HARTFORD — A Connecticut mobster identified by the FBI as a “person of interest” in its search for $500 million worth of artwork stolen decades ago from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was sentenced to 54 months in prison Tuesday on federal gun charges.
Robert “Bobby” Gentile’s sentencing in US District Court appeared to cap the end of an unsuccessful, eight-year effort by the FBI to pressure him for information leading to the recovery of the stolen masterpieces.
But in a surprise twist shortly before 81-year-old Gentile was led out of the courtroom in a wheelchair, his lawyer revealed that Gentile was caught on FBI recordings saying that former criminal associates in Boston might know the whereabouts of the stolen artwork.
In 2014, a friend who was secretly cooperating with the FBI introduced Gentile to an undercover agent posing as a drug dealer who offered $500,000 apiece for the stolen Gardner museum paintings.
“I don’t even know where they are today,” Gentile told the friend, according to Gentile’s attorney, A. Ryan McGuigan, adding, “I got to go to Boston and see that guy” about locating the paintings.
In a series of conversations between the summer of 2014 and early 2015, McGuigan said Gentile discussed efforts to track down the artwork through unidentified contacts and said it was difficult because he’d spent several years in jail and “all the people he used to run with in Boston are dead.”
The FBI sting failed to lead to the recovery of the artwork, but resulted in Gentile’s conviction for possessing several guns, ammunition, and a silencer. At the time of his arrest on those charges in 2015, Gentile was on probation after serving a 30-month sentence on drug and gun charges.
In a voice cracking with emotion Tuesday, Gentile told the judge, “I’m really sorry. I ruined my life. I’m sick and my wife is sick.”
Pleading for leniency, he told US District Judge Robert N. Chatigny, “I wish you could see in your heart to let me go home, so I could be with my wife.”
The judge sentenced Gentile to 54 months in prison, saying, “You continue to engage in serious criminal conduct, and you don’t really accept responsibility for it.”
Gentile will get credit for the 34 months he’s spent in prison since his arrest, and additional good time, making him eligible for release in about 11 months, according to his lawyer.
Gentile told the judge he “wasn’t looking to do anything bad” when he got out of prison on the earlier charges in 2014, but then, “the government sent that guy in to get me in trouble.”
The US attorney for Connecticut, John Durham, described Gentile as a made member of La Cosa Nostra, more commonly known as the Mafia, and said he was targeted in the undercover operation because while he was in prison he boasted to people that he had access to the stolen Gardner museum paintings.
Gentile has been at the center of the FBI’s effort to recover the stolen artwork since his name first surfaced in the investigation 20 years after the heist.
In the early-morning hours of March 18, 1990, two thieves disguised as police officers claimed to be investigating a disturbance when a guard let them inside the museum in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood. They tied up both guards on duty, then slashed and pulled masterpieces from their frames.
The thieves 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. None of the works have been recovered, and no one has ever been charged with the theft.
The museum is offering a $10 million reward for information leading to the return of the artwork in good condition.
In 2010, the FBI began focusing on Gentile after the widow of another person of interest in the theft, Robert “Unc” Guarente, told agents that her late husband had given two of the stolen paintings to Gentile before he died in 2004.
Five years ago, the FBI announced it was confident it had identified the thieves — local criminals who have since died — and had determined that the stolen artwork traveled through organized crime circles from Boston to Connecticut to Philadelphia, where the trail went cold around 2003.
In court Tuesday, Gentile’s lawyer, McGuigan, said Gentile was secretly recorded in 2014 telling the cooperating witness “my friend died and everything disappeared.”
Outside the courthouse, McGuigan said Gentile was referring to Guarente and the disappearance of the artwork, but insists that Guarente never gave him any of the paintings.
As he left the courtroom Tuesday, Gentile told the judge, “I appreciate everything you’re doing for me. Thank you very much, and God help you too.”
Shelley Murphy can be reached at email@example.com.