On a February night in 1991, James Marks had just returned from Maine and was unlocking the door to his Lynn home when a gunman crept up behind him and opened fire, killing him with two blasts from a shotgun, according to police.
The killer fled on foot, leaving a few footprints, but the case remains unsolved, although a mob associate who died years ago has been implicated.
Some authorities now say they suspect there may be a link between the execution-style murder of Marks — a hustler and convicted bank robber — and one of Boston’s most famous unsolved crimes: the 1990 theft of masterpieces valued at more than $500 million from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
“[Marks] had connections to subjects suspected of being involved in the Gardner museum heist,” said Lynn Deputy Police Chief Mark O’Toole. “We don’t know what, if any, role he had. But very likely it was related” to his death.
Anthony Amore, the museum’s security director, said investigators have been pursuing the theory that the two crimes may be connected for more than a decade, as first reported by Boston 25 last week. He hopes publicity about a possible connection may generate new leads.
In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, two thieves dressed like police officers talked their way into the museum, tied up two guards, and stole 13 pieces, including three Rembrandts, a Vermeer, works by Flinck, Manet, and Degas, an ancient Chinese vase, and a finial. It was the largest art theft in US history and remains unsolved. No one has been charged and none of the artwork has been recovered, despite a $10 million reward for information leading to its return.
Marks, who spent time in prison for bank robbery in the 1960s, is said to have boasted shortly before his death at age 50 that he had some of the stolen paintings, Amore said. That information was passed along to Amore and the FBI in 2010 by a tipster who said Marks hinted the paintings were hidden inside his third-floor apartment on Broad Street in Lynn. The FBI searched the building at the time but found nothing, Amore said.
Five years later, Marks’s name surfaced again. The widow of Robert Guarente, a Mafia associate the FBI described as a “person of interest” in the heist, was asked about Marks and told investigators that her husband had been a close friend and was with him on the day he was killed, Amore said.
Elene Guarente identified a photograph of Marks and told investigators, “My Bobby killed him,” Amore said.
She said Marks often spent time at the Guarentes’ home in Maine, helping care for her horse, and had been there hours before his death, according to Amore. She said her husband left with Marks, saying they were heading to Boston to watch a movie, and later admitted he killed him, Amore said. He didn’t tell her why.
Robert Guarente died in 2004 and Elene died in 2018.
Marks’s niece, Darlene Finnigan, who was 26 when he was slain and identified his body, said she was angry no one has been charged with his murder and “dumbfounded” when authorities told her years ago they were investigating a possible link to the Gardner heist.
She said she didn’t believe her uncle had any of the stolen Gardner pieces because he couldn’t have kept that big a secret.
“He was too much of a bragger,” Finnigan said. “I think too many people would know.”
Marks was “a wicked joker” and prankster, said Finnigan, recalling that he co-owned a racehorse with a Lynn cafe owner and joked that his partner “had the ass half.”
She said Marks told her shortly before his death that he “had something big coming up and he wasn’t sure if he was going to do it.” She said she warned him against doing anything stupid and assumed he was talking about a drug deal because he sold small quantities of cocaine.
Maine state police reports show that Guarente and a number of associates, including Marks, were under investigation in 1991 for interstate drug trafficking, Stephen Kurkjian, an author and former Globe reporter, wrote in “Master Thieves,” a 2015 book about the Gardner heist.
Finnigan said that she didn’t know Guarente but that he and his wife had apparently attended Marks’s wake because they had signed the guest book. They also sent a sympathy card to the family.
“I just want the good side of him shown,” said Finnigan, noting that her uncle had once been celebrated as a hero in the local newspaper after rescuing a 9-year-old boy from drowning. “We all cared about him. He had a family. He was a nice guy.”
Lynn police are seeking to corroborate Elene Guarente’s account of Marks’s death, O’Toole said.
Several days after Marks was killed, according to O’Toole, detectives went to a Saugus restaurant to interview someone related to the case and by chance encountered four men, including Robert Guarente and his longtime friend, Robert Gentile, a Connecticut mobster who would later be identified by the FBI as a “person of interest” in its hunt for the stolen artwork.
The sighting seemed “fairly insignificant” at the time, O’Toole said, although detectives included it in a report about the investigation.
Decades later, that meeting is drawing intense scrutiny from investigators because of Guarente’s and Gentile’s suspected connection to the heist. In 2010, Elene Guarente told the FBI she saw her husband give two of the stolen Gardner paintings to Gentile during a rendezvous outside a Portland, Maine, restaurant the year before his death, according to evidence later presented in court.
Gentile insisted he never had the paintings and didn’t know where they were, even after he was indicted on gun and drug charges in two separate FBI stings and offered freedom if he could produce the artwork. But he flunked a polygraph when asked if he ever had a Gardner painting or knew the whereabouts of any of the stolen artwork, according to court filings. He was released from prison in 2019 and died last year, at 85.
“I know that Guarente and his associates were involved in any number of serious criminal activities,” Amore said. “You have to be cautious before making assumptions that this homicide was related to the paintings. Nevertheless, it certainly begs for further investigation.”
Shelley Murphy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.