Metro

Reputed mobster may hold clues to art heist

But lawyer denies prosecutor’s claim

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Thirteen masterworks were stolen from the Gardner in 1990.

A federal prosecutor said in a US court in Connecticut Tuesday that investigators believe a reputed mobster may have information related to the notorious 1990 art heist at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Assistant US Attorney John Durham made the disclosure while arguing that suspected La Cosa Nostra member Robert Gentile be held without bail pending his trial in Hartford on drug dealing charges, a spokesman for the US attorney’s office in Connecticut confirmed Wednesday. The spokesman, Tom Carson, would not elaborate beyond what was said in court.

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Durham had told US District Court Judge Robert Chatigny that Gentile, 75, who has lived for decades in Manchester, Conn., was tied to the Boston faction of Philadelphia’s Mafia. He said Gentile was still being investigated for gun crimes, and that prosecutors wanted to question him about other illegal activities, including the Gardner heist.

Durham, the same prosecutor who led the investigation into the FBI’s scandalous ties with organized crime figures, told the court that discussions with Gentile had so far been unproductive.

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Katherine Gulotta, a spokeswoman for the Boston FBI office, would say Wednesday only that authorities continue to investigate the 22-year-old mystery and that Boston investigators have been in contact with counterparts in New Haven, among other offices, to follow “all viable leads that may actually lead to the recovery of the artwork.’’

Gentile has long been associated with a La Cosa Nostra crew led by Capo Robert Luisi, who was from Medford, the Hartford Courant first reported from Tuesday’s hearing. Durham also said that Gentile had ties to former Boston Mafia leader Francis “Cadillac Frank’’ Salemme.

Luisi was a well-known Boston Mafia figure who pleaded guilty in 2000 to the murder of a rival gangster and who agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for a lighter sentence. He later reneged on cooperating and was sentenced to 20 years in 2003 on cocaine charges.

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The Courant reported that Durham told the court Luisi eventually implicated his associates, including Gentile, in other crimes. Luisi told investigators that Gentile once planned to rob armored cars leaving Foxwoods Resort Casino, though the scheme was never carried out.

Gentile’s lawyer, Ryan McGuigan, of Connecticut, said in court Tuesday that his client had no information about the Gardner heist and that authorities were invoking the old crime as a way to keep his client detained. McGuigan did not return a call for comment on Wednesday.

“He unfortunately does not have the information that the government is looking for. But the government believes he does,’’ McGuigan said in court, the Courant reported.

The Gardner continues to offer a $5 million reward for information about the heist, which remains one of Boston’s most notorious crimes. At least two men dressed as police officers conned their way into the museum in the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, tied up the security guards, and left with 13 paintings - masterworks including three Rembrandts, and five by Degas. Some of the stolen pieces could sell for $50 million on the open market.

Investigators have long suspected Boston’s underworld of carrying out such an orchestrated crime.

Court records describe Gentile as a longtime player in organized crime. He is charged with distribution of prescription drugs that were illegally obtained. Prosecutors said they also found $22,000 in cash and materials related to weapons during a search of his home. He is being held without bail.

Milton Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com.
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