Gardner Museum Heist: 27th Anniversary Story: The True Story; Not the FBI’s One: 3/8

Gardner MuseumKeep in mind this is 1990 and Agent John Connolly is still in the FBI office with three of his informants being top-level informants: Whitey Bulger,  Stevie Flemmi and another being in the Mafia, Sonny Mercurio. Most agents knew Connolly had these people as informants. He would have reached out to them for help in solving the break. With all their contacts they said they knew nothing at the time. It was obvious later they had no idea who pulled the heist. We know Flemmi and all his criminal buddies later cooperated with the FBI to get good deals. If none of the criminals who should know what was happening did not know that should have been a neon sign telling the FBI it was not a heist by locals.  But remember a U.S. senator would call this office at that time the most dysfunctional in the United States.

Not all FBI agents were acting obtusely. In Washington,D.C., Lynne Richardson who managed the FBI’s National Stolen Art File was reported to believe the Gardner robbery was unique in American history. She said, as I did, it involved planning, disguises and deception although I would add “daring.” She said: “This is the way they rob museums in Europe, not the United States. So the [paintings] could be right there or on the way across the ocean.”

The FBI Way of Investigating:

The FBI usually gets its informants, outside the Top Echelon Informant Program, by getting someone who has been caught involved in some nefarious criminal activities and offering him a deal if he cooperates.  In other words a criminal can save his butt if he gives up someone else’s butt.Or he can save his butt by returning something of value he has stolen. That is why I say if you plan to commit a federal crime do it with others so if you are caught you can offer them up as bargaining chips.

Depending on how jammed in a person is will determine the level of cooperation. Some will agree just to provide information on the condition their identity is kept secret in exchange  for a reduced prison term. Others, the thieves, will return part of their booty; murderers will show the bodies of their victims to get reduced sentences. These criminals instinctively understand all cops like to recover things and get the publicity attendant to it.

As you can imagine in the Gardner situation the FBI had oodles of people offering to give it some information in exchange for some deal. A huge amount of valuable time was wasted dealing with these people would never met a professional art thief. They operated in different circles. This seemed not to occur to the FBI. It continued to look for information from street felons.

In late 1997 an FBI agent named Dan Falzon who had been assigned to the Gardner Museum case from the beginning said: “With all the people we know in and out of prison, we’ve never got a quality piece of information that indicates this is it, this is who did it. We’ve had everybody and his brother say they know who did it, and none of it has led to anyone going to prison or any art going back on the wall.”

The same situation attains to this very date.

Despite this the FBI has fastened upon the idea that some low life was involved in stealing the high life art work. What gives lie to such belief is the most common of understandings among any detective who ever dealt with a real criminal is that no criminal will do time if he can swap something to stay on the street. The easiest thing to swap would be something stolen from the Gardner Museum. It has no value to anyone who is a low life. If it were stolen by one of these life time criminals he would realize it could not be sold or fenced. There are no buyers. It is too hot. Its only value is as a “get out of jail” or a “do less time” card.

FBI agent Kelly being wrong when he says the heist was the work of amateurs adds confusion when he states about these amateurs that it would have been “highly probable the thieves had no idea of the magnitude of their crime until they woke up the next morning and realized they had committed the “heist of the century.”


7 thoughts on “Gardner Museum Heist: 27th Anniversary Story: The True Story; Not the FBI’s One: 3/8

  1. What I find curious is not that the usual suspects of Boston were as out of the loop as everyone else, but how the FBI came about knowing it.

    From Master Thieves by Stephen Kurkjian:

    “US attorney Michael Sullivan went so far as to ask Stephen Flemmi, Bulger’s
    closest associate, who testified against him at his 2013 trial, if Bulger had any connection to the theft. Flemmi told him that following the theft, Bulger had directed
    him to find out who was responsible. In effect, Flemmi told Sullivan, Bulger had told him “no one pulls off a heist like that in my territory without paying me tribute.”

    “Disgraced FBI agent John Connolly, who had handled Bulger as an informant, said that even though he was retired from the Bureau when the theft took place, he was asked by his old colleagues to see what he could find out from Bulger.”

    “’It was the same thing,’ Connolly said. ‘He wanted to know so he could get his percentage, but he couldn’t find anything out.’”

    OK this is at least partly wrong, Connolly retired six months after the Gardner robbery, not before. But is it completely wrong?

    Did Connolly have to be asked by “his old colleagues”? Did he have to be asked at all. Maybe Kurkjian made one of those lucky journalist mistakes in his book. By retiring Connolly BEFORE the robbery he doesn’t have to address a big question, or maybe Connolly lied so he could avoid the a BIG question:

    Why would Connolly have to be asked by his colleagues or old colleagues to do this? If Bulger is a top echelon informant getting all kinds of favors, wouldn’t it be routine to ask him and all of his informants about the Gardner Heist right away?

