MEMPHIS – A notorious Boston mobster who disappeared into the federal witness protection program has resurfaced in Tennessee with a new identity, a new life, and a tantalizing clue involving the world’s largest art heist.
In this city on the Mississippi, he’s known as Alonso Esposito, a tall, charismatic man with graying hair and a Boston accent who self-published a paperback about the Bible and volunteers as a pastor at a nondenominational church.
But in the 1990s, as Mafia capo Robert “Bobby” Luisi Jr., he ran a crew of wiseguys, based in Greater Boston, that included two men suspected by the FBI of stashing $500 million worth of masterworks stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.
In a series of interviews from his Memphis home, the 55-year-old Luisi revealed that one of those associates, Robert “Unc” Guarente, told him years ago that the stolen Gardner paintings were buried beneath a home in Florida.
The two were alone in the late 1990s at a Waltham apartment they used as a “safehouse,” watching a television segment about the Gardner theft, according to Luisi, when Guarente confided that he knew where the artwork was. In Florida, he said, under a concrete floor.
“He wanted to know if I knew where we could sell it,” Luisi said.
Luisi, who was running a lucrative cocaine trafficking ring at the time and involved in a bloody turf war with rival mobsters, said he told Guarente that he didn’t know anybody who could fence stolen artwork.
“I knew I couldn’t move it,” Luisi said. “I didn’t want to get involved in it.”
Guarente, who died in 2004 at age 64, never offered the precise Florida location where the masterworks were supposedly buried, according to Luisi, and the pair never discussed it again.
Luisi said he told FBI agents about Guarente’s claim in 2012 when they visited him in prison, where he was serving 15 years for cocaine trafficking. He said they questioned him about the possibility that Guarente and another mobster, Robert “The Cook” Gentile, tried to sell the stolen artwork in Philadelphia years earlier.
An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment on Luisi’s account or whether it prompted any digging in Florida for the stolen masterpieces, citing the ongoing investigation focused on recovering the artwork. A year after the FBI interview, Luisi finished his prison term and entered witness protection in exchange for testifying against a former Boston mob associate.
The Gardner theft remains unsolved decades after two men dressed as police officers talked their way into the elegant museum on the Fenway shortly after midnight on March 18, 1990, tied up two guards and disappeared with 13 masterworks. None have been recovered, despite a $5 million reward and promises of immunity. They include three Rembrandts — including his only seascape, “Storm on the Sea of Galilee” — and a Vermeer.
In 2013, the FBI announced it was confident it had identified the two thieves, both now deceased, but declined to name them, citing the ongoing investigation. Gentile, 80, is in jail while awaiting trial on federal gun charges.
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 in 2003.
Sitting in the kitchen of his ranch-style home on a quiet street with manicured lawns, Luisi, who was affiliated with the Philadelphia mob family, spoke freely in late June about his notorious past and about the dream of a new life that prompted him to leave the safe haven of the witness protection program.
“I’m just not afraid,” said Luisi, who said he wanted to come out of hiding so he could promote his ministry and religious book, The Last Generation. “My faith is so strong in God.”
Luisi, who grew up in Boston’s North End and East Boston, has his own website, alonsoesposito.com, and is on YouTube and Facebook. He’s also working on an autobiography, “From Capo to Christian,” and said he hopes his transformation might inspire others.
Luisi’s path from Mafioso to government witness was a tortured one. After his 1999 arrest on drug charges, he agreed to cooperate against mobsters from Boston to Philadelphia and confessed to ordering the 1997 murder of a rival Boston gangster.
But Luisi changed his mind about cooperating and was sentenced to 15 years and eight months in prison for cocaine trafficking.
Luisi said he was, nevertheless, happy to talk to the FBI about the Gardner. He said he told them that Gentile, of Manchester, Conn., never discussed the stolen artwork with him, but as a soldier in the Philadelphia family, Gentile would have had the authority to negotiate a deal with organized crime figures in that city.
The FBI has searched Guarente’s property in Maine, and Gentile’s property in Connecticut, repeatedly.
During a brief telephone conversation, Guarente’s widow, Elene, said she was unaware of any Florida property connected to her husband, “but he was always traveling one place or another without telling me where he was going.”
