On a cold February day in 1999, David Turner and several accomplices, armed with a hand grenade and six guns, were on their way to rob an armored car depot in Easton when they were arrested in an FBI sting.
Agents told Turner he was a suspect in the infamous 1990 art heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and could receive leniency if he returned the stolen masterpieces, according to court records. But Turner insisted he knew nothing about the theft and was sentenced to 38 years in prison for attempting to rob the armored car facility and firearms charges — which included a mandatory 30 years because the crew had a hand grenade.
Several years ago, the government secretly got that sentence trimmed by seven years, making him eligible for release in 2025. Federal authorities declined to say whether Turner had agreed to help authorities recover the artwork, which includes works by Rembrandt and Vermeer and is worth an estimated $500 million.
The masterworks have never been recovered. But on Wednesday, Turner, 52, his dark hair now tinged with gray, walked out of Boston’s federal court a free man after a judge ruled during a resentencing hearing that the 21 years he already served were enough.
“I deeply regret the actions I took and the choices I made,” the Braintree native told US District Judge Richard G. Stearns. “I am no longer that person. I cannot change the past, but I have tried my best to change my future.”
Stearns, who had presided over Turner’s trial decades ago, had vacated his prison term last month in light of Supreme Court rulings that have eased federal sentencing guidelines. On Wednesday, Stearns sentenced Turner to the time he had already served and ordered his release.
“It’s rare for me to be fully confident someone has fully rehabilitated himself,” he said to Turner. “I believe you have and commend you for it.”
Last month, Stearns ordered the release of one of Turner’s codefendants, Stephen Rossetti, after ruling that he no longer qualified as an armed career criminal based on recent court decisions.
On Wednesday, Stearns rejected the prosecution’s request to extend Turner’s sentence another 18 months, instead placing him on probation for three years. He said it was the first time he had ever received letters written in support of an inmate on resentencing from Bureau of Prisons employees.
“What somebody does over time to rehabilitate himself does count for something,” Stearns said, adding that Turner “has done what I would expect from someone who did want to change his life.”
Turner was transferred to Federal Medical Center Devens four years ago to undergo cervical spinal surgery and after his recovery volunteered as a hospital companion, providing hospice care for critically ill inmates, according to a sentencing memorandum filed by his attorney, Robert Goldstein. Previously, while at a New York federal penitentiary, Turner was an instructor for the Victim Impact Program.
Stearns said he was also impressed that Turner had participated in 58 educational programs in prison, ranging from vocational classes to Spanish and sign language courses.
Assistant US Attorney Robert Richardson said Turner should serve additional time in prison because of the “overall brazen and violent nature” of the 1999 plot to rob a Loomis-Fargo facility of an estimated $50 million. It was thwarted because the FBI had informants working with the crew and planted bugs that captured Turner and his accomplices planning the crime.
FBI agents began targeting Turner and one of his codefendants, Carmello Merlino, a Dorchester repair shop owner with Mafia ties, in the early 1990s because they believed they could lead them to the stolen Gardner art.
In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, two thieves dressed as police officers talked their way into the Gardner museum, tied up the guards, and fled with 13 pieces of artwork.
Merlino died in prison in 2005, but Turner’s suspected involvement in the ongoing Gardner investigation surfaced three years ago in federal court proceedings in Hartford involving Robert Gentile, a Connecticut mobster who was suspected by the FBI of having access to the stolen paintings.
In late 2010, Turner wrote Gentile from prison, instructing him to call Turner’s girlfriend. She then asked Gentile to meet with two of Turner’s associates about recovering the artwork, Gentile’s lawyer said.
Gentile, who was cooperating with the FBI then, refused to meet with the pair and introduce them to an FBI informant because he feared for his safety, according to court filings.
Gentile, who was snared in two FBI stings designed to pressure him into recovering the artwork, was released from prison in March after serving 4½ years on gun charges.
In a brief telephone interview Tuesday, Gentile’s attorney, A. Ryan McGuigan, said his client has no information about the stolen artwork, but he suggested that Turner did, at least at one time.
“Based on the information that I have seen in disclosures from the government, also from third-party sources, it’s fairly apparent that the last living person to have possession of the paintings is David Turner,” McGuigan said.
He also said Gentile would be willing to meet with Turner to talk about the missing artwork if he’s interested. The museum is offering a $10 million reward for the safe return of the masterworks.
Outside the courtroom, Turner’s lawyer declined to comment on the paintings or allegations that Turner may have been involved in the heist.
Dressed in a gray sweatsuit, Turner left the courthouse with his girlfriend. Asked by a reporter how it felt to be free, he replied, “Wonderful. I’m going to Disneyland.”
He declined further comment.