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Conn. mobster said he had stolen Gardner art, FBI alleges

Law enforecement officials searched the home of Robert Gentile  in Manchester, Conn., in 2012.
Law enforecement officials searched the home of Robert Gentile in Manchester, Conn., in 2012.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe File

HARTFORD — An aging Connecticut mobster recently boasted to an undercover FBI agent that he had two of the paintings stolen 25 years ago from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and would “sell individual paintings for $500,000,” a federal prosecutor said Monday.

Robert Gentile’s offer was made to an undercover FBI agent posing as a drug dealer. When pressed by the agent about why he would not instead try to collect the $5 million reward offered for the paintings’ safe return, Gentile said he feared authorities were “going to come after him anyway” and he would never get the reward, Assistant US Attorney John Durham said in federal court.

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The account is among the most detailed bits of evidence to surface publicly tying Gentile to the Gardner heist, which ranks as the world’s largest art theft and one of Boston’s most enduring crime mysteries. Gentile has not been charged with any crimes related to the stolen paintings and his lawyer insisted Gentile has no knowledge of their whereabouts.

The conversation about the paintings came in the context of Gentile’s bid to get involved in marijuana trafficking, according to the government. Gentile offered to sell two of the stolen paintings to the man he thought was a major drug dealer, and then became furious when the man wouldn’t let him in on his operation, Durham said.

According to Durham, Gentile asked the agent, “Do you know who I am?” and told him he “could get people killed and make them disappear.”

It was unclear whether Gentile was allegedly seeking $500,000 for each painting, or both of them.

The account of this latest twist emerged as Gentile, who has been described by the FBI as “a person of interest” in the heist, appeared in court on an unrelated charge, a hearing on whether he should be sent back to prison for allegedly selling a loaded gun while on federal probation for an earlier offense.

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Gentile, 79, of Manchester, Conn., appeared in court in a wheelchair. US Magistrate Judge Thomas Smith agreed with prosecutors, who argued that Gentile, a reputed soldier in the Philadelphia branch of La Cosa Nostra, was a danger to the public and a flight risk.

The aging criminal was freed from prison a year ago on supervised release after serving 30 months for illegally possessing a gun and selling prescription drugs to an FBI informant. On Monday, the magistrate ordered Gentile back to prison, where he will have to serve another two years on those prior charges.

He is also expected to face a new indictment for allegedly selling the gun last month to an associate, who was previously convicted of murder and was secretly cooperating with the FBI.

Gentile’s lawyer, A. Ryan McGuigan, argued that the FBI orchestrated the new case against Gentile in an effort to pressure him to tell what he knows about stolen paintings.

“They want my client to believe he will die in jail,” McGuigan said. “They believe my client has knowledge of the whereabouts of the Gardner Museum paintings.”

He insisted that Gentile has already told the FBI what he knows — and he doesn’t know where the paintings are.

The magistrate said at the hearing that he found Gentile was to blame for his own predicament and suggested that Gentile should learn from old boxers who know when it is time to hang up their gloves.

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“It’s time that you took senior status,” he told Gentile, who sat in the wheelchair dressed in tan prison garb. “You can’t afford to be doing this anymore.”

Durham, the prosecutor, told the court that Gentile was not truthful when he was questioned in 2012 by the FBI and said he knew nothing about the Gardner heist. Gentile flunked a polygraph test, Durham said.

Durham said the polygraph revealed that “there is a 99 percent certainty that Mr. Gentile was lying when he said he didn’t know anything about the Gardner Museum robbery before it happened, he had never seen any of the Gardner paintings, and didn’t know where any of them were.”

After the court hearing, McGuigan questioned why FBI agents arrested Gentile if they believed he had the paintings and was working to hand them over. “By arresting him, they end any possibility of recovering them,” he said.

McGuigan said he did not know why Gentile would tell an undercover agent he had the paintings if he didn’t but added that many people have come to Gentile asking about the stolen paintings.

“I know everyone hopes that he knows where the Holy Grail is,” McGuigan said. “I just don’t think he does.”

The 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 $500 million worth of masterpieces in what is the world’s largest art theft. The stolen artwork includes three Rembrandts – including his only seascape, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee’’ —a Vermeer, a Manet, and a Flinck.

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

During a 2012 search of Gentile’s home in Manchester, Conn., agents found a list of the stolen artwork, with their black market value; it was tucked inside a March 1990 Boston Herald that reported the theft.

Two years ago, 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 Philadelphia, where the trail went cold.

A credible witness claims to have seen Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” when someone tried to sell it in Philadelphia around 2003, according to the FBI.

Gentile, who has reputed ties to both the New England and Philadelphia mob, was identified by the FBI as recently as last month as one of only three “persons of interest” in the Gardner heist.

The other two, Guarente and Carmello Merlino, are both dead. The FBI also identified two additional men, who are also dead, as the possible thieves.

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In court Monday, Durham said Gentile was dangerous because he remained an active member of the Mafia and boasted during a secretly recorded conversation last November that he had recently been in touch with Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino, the former boss of the Philadelphia Mafia.