Acting on a tip that the thieves who pulled off the infamous Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art heist had stashed the stolen masterworks at Suffolk Downs, FBI agents conducted a daylong search of the East Boston racetrack in September but came up empty.
The search, which included drilling open two stand-up safes, was triggered by a tip that the thieves had a connection with someone at Suffolk Downs and had hidden the 13 stolen pieces in an out-of-the-way place there, according to Chip Tuttle, Suffolk Downs’ chief operating officer. Tuttle said he was briefed before the search by the lead FBI agent on the Gardner investigation.
To avoid attracting attention, the search for the paintings — taken in what is considered the largest art theft in world history — was carried out on a Tuesday when the track is closed.
Investigators focused on two areas: the barns, where the horses are stabled, and parts of the grandstand that had been closed since the early 1990s, when renovations were made.
The agents ‘‘were serious, and they were hopeful,” said Ernest Sampson, one of two maintenance supervisors who accompanied the 20 or so agents and technicians during much of their search of the racetrack on Sept. 29. “They concentrated on places that no one had ever been in for a very long time.”
The FBI declined, through spokeswoman Kristen Setera, to provide information about the search or say what had led them to Suffolk Downs. Christina Sterling, spokeswoman for the office of US Attorney Carmen Ortiz, also declined to comment.
Suffolk officials confirmed that the track had given the FBI authority to conduct the search. Tuttle said FBI special agent Geoff Kelly, who heads the agency’s Gardner investigation, contacted him in early September asking for the racetrack’s cooperation with the search.
The heist took place on March 18, 1990, when two men disguised as Boston police officers conned their way into the museum. The thieves tied up the museum’s two night watchmen and made off with 13 pieces including a Vermeer; three Rembrandts, including his only seascape; five Degas sketches; and a Manet.
None of the pieces has been seen in the 25 years since the theft, despite a $5 million reward offer from the museum and a pledge by federal authorities not to charge anyone who voluntarily turns in the artwork.
Kelly, who has been lead agent on the Gardner investigation for more than a decade, did not provide much detail to Tuttle on the tip that led him to seek an FBI search of the racetrack, Tuttle said. However, Tuttle said Kelly knew that the racetrack had been closed for two years, beginning Jan. 1, 1990. During that period, Suffolk Downs was purchased and renovated by James B. Moseley and John Hall II.
The Gardner thieves have never been publicly identified, although in 2013 the head of the FBI’s Boston office said at a press conference that the agency knew who had pulled off the robbery and that both men were dead. But the FBI has consistently refused to make their identities known or disclose why it believes they were culpable.
Suffolk Downs had been mentioned before as a possible hiding place for the stolen Gardner paintings.
One man who worked with the Moseley-Hall ownership team that took control of Suffolk in the early 1990s recalled having a brief conversation with Robert O’Malley, then the track’s chief operating officer, about a rumor O’Malley had heard that the Gardner paintings had been stashed at the racetrack.
The man, who asked not to be identified, said he did not think O’Malley, who died in 2007, put much stock in the talk.
“Bob mentioned it, but only in passing, that there had been this rumor that the paintings had been kept there for a brief time after the robbery,” he said.
The man said he had never spoken with FBI agents about it.
Daniel Bucci, who worked alongside O’Malley and retired as general manager of the racetrack in 2003, said he never heard such rumors during his years at Suffolk.
“But you have to remember, this was more like a prison than a basilica,” Bucci said, recalling that the racetrack was regarded as a favorite meeting place for criminals and wannabes. “Everyone at a racetrack is looking for the edge — you know to be involved in something that nobody else knows about — so it wouldn’t have surprised me to hear that something like that had happened.”
Among those whose names have surfaced in connection with the theft, several had links to Suffolk Downs. That list includes Stephen Rossetti, a member of one of Boston’s toughest criminal gangs whose family home was near the track, and Robert Donati, a member of a rival Boston-area criminal gang and a heavy bettor at Suffolk Downs. Donati was assassinated in 1991.
Whether the Suffolk Downs tip involved either man is not known.
Two 6-foot high safes seemed to draw the greatest interest of the 20-plus FBI agents who carried out the search. Neither safe was said to have been opened in decades. A locksmith was called in to open the safes. An assortment of papers was found in one and a bar of soap and a small battery in the other.
The FBI does not discuss its investigative work, so it is unknown how many searches the FBI has conducted in pursuit of the artwork since the theft. But the search that drew the most publicity took place in May 2012, when a squad of agents descended on the house owned by Robert Gentile in Manchester, Conn.
The investigators found no stolen artwork in the house or in a backyard shed, where Gentile’s son had pointed out a favorite hiding place of his father’s in a ditch dug beneath a false floor.
But in the basement they did find a sheet of paper listing what each of the stolen pieces might draw from potential buyers on the black market.
Federal authorities remain convinced that Gentile, who is facing gun charges, has the masterpieces, according to Gentile’s lawyer, A. Ryan McGuigan.
Stephen Kurkjian can be reached at email@example.com.