KELLY HORAN: Do you suspect the guards of collusion?
MARTIN LEPPO: No. I don’t think they’re smart enough. I mean, this is big league. This isn’t Triple-A ball down at Pawtucket. This is Fenway Park.
HORAN: This is Martin Leppo, a big-league criminal defense attorney with some strong opinions about the greatest art heist in history.
LEPPO: Let me say it this way: The Gardner Museum robbery was so easy, it’s a wonder there wasn’t a tsunami of burglars coming in and doing it. They have musicians guarding millions and millions and millions of dollars worth of paintings. Musicians! That’s like putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank. It’s so foolish and stupid that it’s, it’s, it almost invited the place to be robbed.
HORAN: At 86, Leppo is still practicing. He says if there is one thing to know about him, it’s that he is loyal -- to his wife of 51 years, to his three sons, even the two who have given him some heartache, and to the veritable rogues’ gallery of clients he’s represented over the years, men whose rap sheets span decades -- and crimes.
LEPPO: There’s a lot -- a lot of cases, a lot of murders, a lot of organized crime cases, a lot of disorganized crime cases.
HORAN: Armed robberies, drug deals, armored car stick-up jobs -- you name it. But it’s the crime that gave Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum the dubious distinction of being the scene of the single largest art theft in history that seems to hold special meaning for Leppo. Framed reproductions of some of the stolen paintings hang in his law offices, including one he’s especially partial to: “The Concert,” by Vermeer.
LEPPO: The painting just talks to you, it’s just so wonderful, magnificent. I think if you can’t appreciate art, you know, from one of the great masters, what else is there?
HORAN: If Leppo takes a particular interest in the Gardner heist, it isn’t only because he feels the loss of what was stolen. It’s also because he just might know who did it. No other defense attorney has represented more criminals who have been tied -- if only unofficially -- to the Gardner case. Seven in all. They are men Leppo has long defended for other crimes. And while he won’t comment on what they might have known about the plan to steal some of the most valuable and beloved treasures from Isabella Stewart Gardner’s collection, he will say this about whoever pulled off the robbery.
LEPPO: This wasn’t done by a bunch of jamokes. Cause this was a well-organized, a well-organized thing. The proof is in the pudding. They haven’t found a thing.
HORAN: By “they,” Leppo means the FBI. And he’s right. In the 28-and-a-half years since the heist, they haven’t found any of the stolen masterpieces. But one of the places the FBI has been looking at the longest reveals a lot about who they think might be behind this still unsolved crime. It’s a car repair shop, called TRC Auto Electric. A place hard to beat for criminals per capita. And if many of the men suspected of planning or pulling off the Gardner heist have needed Martin Leppo’s services, it’s because of other crimes they hatched at TRC. The question is: Was the plan to rob the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum one of them?
HORAN: From WBUR Boston and The Boston Globe, this is <em>Last Seen</em>. I’m Kelly Horan.
JACK RODOLICO: And I’m Jack Rodolico. Episode 3: “Not A Bunch Of Jamokes.”
HORAN: I might pull over for a second just to make sure, I think I’m going the wrong way.
RODOLICO: If one road to some of the suspects in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist leads to the law offices of Martin Leppo, another leads to 1325 Dorchester Ave. in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. One day last summer, Kelly drove there with the Gardner Museum’s head of security, Anthony Amore.
CAR GPS: Your destination is on the left.
HORAN: Wait, here?
ANTHONY AMORE: That’s it. That’s TRC Auto Electric.
HORAN: Really? In my mind it was a much, a much greater thing. OK. Picture a low-slung brick and cinder block building, much longer than it is wide, with corrugated metal doors. There’s a spindly tree on the sidewalk out front, its canopy too sparse to offer shade under a withering July sun. There’s everything you’d expect to find at a mechanic’s: an assortment of vehicles, hoods up; three open repair bays; and spare tires and parts leaning against an exterior wall painted an industrial beige. What there isn’t is any suggestion whatsoever that the former TRC Auto Electric was, in its heyday, a front for a thriving hub of criminal activity. It’s only about four miles from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, but this place could not feel farther away.
AMORE: That’s true. It is a world away.
