I’ve waited until close to March 17/18 to discuss this matter. I have had the new material on hand for several months. Now I can get back to this. This is the story of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist. Those who were in their early thirties at the time it happened are now in their sixties. It remains unsolved.
I have written on this subject before on more than a half-dozen times. You can see the prior articles by typing in Gardner Museum in the space on the front page of the blog next to the “Q.” Why then do I write again? It is because a package arrived at my secret Post Office Box #9 at 02574 (the West Falmouth Post Office) a short time ago which contained a narrative that explains in great detail what the author of that narrative believes was behind the theft of the museum art.
I have said from the first time I wrote about the matter that the FBI being a one trick pony when it comes to most of its investigations has been on the wrong trail. Because the FBI relies on the same old methods the mystery surrounding the heist continues. Now the FBI is caught in a trap of its own making.
If the FBI were it to disclose how erroneous its conclusions have been it will suffer profound embarrassment. As my book “Don’t Embarrass the Family” points out the FBI can engage in and countenance all type of chicanery as long as it remains hidden behind its walls. If it comes out into the open then it looks for a scapegoat. FBI Director Hoover made embarrassing the FBI the cardinal sin. It explains why Director Comey asked the Department of Justice to call President Trump a liar.
To avoid embarrassment in the Gardner case the FBI is forced persists down the wrong trail preferring to stumble along in the darkness than to admit being wrong. Better the case remain unsolved than face embarrassment.
The Facts Not In Dispute:
The night of March 17/18 in 1990 at least two men dressed as police officers entered the Gardner Museum located in Boston’s Fenway area. They stole valuable art work. One piece from the first floor and others from two separate rooms on the second floor.
In all 13 pieces were stolen from three different areas. 1. the blue room on the first floor a small painting, Edouard Manet’s Chez Tortoni; 2. the Short Gallery on the second floor five sketches by Edgar Degas three of which were of horse racing or horses along with an eagle ornament from on top of a flag pole of little value; and 3. the Dutch Room on the second floor: a 12th Century B.C. Chinese beaker, Rembrandt’s, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt’s, A Lady and Gentleman in Black, Rembrandt’s tiny etching, Portrait if the Artist as a Young Man, Govaert Flinck’s, Landscape with an Obelisk and the most valuable, Vermeer’s, The Concert. The FBI has been working on the investigation since the day after the theft. The culprits have not been apprehended. The art has not been recovered.
The One Trick Pony:
I’ve often said the laziest law enforcement tool is the use of informants. I have said this based on my 20 plus years as an investigative prosecutor and almost ten years prior to that as a criminal defense lawyer. That s is the FBI’s bread and butter approach to its work which tells us a lot about it. The FBI is so addicted that it developed a program which still exists called the Top Echelon Informant program. The idea behind that program is to enter into a long-term alliance with top-level gangsters who will give the FBI information in exchange for the FBI doing something for them. That something is usually that the FBI will protect them to allow them to continue with their criminal activities even closing its eyes to murder.
When the Gardner robbery happened the FBI immediately turned to its informants, usually gangster types, to find out who was responsible. It has followed that strategy up to the present time. Like a hungry fish in a home aquarium when given food the FBI squirmed around swallowing and following the many tips it received from low-life guys looking for deals and perhaps hoping to make a claim on the five million dollar reward that has been dangling off the end of the line for years. The tips bore as much fruit as a petrified tree.
Using informants means that you don’t have to do the hard work involved in truly investigating matters. You just have to make a call or a meet and act like a stenographer writing down what the informant said. Live by the informant, die by the informant. 27 years later the FBI is still without a clue as to whom pulled the job. You would think it would realize it has been had.
From the beginning when I read about the case I concluded it was a well planned robbery by well paid skillful art thieves who knew what they wanted, were hired to do the job, and had a fence or customer waiting to take the art work from them. The package I received suggests something along the line I figured out but goes deeper into it by identifying the people who did it.
It should have been so easy for the FBI to figure this out. The first thing the FBI should have recognized was that this was a well planned robbery. It was done by people who had specific art works in mind. Specific items were taken from two different floors and three different rooms. That meant someone went in there with a plan as to what to take. To do this the thieves would have had to case the Museum on several occasions prior to the theft.
