law enforcement today can find anyone hiding in plain sight if they look hard enough.

N.P. said...

It is an interesting contradiction when thinking about what we've talked about regarding rural communities. On the one hand, there is the isolation and privacy that comes from living miles away from your neighbor - and facilitates people on the lam from being caught more quickly. On the other hand, rural communities tend to be small and there is a lack of anonymity - so then the question is could the reason they were caught was because the local residents notice a newcomer and this alerted federal officers to the fact that it was Ponzo?

Lisa R. Pruitt said...

Here's another story about an apparent criminal hiding in a rural place--this one, a woman accused of war crimes.

This woman, however, actually disclosed to residents in her adopted Kentucky home that she had killed during the war in the former Yugoslavia. But she did not describe these killings in the detail that would have hinted that they were war crimes.

Dusty said...

I love this analogy between one my favorite movies and hiding out in the country. I think his ability to hide out was also affected by rural areas isolation from national news. Usually the national news that makes it to rural areas, like ranchland Idaho, has been greatly filtered and probably didn't include white collar type modern gangsters in the crime reports. Also, spatiality and privacy have long provided outlaws with safe havens and fresh starts. Oklahoma was considered outlaw land till well into the 1900s with many gangsters and famous criminals, like Pretty Boy Floyd, reguarly hiding out and seasonly seeking reprive in the safety of hidden rural areas. As a kid, I went camping at Robbers Cave, famous for hiding the 1930s robber Pretty Boy Floyd.

Jen Wickens said...

I just have to report that less than a week after Caitlin wrote this post, we were playing trivia at Sophia's and one of the questions was "Name the town that Red met Andy in at the end of 'The Shawshank Redemption'." Of course, Caitlin got the answer right and helped lead our team to place third out of 37 other teams!