HORAN: You know, you go from this Italian Renaissance palazzo that Isabella Stewart Gardner built to resemble the one she loved to stay in in Venice and here we are at a single story brick building that’s just a real different look.
AMORE: But it is a great place for a crime headquarters, right? People coming and going all day. It’s perfect.
HORAN: Completely inauspicious, too. I mean, I would have driven right by it if, if I didn’t have you in the car to say, “This is it.”
AMORE: Right, but the police knew.
HORAN: And the police knew it because the man who presided over TRC Auto Electric was an underworld powerhouse with mafia ties and a long criminal record. His name was Carmello Merlino.
AMORE: He was involved in a lot of different bank heists. He was heavily involved in cocaine dealing out of TRC. There wasn’t any sort of crime he didn’t have his hand in.
HORAN: Carmello Merlino was a criminal the way other people are in a religious order. He seemed called to it, and he was devoted. The same is true, Amore says, of the assorted lowlives Merlino had swirling around him at TRC.
AMORE: They study crime, not the history of crime, they study the newspapers and say, “Hey, did you hear so and so did such and such?” It’s the way baseball fanatics might follow the Red Sox.
HORAN: One thing I’ve learned doing this reporting is that they also meet each other in prison.
AMORE: It’s crime college. And Merlino would be at Walpole and he would have the most desirable cell. He would be in really well with the prison leadership because he was likable and people listened to him. And I don’t want to say it’s like that scene in “Goodfellas” where they go to jail and it’s a big party and people are cutting up garlic for their pasta sauce, but Merlino made the best of it.
RODOLICO: In the late 1980s, Carmello Merlino’s side hustle in car repair wasn’t fooling anyone. He knew nothing about how to fix cars. But he had a real flair for turning cocaine dealt out of carburetor boxes into millions of dollars in cash. Between 1989 and 1991, a stretch of time that includes the hit on the Gardner Museum, state and local police, in conjunction with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the DEA, had TRC Auto Electric under surveillance. Robert Sikellis was a fairly new assistant attorney general for Massachusetts at the time. He recalls being part of the massive effort to make sense of it all.
ROBERT SIKELLIS: We had wiretaps on TRC and Carmello Merlino’s home phone. And all conversations I ever saw were all cryptic and coded. I mean, nouns were -- nouns were off limits with this group. They never said a name, they never said a place, or anything. And we had situations where we were convinced that an important meeting was going to take place, given the discussion surrounding it, and then it turned out to be an innocuous, you know, lunch or something with an aunt. So it was very, very hard to really try to piece together what it is they were talking about. And the foot traffic in and out of there was utterly amazing. I mean, there was hundreds of people coming and going. It was a mini-Grand Central Station. So trying to piece all this together and understand exactly what was happening was exceedingly difficult.
RODOLICO: But not impossible. By 1992, Sikellis and his team had amassed enough evidence to indict Carmello Merlino and members of his crew on cocaine trafficking charges. In response, Merlino pulled a play straight from the gangster handbook: He offered authorities a quid pro quo. Give me leniency, and I’ll give you a stolen painting. Our colleague from The Boston Globe, Steve Kurkjian, says when Merlino made this offer, he also made himself a suspect in the Gardner heist. And that might have been the point.
STEPHEN KURKJIAN: It was a terrific feint, because I don’t think a) he knew anything about the Gardner heist at the time, and it really complicated his life. But it did absolutely get the attention of the state police and the assistant attorney generals, including Sikellis.
HORAN: Now, if you’re on the hook for one bad crime, why on earth would you want to raise your hand and make yourself a suspect in a worse one? Why would Merlino want to face that kind of heat?
KURKJIAN: 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. You know, you come back and you have helped, you know, civilized society, the museum, and the art loving world, young and old, to get these paintings back.
HORAN: This notion, this prince of the city ideal, offers an insight into nearly every Gardner heist suspect that we’ve investigated. Because, like Carmello Merlino, each of these guys, at one point or another, shot his hand up and said, essentially, “I did it.” Or, “I know who did it.” Or, “I know where the paintings are.” The criminal mind is nothing if not an aspirational one. Why wouldn’t you want your name attached to the greatest score of all time? Carmello Merlino wasn’t going to be crowned the prince of anything. Because the painting he dangled wasn’t a Rembrandt slashed from its frame at the Gardner Museum. It wasn’t a Vermeer or a Manet or even a Degas sketch. It was a portrait of George Washington that had been stolen in 1985 from the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow House in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Its estimated value at the time was $5,000 -- hardly the kind of bounty that doubled as a get out of jail free card. Merlino was going back to prison.
