The government secretly reduced the prison term of a longtime suspect in the 1990 robbery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum several years ago, raising questions about whether he agreed to help authorities recover the $500 million worth of stolen masterworks.
David Turner, who was sentenced to 38 years in prison for the 1999 attempted robbery of an Easton armored car company and not scheduled for release until at least 2032, is now expected to be freed in 2025, according to the US Bureau of Prisons website.
The US attorney’s office, the FBI, and Turner’s lawyer, Robert Goldstein, declined to comment on why, or even when, seven years were shaved off Turner’s sentence.
It’s unclear whether the 48-year-old Braintree native, who emerged as a suspect in the Gardner heist in the early 1990s, provided any information to authorities in exchange for leniency.
However, Turner’s possible involvement in the ongoing investigation surfaced recently during federal court proceedings in Hartford involving Robert Gentile, a Connecticut mobster who is awaiting trial on gun charges and is suspected by the FBI of having access to the stolen paintings.
In late 2010, Turner wrote a letter from prison to Gentile instructing him to call Turner’s girlfriend. She then asked Gentile to meet with two of Turner’s associates about recovering the stolen artwork, according to Gentile’s lawyer.
Gentile, who was cooperating with the FBI at the time, refused to meet with the pair and introduce them to an FBI informant because of fear for his safety, according to court filings.
A federal prosecutor disclosed last week in court that Gentile and his friend Robert Guarente, who died in 2004, unsuccessfully tried to negotiate the return of two stolen Gardner paintings in exchange for a sentence reduction for one of Guarente’s associates. The associate, who was not named in court, was Turner, according to two people familiar with the incident.
When told of Turner’s sentence reduction, Gentile’s lawyer, A. Ryan McGuigan, said in an interview, “I think it means that he was cooperating with the federal government in trying to aid them in gleaning information as to the whereabouts of the paintings.”
He added that an inmate would generally have to provide significant cooperation to get seven years knocked off a very long sentence.
“Obviously, whatever [Turner] was offering didn’t pan out because we’re in 2016 and we still don’t know where the paintings are,” McGuigan said.
In 2013, the FBI announced it was confident it had identified the thieves, but declined to name them, citing the ongoing investigation. Authorities said they believed some of the artwork changed hands through organized crime circles, and moved from Boston to Connecticut and then to Philadelphia, where the trail went cold. Later, the FBI said it believed the two thieves were dead.
Turner is being held at the federal prison in Devens and could not be reached for comment. However, in a 2013 e-mail to a Globe reporter he wrote, “1st and foremost I have not, nor ever will cooperate with authorities.”
In response to a request for an interview about his possible knowledge of the whereabouts of the Gardner paintings, Turner wrote that he distrusted reporters and added, “I am not a treasure hunter.”
The Gardner heist was the largest art theft in history and remains one of Boston’s most baffling mysteries. Two men dressed like police officers talked their way into the museum in the early morning of March 18, 1990, tied up two guards, and fled with 13 pieces of art.
The pieces, which include works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet, and Flinck, have never been recovered, despite a $5 million reward for information leading to their safe return and promises of immunity.
After Turner was arrested in 1999 in the attempted armored car company robbery, along with Carmello Merlino, Stephen Rossetti, and William Merlino, Turner claimed the FBI told him that it suspected he and Carmello Merlino were involved in the Gardner theft and offered to let him “walk” if he helped retrieve the stolen artwork.
Carmello Merlino, a Dorchester auto repair shop owner with mob ties, was targeted by the FBI in 1997 after he boasted to two informants that he planned to recover the art and collect the reward. He was convicted along with Turner and died in prison in 2005.
Turner, who was also a suspect in three homicides, insisted at the time of his arrest that he wasn’t involved in the heist and did not know the whereabouts of the art. He was convicted in 2001 of attempting to rob the armored car facility and a variety of other charges, including carrying a hand grenade.
US District Judge Richard G. Stearns sentenced Turner to 38 years and four months in 2003. He rejected Turner’s claim that the FBI used informants to concoct the robbery plot to entrap Turner and Merlino and force their cooperation in the Gardner investigation. The judge rejected an additional request by Turner to dismiss his conviction in 2009.
There are no details about Turner’s sentence reduction on his criminal case docket in federal court in Boston, indicating that records relating to the reduction are sealed. A flurry of sealed documents were filed in Turner’s case in July 2011.
The only public record of Turner’s reduced sentence is the Bureau of Prisons website, which adjusted Turner’s release date sometime between 2010 and 2013.
A spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons said he couldn’t provide information about the change in Turner’s release date, but said any significant reduction in an inmate’s sentence could be ordered only by the sentencing judge.
Significant sentence reductions are “relatively rare,” said Ed Ross, the agency spokesman, and can occur for statutory reasons such as the prisoner has attended a residential drug treatment program, is deserving of “compassionate” treatment, or that the prisoner has assisted investigators seeking to solve a crime.
Attorney Steven Boozang, who represents Stephen Rossetti — sentenced to 51 years and 10 months for his role in the plot to rob the armored car facility — said Rossetti “would do 100 years” in prison rather than cooperate against anybody, but would readily turn over the paintings if he knew where they were.
“If Steve Rosetti knew where the paintings were they’d be back at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum,” Boozang said. “He doesn’t know where they are.”Milton Valencia of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shelley-murph. Kurkjian can be reached at Stephenkurkjian@gmail.com.