Never-before-seen video released Thursday shows a security guard admitting an unidentified man into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum the night before the infamous 1990 art heist, adding a stunning new clue to Boston’s most enduring mystery.
The video footage, taken by the museum’s surveillance cameras and recently examined by investigators, shows the night watchman open the museum’s side door and grant unauthorized access to the man at about 12:49 a.m. on March 17, 1990 — 24 hours before the museum was robbed by two men dressed as police officers who arrived at the same door.
The man spent about three minutes in the reception area and appears to fumble through paperwork or a wallet before leaving.
Law enforcement officials are now questioning whether the suspicious actions constituted a dry run for the heist, and it refocuses the spotlight on Richard Abath, the rock musician moonlighting as a security guard who fell under the suspicion of authorities soon after the robbery. Authorities did not say Abath was the guard in the video, but three officials familiar with the investigation confirmed to the Globe that it is he.
Officials released the video to solicit the public’s help in identifying the second man, hoping to make some movement in the largest unsolved art theft in the world.
It was not immediately clear why the surveillance footage of the night before the robbery had not been made public before, and whether it was viewed by the FBI in the initial investigation. The robbers had seized surveillance footage from the night of the heist, though they did not take footage from the previous night.
Several law enforcement officials said the video appears to have been overlooked and mixed in with other evidence at the onset of the case. US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said that a team of investigators began reviewing the original evidence, and that one of them, Assistant US Attorney Robert Fisher, requested the video, which was in the custody of the FBI. Officials then decided to release it to the public in hopes it could lead to new information.
“We have this big question mark as to who this individual is,” Ortiz said. “The hope is that someone will recognize the unauthorized visitor . . . and provide some fruitful leads that will help us figure out where the paintings are, lead to some information, to some people we haven’t thought of before.”
Abath, who is now in his late 40s and lives in Vermont, has denied any ties to the robbery plot, though he admitted to violating museum protocol at the time of the robbery by opening the door to the two men dressed as police officers claiming to be responding to a disturbance. Protocol required him to seek a supervisor’s approval before letting anyone into the museum after hours.
A Globe reporter who went to Abath’s house Thursday morning in Brattleboro was turned away by a woman who said he did not live there. Abath has admitted to bringing friends to the museum at least once several months before the robbery, but he never disclosed that he let someone in the night before the heist. He has said he opened the door only for security checks.
“What you see in the video does not comport with what we have been told in the past,” said Anthony Amore, the museum’s director of security, who has worked with the FBI and the US attorney’s office in a renewed push in recent years to solve the heist.
He said the video “is compelling in that perhaps the identity of this person . . . will shed new light on exactly what happened March 18 , who else may be involved, and hopefully lead us to our paintings.”
No one can be charged with the theft of the paintings because the statute of limitations has expired, but authorities could still seek charges against someone in possession of the stolen works. Ortiz has said she would consider granting immunity to anyone who may possess the paintings in exchange for their return. The museum has offered a $5 million reward for the return of the works.
Abath, who has recently worked as a teacher’s aide in Vermont, has long been under suspicion, in part because of his admission to violating museum protocol and because of the way the robbery was carried out.
Once Abath buzzed the men into the museum’s side entrance on Palace Road at 1:24 a.m. on March 18, 1990, the men subdued him, then waited for the second guard on duty and tied him up as well. They then spent 81 minutes in the museum, making off with 13 works of art, including three Rembrandts, a Vermeer, and a Manet.
Investigators have questioned why Abath’s footsteps were the only ones picked up by motion detectors in the first-floor gallery, where one of the stolen paintings was taken, just before the two robbers scoured the rest of the museum.
One of Abath’s most questionable disclosures was that he opened and closed the Palace Road door 20 minutes before the robbery, which prompted investigators to ask whether he was signaling the robbers. The action was also in violation of security protocol, though Abath maintained he routinely opened the door during his rounds.
He did open the door on March 17. The footage starts just before 1 a.m., and it shows a car moving in reverse on Palace Road, a one-way street, after the second guard on duty went on his rounds. An unidentified man approaches the museum from the direction of the car, and Abath seems to grant him access through the first door by hitting an intercom button.
The man does not enter the museum’s second door, but returns to the car and turns on its parking lights.
The footage then shows the man returning to the museum. Abath again buzzes the man in, but this time the man remains in the museum reception area for more than three minutes before returning to the car and leaving.
The footage also shows that the unidentified man parked the car at roughly the same spot where several young people who had emerged from a St. Patrick’s Day party the morning of the robbery reported seeing a red hatchback. One of the partygoers reported seeing two men dressed as police officers inside, roughly an hour before the robbery occurred.
The color, make, and model of the car in the new surveillance video could not be determined, though authorities said Thursday that it matches the general description of the vehicle seen the night of the robbery.
Lyle Grindle, who headed security for the museum at the time of the theft, said in an interview Thursday that he had been shown the security tape by federal investigators about a month ago, but that he was unable to identify the visitor who had been allowed into the museum. He said he told investigators that allowing such a visit was a violation of the museum’s strict security procedures, which prohibited any late-night entries, even by police or firefighters.
Grindle said it appeared to him that the tape had been recently unearthed by the federal officials, but he did not ask why it had not been viewed before by investigators.
“I believe all the prior tapes from the previous nights were taken by the FBI, and I never saw them again,” said Grindle, who stayed on as security director for years after the heist and oversaw an upgrade of the museum’s security system.
Grindle said he did not know if Abath had been questioned by the federal officials who interviewed him.
“Someone has to explain why the security protocol was broken two nights in a row now, and I think only Rick can answer that question now,” Grindle said.
It was not immediately clear if Abath has recently discussed his actions that night with authorities.
No one has ever been charged in connection with the theft of the paintings, and none of the works have been recovered, making it Boston’s last great mystery following the capture and conviction of notorious gangster and longtime fugitive James “Whitey” Bulger. The artworks are considered priceless on the black market.
In 2013 the FBI publicly disclosed for the first time that agents believe they know who took the art, and that the works had made their way through underground organized crime channels from Boston through Connecticut to Philadelphia, where they were last believed to be seen.
Amore called the new video troubling, but added, “It doesn’t knock us off course on the stuff we’ve been talking about.” He said the video “raises more questions than answers.”
Globe correspondent Stephen Kurkjian and Sara DiNatale contributed to this report. Milton Valencia can be reached at email@example.com.