In a stunning development in the investigation of the world's richest art heist, law enforcement officials said Monday that they know who stole $500 million in masterworks from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and they disclosed a detail that suggests why they are interested in Hartford mobster Robert Gentile.
"The FBI believes with a high degree of confidence that in the years after the theft, the art was transported to Connecticut and the Philadelphia region, and some of the art was taken to Philadelphia, where it was offered for sale by those responsible for the theft," said Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the FBI's Boston office. "With that same confidence, we have identified the thieves who are members of a criminal organization with a base in the mid-Atlantic states and New England."
Law enforcement officials would not identify any of those they say are responsible for the theft, transport or efforts to sell the art that two thieves disguised as Boston police officers tore from the museum's walls early in the morning of March 18, 1990.
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They also would not answer specific questions about Gentile, a 75-year-old gambler, confidence man and used car salesman associated with Hartford-area rackets since the late 1950s. The officials said that discussing Gentile or other suspects could jeopardize the continuing investigation.
But since 2010, Gentile has been questioned about his membership in the Boston branch of a Philadelphia-based criminal organization, as well as leads that place at least some of the stolen paintings in Connecticut and the Philadelphia area, according to a variety of people familiar with developments in the investigation.
DesLauriers said he doesn't know what happened to the art after it was transported to Philadelphia.
The FBI, Boston's U.S. Attorney and the museum's security chief released the new details at a Boston news conference followed around the world about what for years had been a largely fruitless investigation. The officials said they are looking for a jolt of publicity to generate new leads in Connecticut and Pennsylvania. The officials also referred repeatedly to a $5 million reward for information leading to the recovery of the art.
It was a public relations campaign that closed another high-profile Boston case two years ago with the capture in California of fugitive crime boss James "Whitey" Bulger. Among other things, the officials running the Gardner case said they will rent space on a Connecticut billboard to draw attention to the art heist and the reward.
The Gardner thieves tricked a security guard into allowing them into the museum, a century-old Italianate mansion with what was then an outdated security system. As St. Patrick's Day celebrations wound down outside, the thieves bound the museum's two guards with duct tape and brutally removed 13 pieces of the world's most celebrated art from the museum walls, smashing gilt frames and cutting away canvases.
Three Rembrandts, a Vermeer, a Manet and five drawings by Degas were stolen. Among them: "Storm on the Sea of Galilee," Rembrandt's only known seascape, and Vermeer's "The Concert."
The disclosures by law enforcement Monday described the most significant developments in the investigation in years.
Although the officials declined to discuss Gentile by name, the information the FBI released about who robbed the museum and how the stolen art was moved years later corresponds closely with their theories about Gentile's involvement in the crime, according to people familiar with developments in the case. The officials also said, without explaining why, that the investigation has been particularly active since 2010, the year FBI agents first approached Gentile.
Gentile has denied any knowledge of the heist or the stolen art and denies being a member of a criminal organization. His lawyer, A. Ryan McGuigan of Hartford, said, "he denies any involvement."
Gentile has been in jail since February 2012, after he was recorded selling prescription painkillers to an informant in an FBI sting. He has been held in jail since as a danger to society, and FBI agents have conducted three searches of his Manchester home. During the final search, agents probed his tiny, well-kept yard with ground-penetrating radar and examined a hole beneath the floorboards of a shed in his backyard.
People familiar with the searches said they turned up no stolen art. But agents found what federal prosecutors have said were drugs, cash, police hats, explosives, brass knuckles and what a federal magistrate called a "veritable arsenal" of weapons. Also found in the house, according to people familiar with the case, was a list of the art stolen from the Gardner and estimations of the art's value.
Since 2010, federal authorities have compelled Gentile and members of his family to appear before a grand jury investigating the Gardner heist, a variety of people familiar with developments in the case said. They also have questioned Gentile in settings outside a grand jury.
A federal prosecutor and others familiar with the case said Gentile became a sworn member of a faction of the Genovese crime family that is based in Philadelphia and had members in Boston. A Gentile associate said he joined the mob in 1998.
According to a variety of sources, Gentile was introduced to people in Boston long suspected of involvement in the Gardner heist by Robert Guarente, a Boston-area bank robber and convicted drug dealer. Gentile for years had been involved in used car sales and met Guarente in the 1980s at used car auctions in western New England, the sources said.
Guarente, until his death in January 2004, was related to or acquainted with a crew of mobsters in the Boston area suspected by the FBI of involvement in the Gardner heist, the sources said. Guarente also was friendly with Robert Luisi, who was the captain of the Boston branch of the Philadelphia mob. It was Luisi who arranged for Gentile's induction into the mob, a Gentile associate said.
Gentile has denied being a Genovese member and has said his involvement with Luisi was limited to running card games and cooking Italian food in a Boston apartment Luisi maintained, the sources said.
A law enforcement source involved in the case said Monday that the FBI has "corroborated" information that at least some of the stolen art was in Hartford and in the Philadelphia area. The source also said the paintings were moved to Philadelphia around 2001.
Gentile's lawyers have said he would cooperate with authorities if he had information to give because he believes it would lead to his release from jail, where he has been held for more than a year since his drug arrest.
Because of his criminal history, Gentile expects to get what amounts to a life sentence when he is sentenced on drug and weapons charges, probably in early May, the sources said.