Feds Believe Mobster, 75, Involved In Gardner Art Heist
A federal prosecutor acknowledged in court Tuesday that the FBI believes that 75-year-old Hartford mobster Robert Gentile has information about the world's most sensational art heist, the theft of 13 masterworks from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
"The government has reason to believe that Mr. Gentile had some involvement with stolen property out of the District of Massachusetts," said Assistant U.S. Attorney John Durham.
What Gentile, reputedly a sworn Mafia member, does or doesn't know about the March 1990 Gardner job surfaced during a hearing in U.S. District Court in Hartford where he tried, unsuccessfully, to bail himself out of jail while waiting for a trial on a drug arrest in February.
Gentile's lawyer, A. Ryan McGuigan, said Gentile knows nothing about the stolen art and that the government is denying "a sick, old man" bail because he can't give them information that could solve one of the world's most baffling crimes.
"What is happening, Your Honor, is that the government is asking you to set a punitive bond, to keep him uncomfortable, to torture him," McGuigan said. "He unfortunately doesn't have the information that the government is looking for. But the government believes he does."
Durham implied that Gentile knows something about the Gardner heist when U.S. District Judge Robert Chatigny pressed the prosecution on the charge that the government is holding Gentile in a Rhode Island prison to squeeze him into giving up information.
Durham added, without elaboration, that Gentile has had unproductive discussions with the FBI about the missing paintings and that the reason the government opposes his release on bond is because of his involvement in a long list of other crimes, among them an aborted conspiracy to hijack cash shipments leaving the Foxwoods casino in Ledyard.
Gentile, short, white-haired, overweight and leaning on a cane, confronted Durham as he limped out of the courtroom during a recess.
"Lies, lies," Gentile said. "It's all lies."
The Gardner job devastated the art world, and the inability of investigators around the world to find even a hint of the stolen paintings has become an enduring mystery.
Among the pieces stolen were three Rembrandts, a Vermeer, a Manet and five drawings by Degas. Two of the paintings — "Storm on the Sea of Galilee," Rembrandt's only known seascape, and Vermeer's "The Concert" — could be worth than more $50 million each in an open market. All the stolen pieces might be worth $50 million or more.
At least two thieves were involved in the theft. They dressed as police officers and used the uniforms to trick one of two museum guards into opening a door at about 1:30 a.m., the end of St. Patrick's Day celebrations in Boston.
The thieves bound the guards with duct tape and, less than 90 minutes later, drove away into the night in a red car. There has been one lead in 22 years, according to the museum. It went nowhere.
Gentile, who lives in Manchester, has been a player in the Connecticut rackets for years, according to police and other sources. He has an arrest record dating to the 1950s, mostly on minor state charges. He served a six-month sentence, once.
Associates believe that if Gentile had even the faintest idea of the location of the paintings, he would have tried to trade it for the $5 million reward years ago.
His most recent arrest, last month, was for selling illegally obtained prescription painkillers. He claims he was using the pills personally for his myriad medical conditions. He was charged with a partner, Anthony Parente, another 75-year-old local underworld figure.
The intensive law enforcement investigation following the Gardner job revealed, according to recently obtained FBI investigative reports, that Gentile was actively involved with a crew of Boston hoodlums in the years immediately after the art theft.
Durham said Gentile was associated with a crew active in Boston and led by Capo Robert Luisi, but associated with Philadelphia's mafia family. It was Luisi who "made" Gentile by inducting him into the Philadelphia family, Durham said in court Tuesday.
When Luisi was arrested and confronted with a long prison sentence for selling cocaine about a decade ago, he implicated Gentile and other alleged members of his crew in a long list of criminal activity, Durham said.
In 1998, Gentile established an elaborate surveillance of the armored cars that he believed were transporting cash from the Foxwoods Resort Casino. Gentile plotted the truck routes and the frequency of pickups, Durham said.
In Gentile's basement, Durham said, FBI agents found police identification materials, uniforms, Tasers and police scanners — devices that criminal gangs often use in armored-car robberies. There also were weapons and ammunition.
In about 2000, Durham said, Gentile approached Luisi about hitting an armored car in Ledyard. Luisi recruited a gang of Boston bank robbers to work with Gentile on surveillance. The Ledyard robbery fizzled when the Boston crew was nabbed in another robbery, Durham said.
Durham said Luisi said Gentile also claimed to have been involved in truck hijackings. For a while, Luisi said, Gentile carried a snub-nosed .38-caliber pistol and a .22-caliber derringer and acted as his bodyguard. Another time, Durham said, Gentile boasted that he would kill Hartford gangster Tony Volpe if Volpe threatened his loan-sharking business.
McGuigan called the allegations lies by gangsters trying to curry favor with the FBI and shorten their own prison sentences.
Chatigny said Gentile was too dangerous to be granted bail.