Had the FBI recognized that it would not have beat the informant bush looking for someone to rat someone else out. It would have gone through all the retained video tape recordings, if any, of people who visited the museum. It would also have reached out to foreign police agencies, gone through the international flight passenger lists of each airline as well as the records of each hotel and motel in the Boston vicinity looking for people who visited Boston from overseas.
That is a lot of hard work. That is why the FBI did not do it. It is easier to rely on informants.
If it started with the idea that this was a pre-cased robbery and the thieves knew what they wanted, it would have also concluded that the thieves were professional art thieves who had been hired by a corrupt art dealer (fence) who already had customers waiting for the art work. It would also have recognized that the type of theft committed was one common to Europe and not to America. (That is my theory. The package claims otherwise.) It would have secured help from the international community. None of that seems to have been done.
To understand this more it is necessary to review some of the actions and statements of the FBI. Four years ago this March 17th the FBI SAC in Boston said the FBI “had identified the thieves” without naming them.
At the same time the FBI agent in charge of the investigation Geoffrey Kelly said because one painting was sliced out of the frame “that’s indicative of a rank amateur when it comes to art theft.” He went on to say the FBI’s working profile “points to inexperienced art thieves” although in his description of how they worked that night (taking the surveillance tape and a print out of the motion detector) seems to point to professionals.
What was so astonishing is the FBI was issuing statements that contradicted themselves. If the FBI knew who the thieves were, as the FBI SAC stated, it would not be working with a “working profile.” It knows them. It would know whether or not they were amateurs.
When I juxtaposed these statements it was clear to me the FBI had no idea who the thieves were. It was a con. It was putting this disinformation out hoping to shake the bushes so that somehow, someone, somewhere even as far away as Finland, might give it some information. (You might remember a short time earlier the FBI used this approach to get information that led to the capture of Whitey Bulger.)
Keep 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.”
He went on to say when they realized that they would decided to “wait until the heat dies down” before selling them. Even the dumbest criminals recognizing their predicament would know there was no way to get rid of the stuff. I’d suggest they’d know that the heat would not die down until Hell froze over which would be a long time to wait. Logically, if the FBI was right about this it should have recognized the art work was destroyed a long time ago.
The FBI convinced itself it was some local hoodlums in Boston who did it. Boston being a very parochial city has difficulty thinking about the world beyond it. With that in mind it had as much chance of finding it as locating the thief who stole the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The thief who first came to mind was Myles Connor. He was doing ten years in a mid-West prison so it reasoned he did not pull the heist. Yet, it figured he might know something about it and, as you would expect, Myles would not let it down.
Myles, by the way, was a long time art thief and gifted artist who called himself “the king of rock and roll.” I never met him but did meet his father who was a Milton police officer who was the court prosecutor for that town in the Quincy court. He told me how for a while he had not been feeling well so he went to the doctor. He had a blood test and was told he had high levels of arsenic in his blood. He soon discovered that his son Myles and his wife were putting arsenic in his coffee to try to kill him. Myles would later describe his father as “perhaps the only truly honorable person that I have ever known in law enforcement.” Was that why he tried to murder him?
Anyway even though Myles could not have pulled off the robbery he pointed to two people who he said did for the purpose of using the stolen items as bargaining chips in exchange for getting Myles out of prison. They both happened to be dead: Robert “Bobby” Donati and David Houghton. (How come these guys pin things on dead people all the time. Do you think they know the libel laws?) Donati, 50, was found stabbed to death in the trunk of a car a year and a half after the heist. Houghton, 52, who weighed 350 pounds died of a coronary condition in the spring of 1992.
Hardly the type to do the heist and if they did who did they give the art work to or was it buried with them. The big problem with these guys being involved is that others would have known about it. These would have included FBI informants. It would not have remained a secret.
Donati was a Mafia guy. Had he been involved it would have been bartered for some deal a long time ago. Keep in mind the notoriety of the theft just about prevented it from being fenced.
The head of the New England Mafia, Frank Salemme, would certainly have bargained to get a deal if he knew. He didn’t because as noted before he cooperated with the FBI to get a deal. Vinny “the Animal” Ferrara of the rival Mafia faction doing heavy time would also have used the stuff in exchange for a deal. None ever did. Also neither Donati or Houghton had any known knowledge of art. How would they have made the type of selection that was made?
