Gardner heist video brings in tips, but no solid leadsIt had the potential to be a breakthrough in the 25-year investigation into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist. The six minutes of surveillance footage showing a shadowy figure entering the museum after midnight — exactly 24 hours before thieves made off with $500 million in artwork — generated tips from former museum employees, Internet sleuths, even car enthusiasts who thought they could identify the vehicle seen in the clip.
A Quincy lawyer said his client was convinced the man in the video was an old associate in the antiques business — so sure that the client was afraid “of being killed” if he dared to publicly identify the man. A California woman who once worked as a guard at the Gardner is sure the man in the video was her supervisor, a belief later shared by three of her old colleagues.
Now, three months after the footage was released, investigators said they still haven’t identified the man who entered the side door of the museum early March 17, 1990, leaving them unable to answer a critical question: What was he doing there, in violation of security protocol, the night before two robbers posing as police officers conned their way into the same door and made off with 13 works of art, including a Vermeer and three Rembrandts?
Christina Diorio-Sterling, a spokeswoman for the US attorney’s office, said the investigation into the Gardner robbery and the recently released video “is very much active and ongoing,” though she would not discuss specifics of the case.
“Since the release of the video, we have received many tips and information that continue to be vetted,” she said. “We will continue to use all resources at our disposal, including enlisting the public’s help, to solve this crime.”
Though it has been discounted by investigators, one of the more promising possibilities put forward is that the man in the footage was Lawrence P. O’Brien, then the museum’s deputy security supervisor, who died in 2014 at age 77. Four former guards told the Globe they are convinced it is he, including one who has a “vague memory” of O’Brien returning once after museum hours to retrieve a wallet he had left at work.
“I know that’s Larry. He was stocky, and walked like that, always with his jacket collar up,” said another former guard, Cynthia Dieges, now a chef in Atlanta who worked as a manager in the museum’s security department between 1987 and 1992.
The three other former guards who believe the man in the video is O’Brien are Marj Galas, who lives in Los Angeles; April Kelley, a high school English teacher in Central Massachusetts; and Michael Levin, a Framingham lawyer. The four said they had not been contacted by investigators, though Galas said she called an FBI hot line.
However, two former guards who knew O’Brien well told the Globe they do not believe the man in the video was O’Brien. His brother also disputes the ID.
“Larry’s hair was shorter than the fellow shown there,” said David O’Brien, 81, of Somerville.
The conflicting identifications are part of a frustrating attempt to solve the world’s greatest unsolved art heist, and they illustrate the difficulties investigators have faced as new evidence emerges amid old theories of the crime.
The dark figure, who stands by the watch desk for several minutes, is difficult to see in the grainy footage. He also stays out of the view of the museum’s surveillance camera for most of the time, though he appears at one point to be fumbling through paperwork or with some other object.
The old security footage was apparently overlooked and mixed in with other evidence collected at the beginning of the case. In the last year, a team of new investigators began reviewing the old evidence and discovered the video, which apparently had not been viewed before. Authorities released the video to the public in hopes that someone might know the unidentified man and what he was doing at the Gardner after hours. Was it an innocent visit? A dry-run the day before the heist?
One of the only people who might be able to answer those questions is Richard Abath, the then-23-year-old guard who let the shadowy figure into the museum that night. He is also the same guard who was tied up by the robbers after he let them into the same door the following night.
Twenty minutes before the robbers arrived, at about 1 a.m. on March 18, Abath opened the side door of the museum in what several security officials have told investigators was a violation of museum rules.
Abath had told investigators he often opened the side door during his rounds: in fact, he had done it the night before. But he never told investigators he had let someone inside.
Abath has recently told investigators that he could not identify the man in the video and that he could not recall the visit at all. He has declined to answer reporters’ questions about the video.
It could be easy to discount O’Brien as the man in the video based on the memories of his brother and two former coworkers, one of whom was his supervisor. O’Brien, who was 53 at the time of the heist and had been interviewed about it before his death, also never said anything about being at the museum the night before.
