Since the heist of the Gardner Museum back in 1990, there’s been any number of criminal suspects have raised their hand to say, “I did it,” or “I know where the paintings are.”
You may wonder: Why would anyone want to bring that sort of heat on himself? Well, as Boston Globe reporter Stephen Kurkjian says, “Who wouldn’t want to be prince of the city? Find these paintings and you emerge prince of the city. All of your sins are forgiven.
This notion gives us some insight into nearly every Gardner heist suspect this podcast will investigate. According to criminal defense attorney Martin Leppo, who defended many of those tied to the heist, the fact that the FBI still hasn’t recovered the paintings, it’s clear the robbery was carried out by people who knew what they were doing.
One of the places the FBI looked the longest was TRC Auto Electric in Dorchester — just four miles from the estimable museum. Carmello Merlino, a leader of the criminal underworld with mafia ties, ran the auto body shop as a front for his cocaine trafficking business.
Cast of characters
Criminal Defense Attorney
Leppo is a longtime criminal defense attorney in Massachusetts. He has represented many of those associated with the Gardner heist including Myles Connor Jr., William Youngworth, Robert Guarente, Carmello Merlino, David Turner and Stephen Rossetti. Now in his 80s, Leppo continues to practice law and to talk to his clients about assisting in the recovery of the artwork.
Former Assistant Massachusetts Attorney General
As a young prosecutor in the early ‘90s, Sikellis spearheaded the State Police investigation into a cocaine trafficking ring that operated out of a Dorchester auto body shop called TRC Auto Electric. The shop was managed by crime figure Carmello Merlino. Some believe that Merlino associates, including David Turner and Robert Guarente, were plotting the Gardner heist while the cocaine trafficking probe was underway. In a case prosecuted by Sikellis in 1995, Turner was acquitted of pulling off a late night robbery of Boston’s famed restaurant Cheers. Sikellis says he believes whoever pulled off the Gardner heist had been hired by higher-level criminals and the thieves knew nothing of who masterminded the theft or where the artwork wound up.
Leader of TRC Auto Electric crime ring
Carmello Merlino was just like every other suburban father, shuttling his son to hockey practice while operating an auto repair shop in the gritty Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, except, according to a close relative, he just “couldn’t walk away from a score.” Convicted of robbing a Brinks armored truck in the late 1960s, Merlino opened an auto repair garage in the gritty Boston neighborhood of Dorchester when he was paroled in the 1980s. Geoff Kelly, the FBI’s lead agent on the Gardner investigation, believes that the heist may have been plotted there. Merlino talked about having access to stolen paintings after being arrested for operating a cocaine trafficking ring out of the garage in 1994. A few years later, the FBI placed an undercover informant into Merlino’s garage and secretly taped Merlino’s continued talking with associates about the Gardner paintings. Soon Merlino and the informant were plotting the robbery of an armored car depot in Easton, Massachusetts. The first thing that the FBI told Merlino and the three others arrested in the scheme was that all charges would be dropped if they could reveal the location of the stolen art. Unable to deliver, Merlino died in prison in 2005.
Anthony (Tony) Romano,
Criminal turned FBI informant
Tony Romano was a petty criminal with a serious drug problem. After assisting FBI agent David Nadolski and local police in the recovery of four priceless books, including a family Bible stolen from the John Quincy Adams family estate in Quincy, Romano was paroled from state prison and went to work for Carmello Merlino at his auto repair shop in Dorchester. Within a short time, Romano re-connected with Nadolski to tell him that Merlino was plotting to rob a nearby armored car depot in Easton and was talking about recovering the stolen Gardner Museum art. Nadolski convinced Romano to wear a wire. For months beginning in late 1997, Romano secretly recorded dozens of conversations with Merlino and several others as they plotted the armored car headquarters’ robbery. Although lawyers for the four arrested men stressed that the FBI has set them up in the robbery to force their cooperation on the Gardner case, the secret recordings made by Romano showed the four were willing participants and led to their convictions. Romano was relocated to Florida and given a new identity by the FBI. Soon he fell back into his drug-using habits. He later died of a brain aneurysm.
FBI agent leading the Gardner investigation
When FBI agent David Nadolski learned that Carmello Merlino was discussing with associates his hopes of gaining recovery of the stolen Gardner artwork, he asked Cronin to join the investigation. Merlino told them both that the $5 million reward offered by the museum for return of the artwork was spurring his efforts and he was to talking to several longtime friends in and out of the criminal underworld in his efforts. The talks led nowhere and ended when Merlino and three others were arrested in early 1999 for trying to rob an armored car depot in Easton. A 23-year veteran of the FBI, Cronin died in 2003 in a car crash on Rt. 495 in Wrentham.
Richard Chicovsky (Fat Ritchie)
After showing up to talk secretly with Carmello Merlino about the Gardner theft, Merlino told federal agents that he thought Chicofsky would be able to lead him to recover the stolen pieces. However, Chicofsky, a paid federal informant on other investigations, told the agents in a secret meeting that he was meeting with Merlino because he thought Merlino could gain the recovery. In the end, neither was able to facilitate a return.
Retired FBI Agent
David Nadolski joined the FBI in 1983 and arrived at the Boston bureau in the fall of 1991. He was assigned to major crimes under a federal jurisdiction. He worked in tandem with the Boston FBI’s Neil Cronin, the lead agent on the Gardner case, when an informant -- Tony Romano -- began sharing information on a suspect. After spending 21 years with the bureau, Nadolski retired as a supervisory special agent.