Then the names Billy Youngworth comes up. He supposedly received the art work from Donati or Houghton and was holding it for Myles and hid it in a warehouse but the trail ends there. The problem with all these stories is none of the art has surfaced. Youngworth convinced a newspaper reporter that he had the goods. At the time my office was prosecuting Youngworth for having stolen property. He was looking to get out from under our charge. We played it straight and he did time. Nothing ever came of his having the goods.
Then we have the FBI’s other theory that a group of fences and drug dealers out of an auto body shop in Dorchester TRC were involved. We knew they were dealing cocaine from there through our sources in Norfolk County but were unable to get enough evidence to do a wiretap on them which we may have done even though they were in Suffolk County. The big guy at TRC was Carmello Merlino. FBI informants told it that Merlino was looking to return the Sea of Galilee in exchange for the reward but before he could do so he was caught in an abortive armored car robbery by the FBI. The FBI had an informant in the crew of robbers and hoped once it caught them it would also get the paintings back.
Obviously once grabbed in the attempted robbery Merlino would forget the reward, you would think, and deal the painting for the street. As it turned out Carmello Merlino would go to trial along with four co-defendants. Had they access to the paintings they could have avoided this. In 1999 Carmello got 47 years, a co-defendant Stephen Rossetti, the brother of an FBI top echelon informant got 51 years, Billy Merlino got 13 years, and David Turner got 38 years.
Interesting enough Turner would cooperate. The Feds agreed to reduce Turner’s sentence back in 2011 to 2013 by seven years. Speculation was that he was providing information on the Gardner Museum job. That, though, is doubtful. Whatever he gave out did not produce any of the art so his cooperation must have related to other things. Turner was a bad guy who had been involved in some serious crimes in the past so his information alone was worth something. As I noted earlier if you plan to commit crimes be sure to do it with others.
The FBI believed Merlino had the art work. I have no idea how they conclused that but it seemed elementary he would not take a 47 year prison term if he could give up the art work. One of Merlino’s friends was another hoodlum named Robert Gentile. A close friend of Gentile’s was a guy named Robert Guarante. Guarante was the uncle of top echelon informant Rossetti and the Rossetti who got the 51 years. All are gangsters. The FBI believes that the two RG’s somehow ended up with the art work.
Some reports have it that Gentile and Guarante apparently negotiated to return the Gardner paintings some time before 2004, the year Guarante died, in exchange for releasing a friend of Guarante from prison. (You’d think they would have done it to help out Merlino or nephew Rossetti.) Later stories would surface that Guarante had the art and he gave two of the paintings to Gentile up in Maine. This was based on a story Elene Guarante, Robert’s wife, told investigators. She said her husband put one or two of the Gardner paintings into their car and that they swapped the paintings with Gentile in Portland, Me in 2002. This would mean the art work was being spread around and would have increased the likelihood of it being found if that were the case.
The FBI happens to believe all these informant stories. As I said it is a one pony show so it has nothing else to rely on. It has been to Gentile’s house two or three times digging up his yard and tearing down his walls looking for the art but has come up empty-handed. The FBI has lodged one charge after another against Gentile attempting to break him down. It seems to think that an 80-year-old guy in ill health would keep quiet about art work that has no value at all to him and spend the rest of his life in prison. Gentile denies having any knowledge of the missing art. The FBI having no where else to turn keeps pounding on this door to nowhere with the cooperation of witting judges.
It reminds me of the case where this guy Raymond who worked for Boston Mayor White back in the days when Bill Weld the local U.S. attorney was chasing after White. One night Raymond was deep in his cups at Clarke’s and as was his wont in this condition lost control of his tongue. He told a young woman sitting next to him that he was Mayor White’s bag man who carried in the cash to him.The woman was an FBI agent who filed a report about her conversation with Raymond. Raymond had no recollection of it or the lady the next morning when he woke up.
A day or two later Raymond found a grand jury subpoena in his hand. He went before the grand jury, denied he ever said he was the mayor’s bag man or that he brought cash to him. He was indicted for perjury. In the eyes of the FBI a drunk’s tale was worthy of belief.
So the FBI’s last hope is Gentile who knows nothing about the art work. Once he kicks the bucket the only ones left alive will be Myles Connor who is still playing the Donati/Houghton story and Turner who will have to come up with something to get another sentence reduction.
But no art work has been recovered, no art work has been seen, and the FBI is at a dead-end because early on it made a wrong turn as it is apt to do when it relies on informant stories and fails to look at the evidence staring them in the face.