But the four former coworkers maintain it is he.
A Globe review of state records shows that at the time of the heist, O’Brien owned a 1982 Ford Escort, one of the types of cars that enthusiasts have told investigators could be the one seen in the surveillance footage.
But officials don’t seem persuaded.
Kristen Setera, a spokeswoman for the FBI, said the agency “has followed up on all leads, including the one involving Mr. O’Brien.” She said she could not elaborate on the investigation.
Diorio-Sterling said in a statement that “the public should be assured that we pursue all credible leads.”
Shelley Murphy of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Milton J. Valencia can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia. Stephen Kurkjian can be reached at Stephenkurkjian@gmail.com.
‘Master Thieves’ author tells tale of famous Boston art heist
Stonington — Last year, Stephen Kurkjian may have been close to a break in the decades-long mystery of the missing masterpieces from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston.
While reporting his book, the 2015 investigative thriller "Master Thieves," Kurkjian spent three days interviewing Robert Gentile, the man the FBI believes may know what happened to the paintings.
Almost 25 years earlier, in the early hours after St. Patrick’s Day 1990, two men in police uniforms tied up the night guards at the museum and made off with $500 million worth of art including Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” and Vermeer’s “The Concert.”
Gentile, just out of prison on a drug charge last year and talking to Kurkjian from his Manchester home, denies he knows where the paintings are, Kurkjian told a packed house at the La Grua Center on Sunday night.
But on a hunch that Gentile may have been a part of an effort to steal the paintings and use them as collateral to get another gangster out of jail, Kurkjian went out on a limb. He made Gentile an offer: come clean and co-write a book about the paintings, then share in the proceeds.
Gentile put his head down for several seconds, and Kurkjian thought he would have a eureka moment in the case that has tormented police and Boston art lovers for nearly 25 years.
His answer was "no," but Kurkjian, who has covered the Gardner heist for more than 20 years in his career as a reporter for the Boston Globe, had enough after three days with Gentile to add to "Master Thieves" and tell most of the story of the missing art.
Kurkjian was a founding member of the Globe’s Spotlight investigative reporting team and is briefly portrayed in the new movie "Spotlight," about the group’s work to uncover widespread sexual abuse by local Catholic priests.
The tale of the Gardner museum heist had captured his imagination for many years, he said Sunday.
“This is a hell of a story,” he said to a crowd that spilled out of the lecture hall’s doors.
Despite a $5 million reward and two decades of work by federal investigators, the paintings’ frames still hang empty on the museum’s walls.
Their loss is a tragedy, Kurkjian said, largely because it violated the vision of Isabella Stewart Gardner, the Boston aristocrat and art collector who traveled all over the world to bring high-quality art back to Boston.
“She wanted to bring that appreciation to us, Bostonians,” Kurkjian said. “She wanted to have America have a great tradition in art.”
But Gardner’s will included a demand that nothing be changed in the museum following her death, so the security system was rudimentary. The two security guards – a member of a rock band who was often drunk or high at work and a music student who used the empty museum to practice trombone – didn’t help things, either.
The thieves smashed the paintings, cut them out of their frames, and put them with several other pieces of art into a getaway car and escaped. The FBI agents investigating the case haven’t had a single glimpse of them since, Kurkjian said.
Whether it was a scheme among Boston gangsters to exchange art for lighter prison sentences, as Kurkjian believes, he said the art won’t be found unless an appeal is made to the Boston public to pass along tips.
Whoever may know the paintings’ fate, he said, is likely a member of the city’s working class, uninterested in the work of the police or museum directors.
Someone like Boston Mayor Marty Walsh or Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, respected figures among Boston’s “have-nots,” need to make it clear what the city is missing in those empty frames – the gift of public art that Gardner gave the city when she started the museum, he said.
“That loss has to be felt by all of us,” he said. “We have to feel this loss like it was taken from us.”
Kurkjian’s book doesn’t solve the mystery, but he seemed confident Sunday night that the answer would be found.
“The last chapter needs to be written, and that’s the recovery,” he said.