Thirty-three years after two thieves, dressed like police officers, talked their way into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, tied up two guards, and fled with masterpieces estimated to be worth more than $500 million, the brazen heist remains one of Boston’s most notorious unsolved crimes.
In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, the thieves spent 81 minutes inside the museum on the Fenway and stole 13 pieces, including two paintings by Rembrandt; Vermeer’s “The Concert”; works by Manet, Flinck and Degas; a stamp-sized self-portrait by Rembrandt; an ancient Chinese vase; and a bronze finial eagle atop a Napoleonic flag.
Nobody has ever been charged with the crime and none of the works have been recovered, despite a $10 million reward for information leading to their safe return and promises of immunity. The statute of limitations for the heist expired decades ago, but anyone caught knowingly possessing the stolen artwork could face charges.
The crime has spawned countless theories involving a dizzying array of suspects, including local petty criminals with Mafia ties and a Hollywood screenwriter. In 2013, the FBI announced it was confident it had identified the thieves, two local criminals who died shortly after the heist, but declined to name them. The FBI said it believed the artwork was moved through organized crime circles to Philadelphia, where the trail went cold around 2003.
Here are some of the theories and suspects.
Donati, who had been in and out of jail for robbery and hung out with local mobsters, has never been publicly identified by the FBI as a suspect, but several people have implicated him in the heist. In September 1991, he was attacked outside his Revere home and his body was found several days later in the trunk of his Cadillac, parked a mile away. He had been stabbed repeatedly and his throat was slashed. At the time, law enforcement officials speculated that he was targeted because of his close ties to a renegade faction vying for control of the New England Mafia. But the possibility that it was connected to the Gardner heist has been raised over the past two decades.
In his 2011 biography, notorious art thief Myles Connor wrote that he had cased the Gardner museum with Donati years before the theft. Connor also said a longtime friend, David Houghton, visited him in prison shortly after the robbery and told him Donati was one of the thieves. The plan was to leverage the artwork to win the release of Connor, who was serving a 10-year federal prison sentence for drug trafficking. Houghton died of a heart attack in 1992. .
Former New England Mafia capo Vincent Ferrara claimed that Donati told him in 1990 that he had robbed the museum and buried the artwork, and planned to use it to broker Ferrara’s release from prison, according to a 2015 book, “Master Thieves,” authored by Stephen Kurkjian, a retired Boston Globe investigative reporter. At the time, Ferrara was in jail awaiting trial on federal racketeering charges.
In an intriguing twist, Paul Calantropo said that in the spring of 1990, Donati showed up at his office at the Jeweler’s Building in downtown Boston with a decorative piece, designed for the top of a flagstaff, and asked how much it was worth. He said he immediately recognized it as the Gardner’s finial, refused to touch it and told Donati, “Jesus, Bobby, why didn’t you steal the Mona Lisa?”
The Merlino crew
The FBI has focused heavily on the theory that local criminals with mob ties were behind the heist, and said it believes the suspects frequented TRC Auto Electric Co., a Dorchester repair shop operated by Carmello Merlino, a mob associate who boasted to two informants that he planned to recover the artwork and collect the reward. Instead, he was caught in an FBI sting in 1999 and convicted of trying to rob an armored car depot. Despite offers of leniency in return for the stolen artwork, Merlino never produced it and died in prison in 2005.
The theory, outlined by the FBI in a PowerPoint presentation years ago, is that Merlino’s associates, George Reissfelder and Leonard DiMuzio, who both died in 1991, were involved in the theft, along with David Turner and possibly others.
Reissfelder was released from prison in 1982 after serving 15 years for a murder he didn’t commit. One of the lawyers who helped win his release was former US Senator John Kerry. Reissfelder’s relatives told authorities that they saw a painting hanging over his bed they believe was one of those stolen from the Gardner museum, Manet’s “Chez Tortoni.” But when Reissfelder was found dead of a cocaine overdose at his Quincy apartment in March 1991, the painting was gone.
