Metro

Mobster suspected in Isabella Gardner Museum case may not be mentally competent

Robert Gentile was wheeled into federal court in Hartford in April 2015.

Cloe Poisson/The Hartford Courant/AP/File

Robert Gentile was wheeled into federal court in Hartford in April 2015.

HARTFORD — The sentencing of a reputed Connecticut mobster at the center of efforts to recover $500 million worth of artwork stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was postponed Tuesday because of questions about his mental competency.

Just before Robert Gentile was to be sentenced on federal gun charges, his lawyer told the judge his 81-year-old client was “in a fog” and that his condition had deteriorated so much in prison that he didn’t remember pleading guilty in April.

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But assistant US Attorney John H. Durham suggested Gentile was faking his memory loss and said that authorities had recorded a telephone call last month in which he told his wife he needed to speak to his lawyer “because he knows where one of the paintings is.”

It was a startling revelation, given that federal authorities have long pressured Gentile for information amid allegations he had received some of the Gardner paintings — years after the 1990 heist — and offered to sell them several years ago to an undercover FBI agent for $500,000 each.

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That deal collapsed, but federal authorities remain convinced that he is stonewalling investigators. They hoped Gentile might cooperate after he was snared in two FBI stings and charged with gun violations.

But Gentile’s lawyer, A. Ryan McGuigan, said after Tuesday’s hearing that Gentile maintains he knows nothing about the stolen artwork. If he did, he would have turned it over to regain his freedom and collect a hefty reward, he said.

McGuigan said Gentile’s phone conversation referred to another inmate’s claim that he saw a painting of “an old lady in a hat” six years ago in upstate New York and thought it may have been one of the Gardner pieces. But none of the Gardner paintings resembled the inmate’s description, he said.

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“It’s just comedic,” McGuigan said. Gentile is often approached by inmates who try to get him to talk about the stolen artwork, hoping for information they can leverage to reduce their own sentences.

Despite spending four of the past five years in prison and nearly dying from medical complications, Gentile insists he knows nothing about the Gardner artwork, McGuigan said.

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, “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee”; Vermeer’s “The Concert”; and works by Flinck, Manet, and Degas. The works have never been recovered.

In light of McGuigan’s claim, US District Judge Robert N. Chatigny postponed the hearing.

“If Mr. Gcntile doesn’t remember pleading guilty, I don’t know how he is able to comprehend the nature of sentencing proceedings in a meaningful way,” he said.

He scheduled a hearing for November to determine whether Gentile is competent and whether he should undergo further evaluation at a federal prison hospital. He cited the case of notorious Genovese family mob boss Vincent Gigante, who evaded justice for years by shuffling around New York’s Greenwich Village dressed in pajamas, a bathrobe, and slippers and mumbling to himself. Later, he admitted feigning mental illness.

On Tuesday, Gentile sat quietly in a wheelchair as lawyers debated his mental state.

In January, federal prison doctors determined that Gentile was competent after a lengthy evaluation, but said his condition could change if he weren’t kept in a skilled medical facility. He’s currently being held at the Bridgeport Correctional Center.

In court, Durham argued there was no evidence Gentile didn’t understand what was happening. He said Gentile mentioned the sentencing hearing during the Aug. 10 phone call with his wife.

“It’s much more likely he just doesn’t want to confront sentencing,” Durham said.

Gentile could face more than seven years in prison for the gun crimes, which were committed a year after he was released on other drug and gun charges and still on supervised release.

Shelley Murphy can be reached at shelley.murphy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.
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