RODOLICO: Six years later, in November 1997, Carmello Merlino, out of prison and back at the helm at TRC Auto Electric, had a new hire at the garage, a younger guy he’d known for a long time -- both in and out of prison. Unlike Carmello Merlino, though, this guy really could fix cars. His name was Anthony Romano. He also answered to Tony.
DAVID NADOLSKI: He looked up to Carmello, admired him. And in fact, when Anthony was in prison he ran into Carmello, and Carmello took care of him. And Tony said, “Jeez, that guy, he was respected in prison. Anything he said went with the other prisoners.”
RODOLICO: Retired FBI Agent David Nadolski spent 21 years at the bureau. He has the tidy haircut and good posture you associate with a G-man. He has the warmth and easy laughter you don’t. Nadolski says Anthony Romano was not a thug, just a guy who made bad choices. He says he was a central casting image of a junkie convict: alarmingly thin, stringy hair, lots of tattoos at a time before everybody had one.
NADOLSKI: And then as parole would come up he would get out, and he would be good for a while, and then he’d get back into drugs, and then he’d be sticking up places again with a toy gun, and he’d be back in prison. So that’s basically his pattern. Never did he hurt anyone. I assess him as someone who really regretted the way things turned out for himself, and he wanted to do something about it. I think he wanted to make a difference, and I think he wanted to matter to somebody.
RODOLICO: While still in prison, Anthony Romano had reached out to Nadolski at the FBI with a tip that led to the recovery of valuable manuscripts stolen from the John Quincy Adams Library in Quincy, Massachusetts. Romano had even been right about who’d stolen them.
NADOLSKI: So based on this, I determined Anthony was truthful and reliable with information. When he got out of prison, he asked to meet with me, and wanted to talk about some information that had come his way concerning the Gardner theft.
RODOLICO: This was only six years after the Gardner heist. People still talked about it -- all the time. One of those people, according to Romano, was Carmello Merlino.
NADOLSKI: Eventually, it was clear that he was getting the impression that Mello -- Carmello Merlino goes by the name Mello -- knew where the paintings were, or, or thought he knew where they were, and somehow or other, wanted to get ahold of the paintings. He -- Tony didn’t think he was actually part of the robbery, but was working on getting the reward by finding the paintings.
RODOLICO: Nadolski wasn’t assigned to the Gardner case. He worked major crimes that fell under federal jurisdiction, like bank robberies and armored car jobs. So he pulled in the special agent who was leading the FBI’s Gardner investigation at the time, Neil Cronin.
NADOLSKI: I was basically introducing him to Anthony, and letting Anthony tell him what he knew about Gardner, or suspected. And not very long after that, Tony told me that Carmello Merlino wanted to rob the Loomis-Fargo vault facility in Easton.
HORAN: For the Boston FBI, Tony Romano was essentially a two-for-one informant. His notes on the comings and goings and conversations he observed inside TRC helped Nadolski work on his angle on Loomis, and they helped Cronin work his, on the Gardner. We obtained Anthony Romano’s confidential informant reports, or 302s. Between October 1997 and November 1998, one name appears in them more than any other alongside Carmello Merlino’s: Fat Ritchie. That’s not the name his mother gave him. Fat Ritchie was born Richard Chicofsky, Picture a sharply-dressed Bostonian missing all of his hair and some of his front teeth, with an inexplicable Brooklyn accent and a career as a scam artist as vast as the man himself was large, which is not to say tall. One day, Fat Ritchie called the Boston supervisor of the FBI squad that oversaw the Gardner case. Fat Ritchie didn’t introduce himself, but he didn’t have to.
NADOLSKI: And he actually said to the caller on the phone, he goes, “Are you Fat Ritchie?” Cause the guy hadn’t identified himself, and there was a big pause and he goes, “Some people do call me that.”
HORAN: Nadolski says Fat Ritchie told him and Agent Cronin that he could get the paintings from Carmello Merlino.