DiMuzio, 43, of Rockland, was found shot to death in East Boston in June 1991, almost three months after he had disappeared. Turner, who was convicted with Merlino of trying to rob the armored car depot, was released from prison in 2019.
The FBI believes the stolen artwork ended up in the hands of Guarente, a convicted bank robber with ties to the Mafia in Boston and Philadelphia who died in 2004.
In 2010, Guarente’s wife, Elene, told the FBI that shortly before her husband’s death, he gave two of the stolen paintings to a Connecticut mobster, Robert Gentile, during a rendezvous at a restaurant in Portland, Maine, according to authorities. The FBI searched Gentile’s home repeatedly and found a handwritten list of the stolen paintings and their estimated value, along with a newspaper article about the museum heist a day after it happened, according to prosecutors.
Gentile offered to sell the paintings to an undercover FBI agent posing as a drug dealer for $500,000 apiece, according to a federal prosecutor. But after his arrest he 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. He flunked a polygraph when asked if he ever had a Gardner painting or knew the whereabouts of the stolen artwork, according to court filings. He was released from prison in 2019 and died two years later at 85.
Richard E. Abath
Abath was a 23-year-old musician working as a night watchman at the Gardner museum when he buzzed the door to let the thieves inside after they claimed they were police officers, investigating a disturbance. The thieves handcuffed and duct-taped Abath and the other guard on duty and left them in the basement while they spent 81 minutes robbing the museum.
Abath has steadfastly maintained that he played no role in the heist, but has come under intense scrutiny by federal investigators. Motion sensors that recorded the thieves’ steps as they moved through the museum indicate they never entered the first-floor gallery where Manet’s “Chez Tortoni” was stolen, according to the FBI and Anthony Amore, the museum’s security director. Only Abath’s steps, as he made his rounds before the thieves arrived, were detected there, they said. The sensors also revealed that Abath briefly opened the side door to the museum shortly before he buzzed in the thieves at the same entrance.
McDevitt, a Swampscott native and California screenwriter, was eyed by the FBI as a possible suspect in the early 1990s because he was involved in a bungled art robbery in New York a decade earlier that had striking similarities.
In 1980, McDevitt and an accomplice hijacked a Federal Express truck and knocked out the driver with ether. Dressed in Federal Express uniforms and carrying duct tape to bind museum employees and tools to cut paintings from their frames, the pair planned to rob the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, N.Y.
The plan was foiled when they got stuck in traffic and arrived at the museum shortly after it closed. They were later identified by the truck driver and confessed. McDevitt, who was 20 at the time, served a few months in jail for the attempted robbery.
McDevitt, who was living in a Beacon Hill apartment at the time of the heist, was interviewed by the FBI a couple of times in 1992, then questioned before a federal grand jury in Boston the following year. At the time, his lawyer told the Globe that McDevitt knows “absolutely nothing” about the heist and couldn’t provide any information that would help investigators.
McDevitt died in Colombia in 2004. He was 43.
William Youngworth Jr.
Youngworth, a Brighton antiques dealer, claimed to have access to the stolen Gardner artwork in 1997 and showed what he claimed to be Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee” to Boston Herald reporter Tom Mashberg, triggering a front page headline, “We’ve Seen It?” The brief showing, under the glow of a flashlight in a Brooklyn, N.Y., warehouse, led to negotiations between Youngworth and federal authorities.
Youngworth sought several concessions in exchange for the return of the artwork: a reward, then $5 million; immunity from prosecution related to the theft; the dismissal of state criminal charges pending against him; and the release of his friend, Myles Connor, who was in prison on drug charges.
However, the deal fell apart at the end of 1997 when the FBI announced that a vial of paint fragments provided by Youngworth did not come from a Rembrandt, as he had claimed.
Yet in an intriguing twist, an analysis of the fragments done years later indicated they were consistent with paint used by other 17th century Dutch artists, including Vermeer.
Shelley Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.