This is the story of two men. One of them was born lucky. The other wasn’t. One of them had options and from them, chose a life of crime. The other had none, and defaulted to one. And when these two men met, the lucky one was young and handsome and had also, it is alleged, gotten away with murder. The other one was middle aged and beaten down and had done hard time for a murder he didn’t commit.
This is the story of David Turner and George Reissfelder, two men who prove that the criminal life is an equalizing one that erases distinctions like where you came from and where you could have gone.
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.
Turner and Reissfelder found themselves pulled into the gravitational orbit of Merlino at the same time -- the late 1980s.
The people featured in this episode:
Gardner Heist Suspect
David A. Turner was considered a suspect in the Gardner heist early on in the investigation. In 1992, two years after the heist, his fingerprints were sent to the FBI’s lab, along with those of several others, to determine if they could be found on items taken from the crime scene. The tests were inconclusive. Turner has denied repeatedly to reporters and in court that he had any knowledge of the heist, but he associated with known felons whose names had been tied to the crime including Robert Guarente, Carmello Merlino and Stephen Rossetti.
Turner, Merlino and Rossetti were convicted in the late 1990s -- and sentenced to long prison terms -- for conspiring to steal millions from the Loomis-Fargo vault outside of Boston, a scheme which had been arranged by federal authorities to gain information on the Gardner heist. Turner has steadfastly denied that he has cooperated with authorities in the Gardner case but The Boston Globe reported in 2016 that federal officials shaved seven years off of his 38-year sentence, a reduction that puts his release in 2025.
George Reissfelder (above, waving)
Gardner Heist Suspect
George Reissfelder was already seen as a celebrity when he started hanging out at Carmello Merlino’s auto repair shop in Dorchester in the late 1980s. More than a decade before, he had drawn front-page headlines and network TV interviews when he was freed from prison after serving 16 years on the wrongful conviction of a murder charge. The publicity was mostly because of the legal defense work of John F. Kerry, and Kerry’s law partner. Although Kerry would use the case to promote his then-budding political career, Reissfelder went in the opposite direction, returning to his bad habits of using cocaine and hanging out with criminal contacts, both of which were in full supply at Merlino’s garage.
Robert Beauchamp, one of those contacts, has stated that Reissfelder and David Turner, another devotee of Merlino’s garage, visited him often in Massachusetts state prison during this term and in the vaguest of terms told him they were planning a major robbery and asked how they might hide the valuables in the immediate aftermath. Reissfelder, who bore a remarkable resemblance to the sketch drawn of one of the thieves, died of a cocaine overdose in July 1991. While nothing directly tying him in the Gardner theft was found in his apartment, Reissfelder’s brother later told investigators later that he had seen what he thought to be Manet’s “Chez Tortoni,” one of the 13 artworks stolen from the Gardner, as having hung for a time over his brother’s bed.
Ulrich Boser is the author of “The Gardner Heist,” in which he posits that David Turner and George Reissfelder were the thieves who robbed the museum. He’s a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress now, but still has a mild obsession with the Gardner case. He calls it the “perfect vehicle to tell the story of Boston.”
“It, in my mind, represents so much of the city’s respect for art and culture, its value of learning, and the sort of really richer ideas, and then also represents, you know, this other side of the city that is rough, and dirty, and criminal, and we have this tension that, you know, rests at the center of it all.”
Michael Blanding was a staff writer at Boston Magazine when he first received a letter from Gardner heist suspect, David Turner, who had been ensnared in the February 1999 sting on TRC Auto Electric. Writing from prison, Turner expressed his belief that the FBI had set him up for one crime -- the planned Loomis Fargo heist -- in order to squeeze him on another: the Gardner. Over the course of a correspondence that spanned several years, Turner proposed that Blanding write a book about his life. Turner dangled tantalizing hints about the Gardner heist and other unsolved crimes, but eventually stopped communicating with Blanding. But not before he shared a few poems about him written by a fellow inmate. Hear Michael Blanding read from one of them, “The Sting,” here:
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.