Maine State Police records indicate that Guarente listed a lakeside home in Orlando as his residence for several years in the early 1990s. The single-family home, built on a concrete slab in 1980, was torn down in 2007.
“I am certain that we’d have noticed if we’d come across anything valuable, like paintings by Rembrandt,” said Robert Thornley, whose company did the demolition.
A developer, John Gigliotti, who removed an underground pool from the property last year, said he didn’t turn up anything memorable during the excavation.
Federal authorities have been focusing on Gentile since 2010, when Elene Guarente told the FBI that her husband gave two of the stolen paintings to Gentile during a rendezvous in Maine before his death.
Gentile, 80, was ensnared in an FBI sting last year and is scheduled to stand trial Sept. 13 in Hartford on the gun charges. He insists he doesn’t know anything about the stolen artwork, though he acknowledged in a 2014 Globe interview that he and Guarente talked about trying to recover the paintings so they could collect the reward.
But, a federal prosecutor revealed in court that Gentile last year offered to sell the paintings for $500,000 each to an undercover FBI agent. He also flunked a polygraph exam when he denied that he knew about plans to rob the Gardner museum beforehand and when he denied that he had the paintings or knew where they were, according to the prosecutor.
“He is a sick old man and in my opinion showing signs of dementia,” said Gentile’s attorney, A. Ryan McGuigan. “He sincerely wishes the paintings to be returned to the museum, but he simply had no information as to their whereabouts.”
Brian T. Kelly, a former federal prosecutor who worked on the Gardner theft investigation until 2013 and is now a partner at Nixon Peabody, declined to comment on information provided by Luisi, but said, “He certainly would be in a good position to know about the Guarente crew, as well as the Philly mob.”
The New England Mafia was in disarray in the 1990s, battered by prosecutions and a violent power struggle between warring factions. Luisi was even feuding with his own father, Robert Luisi Sr., who was shot to death by two rivals in 1995 in the infamous 99 Restaurant massacre in Charlestown, along with Luisi’s brother, cousin and another man.
Luisi said his bid to become a “made man” in the New England Mafia was blocked by a capo. In a rare and bold move, Luisi asked to join the Philadelphia family, which made him a capo in 1998 and let him operate his cocaine trafficking business out of Boston in exchange for tribute.
Luisi’s goal was to create his own family in Boston, with Guarente as his underboss and Gentile as his consigliere.
Luisi said he was staying at the Waltham “safehouse” with Guarente on weekdays in the late 1990s, when he introduced him to Gentile, and that Gentile frequently stayed there and did the cooking. Guarente and Luisi used the two-story townhouse to hide from their mob rivals before going home for weekends.
When Luisi was released from prison in 2013, he was placed in the witness protection program in exchange for testifying later that year against Enrico Ponzo, a former Boston mob associate.
Luisi described himself at the trial as a man who had found God in March 1998, but said he felt he couldn't shed his mob ties at that time.
“How could you go out and say, ‘I’m with Christ,’” Luisi said in an interview. “They’ll kill me.”
Luisi credits God with leading him to his new life in Tennessee, where he settled three years ago. He has a new wife, Julie, a mother of three who works as an IT manager. She said she was flabbergasted, but undaunted when Luisi revealed his past on their second date. She married him 21 months ago and calls him the love of her life.
Prophet Gerald Coleman Sr., the bishop at Faith Keepers Ministries in Memphis, which has about 300 members, said he has known Luisi for more than a year and felt comfortable making him a pastor at the church several months ago.
“He’s told me something of his past but I know I don’t know everything bad that happened with him,” Coleman said. “But I do know that he is a man of God who has studied God’s word.”
Coleman, who was impressed by Luisi’s 210-page book, “The Last Generation,” said, “I consider myself a good judge of character, and everything I see with Alonso tells me he wants to serve this church and its members and he has our interests closest to his heart.”
Luisi said he began working on the book when he was still in prison, earning his theology diploma online and teaching Bible courses to fellow inmates.
And even though Luisi said he wants his past identity to be known, so people understand his journey, he plans on keeping his new name.
“I like Alonso a lot better than I like Bobby,” he said. “He’s a much better person.”
Globe correspondent Gal Tziperman Lotan contributed to this story. Stephen Kurkjian can be reached at Stephenkurkjian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @kurkjian. Shelley Murphy can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.