HARTFORD — A Connecticut mobster at the center of the FBI’s efforts to recover $500 million of artwork stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 pleaded guilty to federal gun charges Thursday and urged a prosecutor to take pity on him.
Robert Gentile, who insists he doesn’t know anything about the stolen artwork and has been jailed for two years while awaiting trial on the firearms charges, said he just wants to go home.
“You should feel sorry for what you’re doing to me and my wife,” Gentile, 80, told Assistant US Attorney John Durham during a friendly exchange in the courtroom before the hearing. His wife had recently fallen and broken her shoulder, he said.
“I just want to get out and see her,” said Gentile, who was seated in a wheelchair. “So, don’t go too hard on me. She’s my whole life.”
Gentile pleaded guilty in federal court to being a felon in possession of three guns and ammunition and illegal possession of an unregistered silencer. As part of a plea agreement, prosecutors agreed to dismiss an additional charge that Gentile sold a gun to a convicted felon, who was secretly cooperating with the FBI.
Prosecutors say sentencing guidelines call for a sentence ranging from 57 to 71 months, but the defense says the range is 37 to 46 months.
It’s unclear what sentence each side will recommend.
The guidelines are advisory, meaning the judge may impose a longer or shorter sentence.
US Magistrate Judge Donna Martinez scheduled sentencing for Aug. 25.
Gentile’s lawyer, A. Ryan McGuigan, said his client has spent four of the past five years in prison on assorted gun and drug charges, despite promises he could be released if he provided information about the stolen Gardner artwork.
He nearly died twice during that time from medical complications, he said.
“After all of that, if he hasn’t given anything so far, it’s because he doesn’t have any information,” McGuigan told reporters after the hearing. “They’ve gone back to this well many times, and it’s dry.”
Durham declined to comment after the hearing about the investigation into the stolen paintings.
On March 18, 1990, two thieves disguised as police officers talked their way into the Gardner Museum in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood, tied up the two guards, and pulled and slashed treasured works of art from their frames. They stole 13 pieces, including three Rembrandts, among them his only seascape, “Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” Vermeer’s “The Concert,” and works by Flinck, Manet, and Degas.
No one has ever been charged with the theft, and none of the works have been recovered, despite a $5 million reward for information leading to the safe return of the artwork and promises of immunity from prosecution.
The FBI began focusing on Gentile in 2010, when the widow of a person of interest in the case, Robert Guarente, told agents that her late husband had given two of the stolen Gardner paintings to Gentile during a rendezvous in Maine in 2004, according to authorities.
Gentile was targeted in an FBI sting, and caught on drug and gun charges. When pressured to help with the Gardner investigation, he initially appeared to be cooperative, according to authorities. But in 2012, he allegedly flunked a polygraph when asked if he had known about the Gardner theft beforehand, or had any information about the whereabouts of the paintings, according to prosecutors. The defense has challenged the results of the polygraph, citing an expert’s report.
In 2012, Gentile was convicted of drug and gun charges and sentenced to 30 months in prison. Shortly after his release, he was ensnared in a second FBI sting and arrested on new firearms charges.
Last year, a prosecutor alleged in court that Gentile had offered to sell the stolen paintings in 2014 to an undercover FBI agent posing as a drug dealer for $500,000 apiece. But the deal collapsed. Gentile’s lawyer disputes that account.
While in prison, Gentile boasted to a fellow inmate that the FBI didn’t get all of his guns during searches of his Manchester, Conn., home. It led to another search last year, during which agents found three more guns and the silencer, leading to additional charges against Gentile.
Gentile’s lawyer raised concerns last summer about whether Gentile was mentally competent to stand trial because he was suffering from memory loss and, at times, confusion.
During a separate hearing Thursday before Gentile pleaded guilty, US District Judge Robert Chatigny said doctors evaluated Gentile and concluded in January that he didn’t suffer from any medical disease and was able to understand the charges against him.
“What is your state of mind?” the judge asked.
“It’s good,” Gentile said. “I know what’s happening.”
When he pleaded guilty to the gun charges, Gentile initially said he forgot he had stashed the guns in his home. When pressed by prosecutors, he conceded he knew they were there.
“I thought maybe if I kept them long enough I thought they’d be worth some money,” Gentile said.Shelley Murphy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.