The possibility that federal investigators overlooked until recently surveillance footage related to the 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist has surprised independent investigators, who say the footage could have played a key role in the early stages of the probe.
“That would have been run-of-the-mill investigative work,” said Thomas Shamshak, a private investigator and a former police detective and chief in several towns in Massachusetts.
The quality of the video, given its age, could have been so poor that initial investigators found it to be useless until it could be enhanced in more recent years with current technology, he speculated.
Shamshak said he did not know why the video is only coming out now, but, “I’d be scratching my head if it’s the first time they looked at it.”
Law enforcement officials released the video Thursday hoping that someone could identify a man seen entering a side door of the museum just before 1 a.m. on March 17, 1990 — roughly 24 hours before the robbery.
One of the museum’s watchmen, Richard Abath, granted the man unauthorized access to the museum in violation of security protocol, though he never mentioned it publicly before, and investigators are now wondering whether the visit was a dry run of the robbery. Abath let two men posing as police officers enter the same door the next night around the same time. They tied him and another guard up and robbed the museum of 13 invaluable artworks.
Law enforcement officials would not say whether FBI investigators initially reviewed the footage at the onset of the investigation.
US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said Thursday that a new team of investigators appointed to look at the case with fresh eyes was reviewing original evidence recently and requested the museum’s surveillance footage.
The robbers had seized the surveillance footage from the night of the heist, but did not touch the previous day’s footage. Investigators determined that the evidence in the video, showing Abath with an unidentified man violating protocol, was significant enough to review it further.
Investigators from the US attorney’s office and the FBI then had the video enhanced in an effort to determine man’s identity and the make and model of the car he drove, but to no avail.
“I have to look at this in the terms of what we have. We have access to this video, and we want to seek any additional information that could help in this investigation,” said Ortiz, who took office in 2009 and who has prioritized the Gardner investigation in recent years.
Peter Kowenhoven, an assistant special agent in charge of the FBI in Boston, who oversees the museum investigation, said he first saw the video about a year ago when “we decided to take a look at the case again, see what else we could look at.”
“This is one of the first steps we’ve taken [to try and get] the public’s help.”
It was unclear how the video might affect investigators’ theory of how the theft was carried out, if at all. FBI officials have said they know who took the paintings, though they did not identify the robbers, and said the paintings made their way through underground organized crime channels through Connecticut and into Philadelphia, where they were last seen. The case went cold from there.
Vince Lisi, special agent in charge of the FBI in Boston, said one of the reasons the video was not released sooner is that the FBI did not initially believe anyone could recognize the man who entered the museum, because his face is never seen on camera.
“This is not an a-ha moment,” said Lisi. “We hope it generates something, but the focus is on recovering the paintings.”
Brian Kelly, a former prosecutor who oversaw the investigation in the US attorney’s office in Boston, said investigators apparently believe the video is significant enough now to release it to the public.
Kelly, a lawyer now with Nixon Peabody, said the video raises questions about the account of Abath, who has been under suspicion before in the case. Officials would not say if they have questioned Abath since reviewing the video, and he could not be reached for comment Thursday, though he has denied any knowledge of the heist in the past.
“I think he has some explaining to do, and I’m sure that’s one of their concerns,” Kelly said. “Obviously, they think it’s relevant to the crime because they wouldn’t be asking for the public’s help in this.”
Robert King Wittman, a former FBI agent who helped found the bureau’s art recovery team in 2005 and now runs his own recovery firm, said the video can still prove useful in identifying the man who entered the museum. It also could potentially be of use in pressing Abath into talking about what happened. Statistics show that nearly 90 percent of the country’s museum heists are pulled off with the help of an insider.
“The first thing you would do as an investigator is ask the guard, ‘who is that person, and why is he in the museum,’ ” he said.