NADOLSKI: And he says, “But, f--- him, you know? If I can get the five mil by getting the paintings from him that’s what I want out of this.” He goes, “I’ll turn on him.” So we just looked at each other and said, “This is beautiful.”
HORAN: And that’s how Ritchie Chicofsky, aka Fat Ritchie, became the second confidential informant inside TRC Auto Electric. We obtained Fat Ritchie’s 302s, and they are full of instances of Carmello Merlino promising to deliver the paintings. In one, dated Jan. 6, 1998, Fat Ritchie reported that Merlino planned to return half of the stolen paintings and hold the rest for security. Merlino had also reportedly said to Ritchie, “I’ve got the news you’ve been waiting for. I have the Vermeer and the Rembrandt.” For the FBI, it must have been a shining moment. They had two informants ratting on two heists: one, the Loomis hit in the planning stages, and the other, the Gardner robbery still casting its long shadow over the city. Just maybe, the one that had yet to happen would yield clues -- or better still, an arrest -- in the one that had yet to be solved.
RODOLICO: It was at this point that the feds offered Carmello Merlino a quid pro quo of their own: a letter of immunity from prosecution in exchange for the stolen art.
NADOLSKI: But he assured Neil. He goes, “I don’t have them.” He goes, “If I had them, I’d take that five million. I’d give ‘em to you.” He goes, “I’m just as interested in finding them as you are. I want to get the money.”
RODOLICO: The feds didn’t buy it. They knew Merlino kept that immunity letter from the U.S. Attorney’s Office taped under his desk at TRC. Why would he need it if he was only in it for the reward? If only they had leverage, some other crime they could squeeze him on to make him talk about what he knew about the Gardner heist. Something like an armored car vault robbery?
NADOLSKI: He had told Tony that he was not just thinking of it, he was planning it. He was going on surveillances. He was sizing it up. He wanted to do this. And the way he wanted to do it was to put somebody on the inside who he could trust. In other words, get somebody in there as an employee that’s willing to give it up when the time came. That was his big plan. He wasn’t going to go in there guns blazing. He wanted to go in there and have -- have it set up already that the place was going to fall.
HORAN: There’s nothing like being jammed up on one whopping federal crime to make a bad guy sing about what he knows about another one. That was the hope, anyway.
HORAN: The entire time that Carmello Merlino was making claims about the Gardner paintings, he was also planning a strike on the Loomis-Fargo armored car vault facility, about 23 miles south of TRC in Easton, Massachusetts. The Loomis heist presented just the chance the feds needed. They didn’t have any proof that Merlino really did have access to the Gardner paintings. So they sought the next best thing: pressure him on a different crime. One serious enough to make him give up whatever he knew about the Gardner. David Nadolski had a come-to-Jesus-moment with his informant Anthony Romano. He’d have to do two things: Introduce an undercover FBI agent to pose as the inside guy at Loomis, and wear a wire to catch Merlino and his accomplices planning the takedown.
NADOLSKI: And this case is going to be made on conversations that Mello and others have regarding the theft. “So, as we discussed you’re wearing the wire now, right.” And he said, “Yeah, I’ll wear it.” And I said, “You know that when this happens, if it goes, and, you know, we make arrests, you gotta to testify in court, right?” “Yeah, I know.” “You’ve got to leave the state, right?” “Yeah, yeah, I know.” I said, “OK, and this is going to change your life drastically, right?” “Yeah, I know.” He goes, “That’s OK. I don’t want to -- I’m sick of Boston anyway. I want to go somewhere else.”
HORAN: Anthony Amore says the stakes for Romano could not have been higher.
AMORE: He wore a wire inside that place right there that we’re looking at, a place that professional, ruthless, vicious criminals were in and out of every day. One misstep would have cost him his life on the spot and he did it anyway because he wanted to redeem himself. It wasn’t about getting out of any sort of sentence. He didn’t have to.
NADOLSKI: I told Tony, “All you need to do is bring up the subject that you’ve got a guy on the inside. Shut your mouth and let him do all the talking.”