The Story in the Package:
I told you what I thought. Professional job, well cased, and buyer lined up before hand. No usual gangsters involved.
Here is another theory that is close to mine and far away from that of the FBI’s,
This is the story that was sent to me at my post office box #9, 02574. But before I go on I must warn you that what I am going to tell is a very bare bones outline of what is contained in over 100 pages of an intriguing, clever, and interesting tale. I am afraid in presenting this truncated version I will not do justice to the full story which contains substantial facts that are used to support the conclusions. For that I apologize but space is tight. Those interested in reading the full story will have to hope the author arranges for it to be published or that some other arrangements can be made.
It begins with a visit last year. A highly successful lawyer from Boston visiting in Sanibel arranged a meeting at a pool side at one of those ubiquitous Gulf front condos in Florida with a person, who I originally took to be a swamp Yankee but who later identifies himself as having Irish Russian heritage, who is a self-proclaimed artist skilled in tracking people, called Al.
The lawyer tells Al how his “Brahmin friends” are at their wit’s end and willing to spend any amount of money to get back the art work stolen from the Gardner museum. They want to hire Al. He declines the offer saying he knows who stole the paintings but does not know where they are then located. Al suggests he figured this out a while ago because like those Brahmin he too has a great attachment to the Gardner museum from his youth.
Al starts off noting how sometimes the most obvious solution to a crime stares one in the face but it is overlooked. He (like I) noted the FBI has gone down many blind alleys because it relies on its connections with the underworld. He said at the end it “was forced into casting the blame on the old boogeyman . . . the mafia.” It settled on this because one of the robbers was said to have “squinty eyes.” Al found it mysterious that the FBI did not rely on “their well known, time-honored profile i.e., someone ratting, . . . “ (As I’ve noted that is just the other side of the informant coin.) He mentions the contact with the FBI by letter in 1994 and how nothing came of it because the FBI did not cooperate in good faith. (Hard to say why that letter came to nothing. Someone could have been pulling FBI’s leg.)
Al noted, as I have, the FBI’s conclusion the theft was carried out by “petty thieves” and “not done by experienced criminals” and was “messy and ineffectual.” He too finds that error. He suggests it was a well planned robbery involving two vehicles (one van to take the paintings) and four people, two standing watch outside with walkie-talkies, the tampering with the alarm system by a computer expert, etc.
Al then tells us he started to figure out who did it by seeing similarities between it and an earlier art theft where the painting was cut from the frame even thought the earlier one was in 1966. He says first of all it is clear to him the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum thieves had “inside” information. He notes they knew of guard’s panic button, the entrance tapes, a location to place and hold guards, knew one painting was on a hidden door, and what “red herrings” to leave. (I differ from him on this. I believe professional art thieves could easily have learned these things.)
Al suggests the inside information came from Rollin Van Nostrand “Bump” Hadley who was administrator of the museum from 1963 to 1970 and director from 1970 to 1988. Hadley died of a heart attack at his home in Fort Lauderdale at age 64 within two years following the robbery. Al said Bump refused the FBI’s request to provide it with a “list of his friends, art lovers, visitors, etc.” who he entertained in and about the museum during dinners and after hour gatherings.
Al called Bump a party animal, did not suggest he had anything to do with the theft, who might have unwittingly provided access to the museum or had loose lips in his dealings with people who were lovers of the arts. Bump had many dinners and other affairs at the Gardner even in the evening that allowed others the opportunity to case it. He suggests a person skilled in extracting information from another could have gotten all he needed from unwary Bump. (A fault with this theory is Bump retired two years before the heist and no clever thieves would depend on information that was stale.)
Al also figured the persons involved had to have knowledge of computers which would leave out much of the lay-abouts the FBI rousted. This, he suggests, shows a Harvard/M.I.T. connection at a time when computers were coming out of their infancy and the hacker was king. Al then starts out to find out more about computers by looking up some old friends.
In the meantime he’s keeping in mind the 1994 letters that came from New York with a phony West Side address. They involved a demand of $2.6 million to return the paintings and immunity from prosecution. Al’s theory is non-career criminals committed the act for insurance proceeds. (Mine is skilled criminals from Europe for an art collector. The FBI some criminal muffs blundering along. If FBI is right kiss the paintings goodbye and it should stop looking.)
