On March 18, 2013 — the 23rd anniversary of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum robbery — the Boston FBI convened a press conference to discuss the case. In the previous two-plus decades, they’d never done anything like it. So in a room packed wall to wall with press, in air that must have felt taut with expectation, the then-head of the Boston FBI spoke:
“For the first time, we can say with a high degree of confidence we’ve determined that in the years since the theft the art was transported to Connecticut and to the Philadelphia area,” said special agent Rick Deslauriers.
It’s been five years since that press conference. That’s a pretty long final chapter. And that public statement remains the most specific the Boston FBI has ever been about what happened to the stolen art. In the absence of any new statements from the Boston FBI, we’re going to follow the trail to scrutinize the story they told in 2013. Does it hold up?
The people featured in this episode:
Robert “Bobby” Guarente, a Boston mob associate, became a key suspect in the Gardner theft in 2010 -- six years after his death. He had long been associated with the TRC Auto Electric gang. He was a father figure to David Turner. TRC’s leader Carmello Merlino even walked Bobby’s wife, Elene, down the aisle at their wedding. There were a number of threads that began raising suspicions around Guarente, years after the artwork went missing. His widow, Elene, told the FBI in 2010 that he had turned over several of the masterpieces to his good friend Bobby Gentile after the men and their wives had enjoyed a seafood dinner in Portland, Maine, eight years before. In 2005, Guarente’s friend Earle Berghman and Guarente’s daughter Jeanine approached the Gardner twice with what Jeanine claimed were remnants from the masterpieces. Berghman later told me about this, and he and others explained that the so-called remnants were actually chips of house paint on the first occasion and shreds of a magazine cover on the second. In 2016, The Boston Globe learned from former mob leader Bobby Luisi that, back in 1998, Guarente told him he had buried some of the stolen Gardner art beneath a concrete slab of a house in Florida.
Robert “Bobby” Gentile denied that either he or his old friend and criminal associate Bobby Guarente, ever had possession of the stolen Gardner artwork, but not for lack of trying. Both were enraptured by the $5 million reward that the museum was offering for the recovery in the late 1990s. Unmoved by Gentile’s claims of innocence, the FBI has set him up in two other crimes in recent years -- which he immediately fell for -- to increase pressure on him to cooperate in its Gardner probe. Gentile has pleaded guilty to the crimes and has served five years in prison, all the while maintaining that he never had possession of the stolen artwork. While three searches of his home outside Hartford, Connecticut, have found no signs of the artwork, the authorities did recover a piece of typewriter paper on which was written what each of the 13 stolen items might fetch on the black market.
Bobby Gentile’s defense attorney
Ryan McGuigan defended Bobby Gentile, a criminal with mafia ties who was believed to have knowledge on the Gardner heist. It was said that Gentile received the Gardner artwork from Bobby Guarente in a Maine parking lot back in 2002. But without any proof, the FBI could only pressure him into sharing what he knew about the art. McGuigan doesn’t believe Gentile knows anything about the art. In 2016, McGuigan got a call from a prison hospital -- Gentile was on his deathbed. He flew from Connecticut to be by Gentile’s side. Gentile asked McGuigan not to let him die there. McGuigan urged his client to reveal what he knew about the Gardner art so that he could get him on a plane back to Hartford, to die in his own bed, by his wife’s side. With tears streaming down his face, Gentile told McGuigan, “There ain’t no paintings.” He survived the health scare, and McGuigan maintains that if Gentile knew anything about the Gardner’s stolen masterpieces, he would have said so when he had every reason to believe he was about to die.
Special Agent in charge of the FBI Boston Division
Rick DesLauriers was head of the Boston FBI back in 2013 when the bureau announced to the public that it was confident it knew who was responsible for the Gardner Museum theft and that the missing art was transported to Connecticut, and then Philadelphia. It was the first time since the theft happened that the government came out and declared movement on the case. DesLauriers characterized the announcement as the start of the “final chapter” in the Gardner saga.
George Anastasia has covered organized crime in Philadelphia for 40 years. The Gardner heist investigation follows a thread that puts the Gardner art in the city around 2003. According to Anastasia though, the Philadelphia mob would have never known how to sell masterpieces, let alone Rembrandts. He remembers a time when they had a Lamborghini but in moving it, completely wrecked the car. “I mean, if they can’t deal with a Lamborghini, how are they going to deal with a Degas, Manet, or Rembrandt? I don’t know,” Anastasia said. “It’s almost dangerous to think about what might have happened to this precious stuff.”
Barry Gross’ career in law enforcement began seven years before the Gardner heist. He spent his time prosecuting members of the mob in the Philadelphia area. And he says, he never heard a word about the stolen Gardner art.
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.
Gardner Museum’s Director of Security
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.