HORAN: For all of his misgivings, for all of how maddeningly terrifying it must have been to walk into that garage with a recorder strapped to his body in the midst of the baddest of bad guys, Romano was smooth. He was a natural. Here he is in one of the secret FBI recordings that we obtained, floating the news to Merlino that he found a guy on the inside at Loomis.
ROMANO: Remember, you know we talked about that Easton thing?
MERLINO: Yeah. The biggie, the big one.
ROMANO: But uh. [Whispering.] I got a guy in there.
MERLINO: Who is he? ROMANO: I’ve know him for a long time. I got a guy in there. Remember I told you this is too big for me? Well…
MERLINO: But it ain’t for me.
ROMANO: Mello, I’m talking $30 to $50 million.
NADOLSKI: And it was gold. It was gold. I mean Tony just went in there, gave the cover story, said, “Hey, you remember I wanted to do that job at Loomis? And I come across a guy who actually works there. You’ve been asking me to get a guy in. There’s a guy in there, and I know him, and he’s willing to do it! He’s willing to cooperate with us.” And Mello doesn’t really ask any questions. He just goes, “Wow. Really!” He goes, “Yeah. But the thing is Mello it’s too big for me. I need your help.” He goes, “Well not too f------ big for me!” And then he just goes on, and on, and on about how he’s going to plan it, run it. He’s going to do this. He’s going to do that. He’s going to bring his crew in.
RODOLICO: That crew had yet to be assembled. But one thing was certain: They would be experienced, and they would be discreet. Here’s Merlino explaining the consequences of indiscretion to Romano.
MERLINO: It’s gonna go six ways. There’s us two, screw, and the other three, so everybody gets an equal end and that’s it. They’re veterans, they’ve been around.
ROMANO: They’re all right, though, right?
ROMANO: They’re all right?
MERLINO: You don’t have to worry about them. And the only thing I’m gonna say is, listen, everybody’s going to make one pact, no discussion about it or nothing, anybody spends more money than they show, they gotta get clipped. So as long everybody knows it, that’s what’s gonna happen.
RODOLICO: “You don’t have to worry about them,” Merlino says. “They’re veterans. But anyone spends more than they should, they’re gonna get clipped.” In his world, no one was above paying with his life. Merlino and his hand-picked Loomis heist crew, four men in all, plus Tony Romano, had one of their final meetings in a car in a CVS parking lot, across the street from a Bickford’s pancake house. It was January 1999. Romano was recording and transmitting the meeting to agents hiding nearby.
NADOLSKI: So I was sitting in a car along with a billion other agents listening to the conversation as it was taking place because if anything went wrong we had to move in fast. But nothing went wrong, and nobody suspected anything. Neil Cronin had great ears, and he goes, “Do you remember -- did you hear him saying about bringing a hand grenade?” I said, “No, I didn’t.” But that was on the tape. That’s considered a weapon of mass destruction, and that doubles your your time.
RODOLICO: That live hand grenade alone would mean a minimum mandatory sentence of 30 years in prison.
HORAN: So here was the plan: Merlino and his crew would storm the facility, take down their inside guy and the other guard on duty, empty the vaults, stuff the loot in a stolen Loomis armored car, and then race back to TRC to divide up their spoils. Merlino expected the take to be upwards of $50 million. Nadolski says the tally in the vaults that weekend was actually more like 100 million. It was go time.
NADOLSKI: The plan was for them to come together at TRC early in the morning. So we had 100 million cops out there. We had the surveillance squad in the air. We had the surveillance squad on the ground. We had police everywhere. But everyone is hidden. I had Tony take his car, park it outside TRC, go in, turn the lights on, and then jump back into my car and take off. So we took off. And so Mello pulls up. He sees Tony’s car, lights on, goes in -- or starts to go in -- and he gets jumped by the SWAT team and taken down.
HORAN: The sting was going as planned. After nabbing Merlino, the SWAT team took out the next accomplice to arrive at TRC. Two down. Two to go. But where were they? Nadolski remembers feeling that something wasn’t right.
