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Reputed mobster denies role in art heist

Lawyer questions US intent in case

The lawyer for the latest person of interest in the ongoing investigation into the mysterious 1990 art heist at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum said Thursday that his client has been hounded by investigators for at least two years, though he maintains he has no information about the notorious crime.

A. Ryan McGuigan, the lawyer for 75-year-old Robert Gentile, said federal prosecutors are “torturing’’ his client as they keep him jailed on drug distribution charges in Connecticut in an effort to squeeze information about the museum heist.

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But, “he spoke with authorities,’’ McGuigan said. “He’s cooperated with them as best as he could. He just didn’t have anything for them.’’

McGuigan added that Gentile has been brought before a grand jury to testify.

Gentile, a reputed member of the Mafia from Manchester, Conn., is being held without bail following his arrest in February on the drug allegations.

He may face far more serious charges after investigators allegedly found firearms and other materials including silencers and ammunition during a search of his home. A spokesman for the US attorney’s office in Connecticut said the case is still under investigation.

McGuigan said the original drug charges were based on information provided by a confidential informant who had tried to entice Gentile into illegal behavior before.

He questioned whether his client was set up by the confidential informat, whose relationship with Gentile suspiciously began after investigators identified Gentile as a person of interest in the Gardner art theft.

“If you believe in that coincidence, I’ve got a bridge to sell you,’’ McGuigan said. “This case is a pretext to get him incarcerated to the point they believe he will give information up, and, in all honesty, he just doesn’t have it.’’

Federal prosecutors acknowledged during a bail hearing in US District Court in Hartford Tuesday that they believe Gentile may have information about the painting thefts, the Hartford Courant reported.

Tom Carson, a spokesman for the US attorney’s office in Connecticut, confirmed the interest in Gentile related to the museum investigation, but would not elaborate.

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

The heist remains one of the most mysterious thefts of art in the world, and the Gardner Museum is offering a $5 million reward for any information.

Federal investigators have also offered immunity for information about the theft.

Authorities said at least two men dressed as police officers conned their way into the museum in the early morning on March 18, 1990, tied up the security guards, and left with 13 masterworks, including three by Rembrandt and five by Degas. Some of the stolen pieces could sell for $50 million on the open market, art experts say.

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

Gentile is said to be a “made’’ member of the Mafia with ties to a Philadelphia crime family, Durham said in court Tuesday. He was introduced to the Mafia by capo Robert Luisi, who was from Medford and had ties to Philadelphia, Durham said.

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.

Durham said in court Tuesday that Luisi implicated his associates, including Gentile, in other crimes.

But McGuigan maintained that his client had no information about the heist, saying the $5 million reward would only interest him if he had it.

In the meantime, he said, his client - whom he described as an elderly, obese man - is growing ill in a detention center awaiting trial as prosecutors press for more information.

“It’s the largest unsolved art theft in the history of the world, and they’ve had one lead in 22 years that went nowhere,’’ McGuigan said. “This is the second one.’’

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.
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