    And Flemmi, who doesn’t even deny being an informant, why does the U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan (2001-2009) have to ask Flemmi if Bulger was involved? Wouldn’t there be a record of Connolly’s answers from Flemmi. Wouldn’t what Bulger, Flemmi, and Mercuior knew be known within the first week with subsequent regular followups?

    Wouldn’t Sullivan be going in asking followup questions to check the validity of Flemmi’s original story, and not be starting from square one: “What do you know about the Gardner job?”

    Was there an original story?

    If Bulger wanted his cut, maybe he should have told Flemmi to check with Connolly, because the only reason I can think of for Connolly not asking all of his informants right away was because there was no need.

    1. Interesting questions. I always thought that the job was pulled off by pros and they cut one of the paintings out of its frame to make it look like thieves with less experience and knowledge of fine art did the job.

      If the art was stolen as bargaining chips the FBI would have been contacted. Maybe the paintings got lost. It has happened. Or there was a betrayal among the thieves.

    2. Kerry:

      You are right that Connolly was still on the job when the heist was pulled. I have no doubt that the first thing he did was tor each out to his top echelon informants to find out who did it. Imagine the glorious publicity (and Connolly coveted publicity) he could have gained standing in front of the recovered art work. The plain fact was that no one in the Winter Hill/Mafia pipeline had any idea who pulled the job which just about excludes all local hoodlums. Thee would be no need for Connolly to be asked by his colleagues since he would have been on the phone checking his informants immediately upon hearing about it.

      When is it that Sullivan gets to ask Flemmi the question? Flemmi did not flip until after the Connolly trial in 2002. Twelve years had passed. Hardly likely Sullivan would have asked question in any event since that would have been asked by Wyshak’s team among the first questions when Flemmi decided to go over.

      It’s hard to pin point the mistakes in information. Connolly liked to brag about things, Sullivan could have reinvented his role, Kurkjian may have misheard, mistranscribed, or engaged in a little literary license.

      1. Before his book Kurkjian reported in the Boston Globe in 2011 that there was a written record of Connolly stating he was approached by the FBI for help speaking with Connolly after he retired.

        This is consistent with the overall tenor of the investigation. With the decades of coverage, is there any words, deeds, or evidence suggesting the Gardner Heist investigation, when the trail was still fresh, was anything other than a strictly retail investigation? People called. Investigators took down their information and checked it out.

        Did investigators send people over or do any kind of community outreach to neighboring Simmons, Emmanuel, Boston Latin, Mass College of Art or any of the other half dozen colleges within a one mile radius. Did they walk around the Back Bay Fens, part of the Emerald Necklace, a block away, during the day or go there at night. It had been a popular cruising area for decades at all hours and seasons after dark. How could you not go into the Fens at night in this case and call it a serious investigation?

        What evidence is there that they did anything except answer the phone, passively waiting for a criminal to break their case for them? And even in this endeavor we have only their word.

        Compare the effort with Gardner with that of the Charles Stuart/ Carol DiMaiti investigation, where whole sections of the city were turned upside down? Did investigators go into Southie, Eastie, the North End talking to people? If they had concluded rightly or wrongly that the thieves were local, isn’t this what they would do? Not everyone who knows something, knows that they know something, or has the confidence to call on the phone.

        “In the immediate aftermath of the April 15, 2013, bombings, Boston police commissioner Ed Davis. said, “you can’t let the latest technology pull you away from the easiest thing. Sometimes old-fashioned shoe leather works best.” The Gardner Heist was before there was much in the way of the latest technology. What pulled investigators away from old-fashioned shoe leather in this case?

        There is no report of the Gardner investigation being anything other than a shoe-leather free investigation. A one trick pony that never leaves the stable is a no trick pony.

        Connolly liked to brag? When did Connolly or any other agent ever brag about how many doors they knocked on, how many people they approached, how many wise guys they buttonholed, in investigating the Gardner Heist? All I have ever read about his how many worthless leads they received and followed up on. Has anyone ever complained that the investigators were too aggressive with them? The only thing I have read is of people complaining they were not aggressive enough. I guess Frank Hatch complained when the FBI was too aggressive when they took a dim view of the Gardner’s plan to hire a private investigator to help find the paintings.

        Anne Hawley had no problem expending some shoe leather. She contacted the Pope and “approached William Bulger, president of the state Senate, asking that he chat up his brother Whitey to see what he knew. The notorious gangster was fruitlessly chasing leads himself. The heist had happened in his territory and he figured he was owed tribute.” NY Daily News

        So outside of the Gardner Museum itself, the only person known by name to have expended any “shoe leather.” of going out and initiating a conversation with someone to find out who did the Gardner Heist is Stephen Flemmi at the behest of Whitey Bulger, unless you count putting up billboards in Philadelphia 22 years later, or asking a retired FBI agent to see if someone who was his informant at the time of the Gardner Heist itself, the most notorious criminal in America, Whitey Bulger, if he knows anything “shoe leather.”

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