NADOLSKI: They just drove by, and then they came around the block again, and they drove by again, and then stopped -- and they came back to TRC and for whatever reason they decided this doesn’t smell right. And they took off. And so the SWAT team decided to, in the event that these guys were going to run, that they were going to get on ‘em. They drove up onto the sidewalk and started tearing down the sidewalk and the SWAT vehicle collided with them. And the SWAT guys jumped out, smashed out the windows, and dragged them out of the car, um, and locked them up. And Anthony is on the floor of my car screaming and yelling. And he’s just, he’s scared s---less. So that’s how it all went down. And then when they were brought in, they realized that they were one man short.
HORAN: That one man was Anthony Romano. After the sting on TRC, he entered the federal witness protection program and relocated to Florida. It was there in 2013 that he died of a brain aneurysm. He was 56 years old. With Carmello Merlino and his Loomis heist accomplices in custody, FBI agents Nadolski and Cronin wanted to know one thing.
NADOLSKI: And we just talked to each one individually and said, “Look, you’re in some deep shit here. You know, if you know anything about the Gardner now is the time to talk. Maybe there’s something that we can do to help you.”
HORAN: The FBI seemed confident that the Loomis arrest would yield a break in the Gardner mystery. And it wasn’t only because they had Carmello Merlino on tape talking about the stolen paintings. Consider Merlino’s plan: He insisted upon having inside information about Loomis to ensure that the facility would fall without a fight. He had taken care to find out where all the security cameras were and how the alarm system worked. One of his accomplices had bought disguises for the men to wear during the robbery. Maybe this is how seasoned criminals plan all their jobs. But these are details you can’t help but associate with the Gardner heist, where the thieves wore disguises and took the museum with relative ease, where they seemed to know about the panic button, and they knew not only about the security camera footage, but where to find the tape.
RODOLICO: Other details ring a bell, too. Merlino had originally wanted to hit the vault facility the night of Super Bowl Sunday in 1999. That’s not exactly an official holiday in Boston, the way St. Patrick’s Day is, but it might as well be. So when FBI agents Nadolski and Cronin offered to bargain in exchange for information about the Gardner heist, what did each of these men facing decades in prison say?
NADOLSKI: And all four of them individually told us they knew nothing. You know, “Don’t bother me. I don’t have anything for you.” That was it.
HORAN: That was it. But what about Fat Ritchie’s reports that Merlino was going to return the Gardner art? Turns out Fat Ritchie put the con in confidential informant. The whole time he’d been telling the FBI that Merlino was promising the paintings, Fat Ritchie had been promising them to Merlino. Carmello Merlino, sentenced to 47 years and six months in prison, died there in 2005 at the age of 71. You’d think that if he’d had something to say about the Gardner art, he’d have said it.
NADOLSKI: No kidding. He could have gotten five million bucks for his family, anyway. And he has a family. He has some decent kids. I’m sure he would have wanted to help them out.
HORAN: So, after all that, after the sting on the Loomis facility, the stack of confidential informant reports that mentioned Vermeer and Rembrandt and promises to return them, and the similarities between how the Gardner heist went down and how the Loomis hit was planned, did David Nadolski believe the plot to rob the Gardner Museum was hatched out of TRC Auto Electric? The former FBI agent who had been so expansive in his responses had this time just one thing to say.
RODOLICO: Anthony Amore, who is still looking at the TRC gang, isn’t so sure.
AMORE: They were capable. You know, if someone mentions to you the Merlino gang, which was a pretty big gang, out of TRC Dorchester, no one doubted their capability to do any sort of crime. And they were doing all sorts of crimes. And to say that they could have pulled off the Gardner? Yeah, they could have done it. Absolutely.
RODOLICO: Robert Sikellis, the former assistant attorney general who was listening in on the TRC gang during the period when the Gardner Museum was robbed, he wonders, too.
SIKELLIS: It would not have been surprising. They were very, very careful. These were very seasoned, very experienced operators. They’re not going to get on the phone and say, “OK, we’re -- Don’t forget, we’ve got the Gardner heist tonight. We’ll meet you guys at 7 and then we’ll go do it.” That’s unheard of.
HORAN: Maybe Carmello Merlino hated the feds more than he hated the prospect of dying in prison. We can’t know. But what we can say with certainty is that Carmello Merlino was hardly the last, best suspect to come out of TRC Auto Electric.
RODOLICO: Next time, two more men who made TRC Auto Electric their criminal home base. One remains locked up for his role planning the Loomis heist. The other is dead.