Now to the nub of Al’s story. He is in New York in 1998 and is reading the obits. He reads about a “New York heiress” living in a long lease apartment in the hotel across the street from where he was staying died in tragic circumstances. She was a patron of and great collector of the arts. Al happened to know the doorman at the hotel who doesn’t tell him much but sends him off to Billy Bob the house engineer a guy from Fall River who tells him the much-loved heiress was probably thrown off the 15th floor because she was worth between 50 to 150 million by her husband (SOB) a “slimy bastard.” SOB is a top-notch violinist who sometimes substitutes for the first violinist at the Met. Al then tells us the mean SOB’s ”marriage to” the heiress “was concluded in 1992 after a long friendship.” (At first I thought he meant they were divorced.) The SOB brought from his previous two marriages a son and two nephews, she brought three children.
Al then turns to David Turner who I mentioned before who got the big bit in prison. I discounted him because of that. Al initially thinks Turner may have murdered the heiress but later he concludes he would have not done the big time if he had the paintings. (Why Al, who recognizes the foibles of the FBI, would think Turner under any circumstance escapes me.)
Al eventually eliminates the gangsters dealing cocaine from TRC in Dorchester. He follows the Bump Haley trail. Bump likes to party on the Cape. So did the heiress and the SOB. Figures they met and they became friendly. Ties the ends of the string together by corroborating his theory with an Irish artist also from the Cape.
Everyone agrees heiress is fine woman and SOB an SOB. As Al pushes on he finds out that SOB went to a big wedding on a private island in the Mediterranean. There he met a guy names Pops who owns the island. He leads him down secret passages to a hidden room. In there Pops shows him a violin that had been stolen years earlier. Pops tells SOB he is a middleman for art and tells him he has a buyer for some of the specific works at the Gardner and if Al can get it then he’ll make Al a rich man.
Al thinks it over and does not commit. In the meantime it will turn out Pops is an undercover cop or informant who was trying to set Al up. But Al doesn’t know this and he goes back to Boston. After dwelling on it a while he calls in his nephews and son and the four of them lay down the plans for the robbery.
One of the group is a computer expert who will be able to infiltrated the system so that he is not discovered and shut down the appropriate alarms; the other is a medical doctor geneticist who is able to befriend the night watchman at the museum who is also a musician. He will do this at some of his band sessions, tell him he might have genius genes, and discuss his DNA and heritage in late night visits to the museum; and the other is a professional surgeon who willingly goes along. All are facing financial difficulties at the time (school loans, etc.).
They have a dry run the night before. The night of the crime four of them show up, two are well disguised, they pull off the job without a hitch, bring the paintings to a house nearby that one has rented, reach out for Pops and they learn he is undercover. They then plan to return the paintings for the insurance only to find out there is no insurance. They write 1994 letter asking for 2.4 million and immunity from prosecution. Then realizing the FBI can’t be trusted so they go underground.
In the meantime all become successful in their enterprises so the money means less to them. One night in the hotel across the street while the four are discussing their next moves the heiress comes in and realizes they pulled off the job. They know how much she loves the world of art and would betray them in a New York second so they toss her off the balcony after stripping her of all but her shoes.
Al suggests he has told the FBI and Gardner his theory. They are not buying it. As I surmise it he knows the true names of all involved. Al should understand that the FBI is so far down the wrong path it is as lost as is the stolen art work.
I’m intrigued that Al and I have both disregarded the things the FBI relies on. I was also interested in the story of Pops. I would also have a Pops in my theory, a middleman who has a customer. Where we part I believe there was a Pops who never was caught and never had to work for cops. My Pops would also have his favorite thieves carry out the job. He would never have trusted a stranger by showing him a stolen violin or expect an amateur could pull off the Gardner job.
After Gentile dies the FBI should give up the chase of Mafia types. With none of that type left to focus on it will have to admit it never knew the names of the thieves. It was all a big FBI ruse.
Most likely at that point it will abandon the search because of the enormous error of its ways. On the off chance that it wants to suck it up and admit it has been wrong for 27 years I’ll give it a big clue. Start with the realization that none of the art work has been recovered not even those with little value as the eagle ornament on top of the flag staff. What does it conclude from that?
My conclusion is that if hoodlums stole the art it no longer exists having been destroyed a long time ago; if my theory is right it is in the palace of some Arabian sheikh who loves horses; if Al is right it is the U.S. and can be recovered in tact with some due diligence and hard work.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day.