They contact me every few weeks. Their questions are always the same.
Have I heard anything new about Michael’s case?
Do I know what a great person he was?
Do I realize how much Michael’s death has crushed his family?
I understand why they call, why they ask those same questions. They are some of the many friends of the late Michael Ponzio, and it’s all they can do.
Ponzio was killed six years ago today when the car he was driving was struck by a vehicle traveling in the wrong direction on Interstate 215. The 27-year-old Durango High School and University of Nevada, Reno graduate died at the scene.
The automobile that plowed into him was driven by Afroditi Janet Eliades-Ledstrom. Although Nevada Highway Patrol troopers at the scene suspected Eliades-Ledstrom had been driving under the influence, she never was tried criminally in connection with the case — much to the stunned amazement of Ponzio’s family and friends.
Instead, attorneys for the family sought a semblance of justice in civil court and won a judgment that with interest now exceeds $11.5 million. Eliades-Ledstrom’s wealthy family owns a strip club and a large percentage of the Yellow Checker Star taxi and limousine company. But instead of trying to pay the bloody debt, Eliades-Ledstrom filed for divorce from her husband, James, and transferred the lion’s share of community property to her husband.
The couple never bothered to separate or tell either family or friends they were divorcing. She then filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.
Experienced bankruptcy trustee Lenard Schwartzer, who represents the Ponzio family’s interests, has called the marital breakup a farce, noting that Eliades-Ledstrom “engaged in significant fraudulent asset transfers — including a ‘sham’ divorce — in a deliberate attempt to shield nonexempt assets.”
After hearing arguments and weighing evidence, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Thad J. Collins in November determined there was a “reasonable cause for suspicion” in the Chapter 11 action. Members of the Eliades family have been accused in court documents of creating false documents to strip Eliades-Ledstrom of assets in an effort to avoid paying the Ponzio family.
But the friends of Michael Ponzio rarely ask about any of that. When they reach out, they do so through the pain of losing their friend.
Jason Brookhyser calls from Seattle, where he is an attorney, and talks about Ponzio’s selflessness in helping others. They had been friends since kindergarten, remained pals at Durango High, and kept in touch even after leaving the valley for college. Ponzio spoke Spanish and used his language skills at a local bank to communicate with customers who needed help balancing their budgets in a difficult economy.
“It was an incredibly important thing to be doing for people who needed it,” Brookhyser says. “That’s what I think of when I think of him: He (symbolized) the community that I think is missing in Las Vegas. It’s that sense of community I never really saw growing up. He was blessed with a lot of talent. He wanted to use all those blessings that he had to try to make things better for other people.”
Joanne Jackson recalls, “Mike and my son were good friends; playing soccer and growing up together at Durango High School. Mike was a ‘regular’ at our home, and I had many discussions with him about ‘seeing the world’ and venturing out in life as a young adult after high school. He was a delightful young man, full of energy, enthusiasm, and optimism ... truly a ‘good kid.’
“His death has hurt his family beyond comprehension, but also his many friends.”
That sense of loss is present in every phone call, in every letter and email.
“He was one of those once-in-a-lifetime kind of people that you’ll meet,” Brookhyser says. “He will always be horribly, sorely missed.”
Six years later, they still feel the heartache of their loss. And so they make contact, and ask the questions.
It’s all they can do.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.