Metro

FBI still believes mobster knows about Gardner art theft

Robert Gentile was brought into the federal courthouse in a wheelchair for a continuation of a hearing in Hartford, Conn.

Cloe Poisson/The Hartford Courant via AP

Robert Gentile was brought into the federal courthouse in a wheelchair for a continuation of a hearing in Hartford, Conn.

HARTFORD -- The FBI continues to believe that an aging Connecticut mobster knows the whereabouts of $500 million worth of masterworks stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 because he has been plotting for more than a decade to try to sell them, according to a federal prosecutor.

While Robert Gentile, now 79, was jailed several years ago on drug and gun charges, he told at least three people that he had access to the paintings and even drew up a contract with one of them, Assistant US Attorney John Durham told a judge on Wednesday.

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Last year, Gentile offered to sell the paintings to an undercover FBI agent posing as a drug dealer for $500,000 apiece, according to Durham, but that deal collapsed and Gentile was indicted on new charges in April of last year for allegedly selling a gun to a convicted felon.

“The government had reason to believe that Mr. Gentile might be in possession of the paintings?” asked US District Judge Robert N. Chatigny.

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“Absolutely,” said Durham, acknowledging that Gentile was targeted in an FBI sting that led to his current charges because investigators believe he has information about the stolen paintings -- despite his insistence that he does not.

The new details about the ongoing investigation into the world’s largest art heist and Boston’s most enduring mystery emerged during a hearing on a motion by Gentile’s lawyers to dismiss the new gun charges on the grounds of egregious government misconduct.

Hartford defense attorney A. Ryan McGuigan argued that Gentile was “living a quiet life” after serving 30 months in prison for illegally possessing a gun and selling prescription drugs to an FBI informant, when the government improperly cajoled him into committing new crimes in its quest to find the artwork.

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The judge rejected the defense motion, ruling that the government had a justifiable interest in pursuing Gentile and had not acted improperly.

“There is a legitimate law enforcement interest in trying to recover the paintings,” Chatigny said. He noted that even though the statute of limitations for the theft of the artwork expired years ago, it is not too late to prosecute someone for possessing it or transporting it across state lines.

The Gardner heist took place in the early morning hours of March 18, 1990. Two men dressed as police officers talked their way into the museum on the Fenway, tied up the two guards, and fled with 13 masterworks.

The stolen artwork includes three Rembrandts -- including his only seascape, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” -- a Vermeer, a Manet, and a Flinck.

The FBI began focusing on Gentile in 2009 when the wife of another person of interest in the theft, Robert Guarente, told agents that her late husband gave two of the stolen paintings to Gentile before he died in 2004, according to the government.

In court Wednesday, Durham also disclosed for the first time that Guarente and Gentile “tried to leverage the return of the paintings to get a reduced sentence for somebody Guarente was close to.” He did not identify that person.

Gentile, who is from Manchester, Conn., and is currently being held in a Rhode Island jail, appeared in court Wednesday in a wheelchair and occasionally shook his head in disapproval while listening to the proceedings.

A law enforcement agent searched a shed behind the home of reputed Connecticut mobster Robert Gentile in Manchester, Conn.

Jessica Hil/AP

A law enforcement agent searched a shed behind the home of reputed Connecticut mobster Robert Gentile in Manchester, Conn.

Durham said Gentile flunked a polygraph in 2012 when the FBI asked if he knew about plans to rob the Gardner museum beforehand and whether he had possession of the stolen paintings or knew where they were.

While Gentile was being held at a Rhode Island jail following his 2012 arrest on gun and drug charges, he spoke to at least three people about his access to the stolen paintings, according to Durham.

One man had a contract in Gentile’s handwriting, detailing a debt the man would owe for the paintings, a person to contact and a secret code to use, Durham told the judge.

After his release in 2014, Gentile was back home and still on federal probation, when the FBI targeted him in a second sting.

“He seems to be a retired old man living in Manchester in a three bedroom ranch with a carpet so old it buckles in the middle,” McGuigan said.

Two of Gentile’s longtime friends, who were secretly cooperating with the government, claimed to be working for a large scale marijuana ring, then introduced him to an undercover agent who was posing as the ringleader.

During meetings with the undercover agent and cooperating witnesses, Gentile boasted that he was a soldier in the Philadelphia branch of La Cosa Nostra. He also claimed that the FBI failed to get all of his guns when it raided his home in 2012, and that after being shot eight times, he always kept a gun by his bedside, according to Durham.

After initially agreeing to sell the stolen paintings to the undercover agent for $500,000 apiece, Gentile insisted that he be included in a deal to sell hundreds of pounds of marijuana, according to Durham.

The FBI refused to do that deal, then arrested Gentile after he sold a gun to one of the cooperating witnesses, who was a convicted felon, according to Durham.

McGuigan claimed that Gentile only sold the gun because his friend said he was going to be killed for reneging on the deal to sell the paintings, but Durham said he wanted to use the gun while collecting a drug debt.

Gentile’s lawyer said his client failed to deliver any paintings because he was “just pretending” to have them.

Shelley Murphy can be reached at shmurphy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.
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