Boston Globe Reporter
Likely the most informed reporter in Boston on the city’s rich organized crime history, Murphy was co-author of the New York Times best-seller “Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice.” In recent years, Murphy has spearheaded the coverage of the Gardner investigation for The Boston Globe with such articles as the most likely theories for the theft of the artwork; how federal investigators had cut seven years from one suspect’s long prison sentence to gain his cooperation in the case and how a long-ago Boston mob figure had passed on to the FBI a key tip about the whereabouts of the paintings in the late 1990s.
George Reissfelder’s Associate
Convicted of killing a friend in Arlington 1971, Beauchamp started a relationship George Reissfelder while serving in prison. Beauchamp contends that Reissfelder and David Turner visited him in Bay State Correctional Facility in Norfolk numerous times in 1988 and 1989 and without providing details, mentioned intentions for a museum robbery. Reissfelder’s motive, in part, was his anger over the state’s refusal to compensate him for serving 14 years in prison for murder he had not committed.
In hopes of gaining consideration for his own release, Beauchamp has cooperated with the FBI and the museum in their search for a recovery. But Anthony Amore, head of security for the museum, has said that based on Beauchamp’s statements the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office searched homes in Dedham; Lewiston, Maine; and Orrington, Maine, but each time, investigators came up empty.
As a lawyer in the the early 1980s, Roanne Sragow worked with John F. Kerry (who would go on to become a U.S. senator, Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Secretary of State) to free George Reissfelder from prison on the basis that he had been wrongly identified and convicted at his criminal trial for murdering a security guard in 1966. Sragow’s efforts to convince the Massachusetts Legislature to compensate Reissfelder for the 16 years he had served in jail for the wrongful conviction failed, however.
Gardner Museum Security Director
Anthony Amore was hired as director of security for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 2005 and still holds the position today.
Previously, he had worked as a specialist for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In taking on the role at the Gardner, he also took on the responsibility of assisting the FBI in solving one of history’s most bedeviling museum heists. By his own account, Amore still speaks at least daily with Geoffrey Kelly, the top FBI agent on the case, and works with him to pursue leads, conduct interviews, communicate with reporters, art investigators and even members of the public about the case. He has even accompanied federal agents on the numerous searches of homes and other properties. In 2013, when federal officials held a press conference to announce what they regarded as a break in the case, Amore spoke as the Gardner Museum’s representative. Amore says he will not rest until the paintings are found.
Over the years, he has widened his focus beyond the Gardner case and become a consultant specializing in art theft and museum security. He has written two books: “Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Story of Notorious Art Heists” (with reporter Tom Mashberg) in 2011 and “The Art of the Con: The Most Notorious Fakes, Frauds and Forgeries in the Art World” in 2015. He is running on the 2018 Republican ticket for the office of Secretary of State in Massachusetts.
While maintaining confidentiality on the status of the criminal investigation, Amore has said publicly that he believes the heist was the work of a local criminal gang working with some measure of inside information. He believes the artwork has been stashed somewhere nearby. The one question Amore is burning to ask the thieves, if he could, is why they chose to steal the artworks that they did.
Former Wife Of George Reissfelder
Janice Santos was 22 years old and in the Army National Guard when she married George Reissfelder just two months after his release from prison in 1982. At the time of their marriage, Santos held the rank of Corporal and was on her way to flight school. She was on track to become the first female helicopter pilot in Massachusetts. Reissfelder scuttled that dream. Santos likened the seven years she spent with George Reissfelder to being his “prisoner.” He had jealous rages and beat Santos, and he barred her from reporting for military duty. Santos eventually lost her high rank and received a dishonorable discharge. Her divorce from Reissfelder was finally granted in 1990, the same year his name would be added to the list of men whose name has been attached to the Gardner heist.