In a rare development not manufactured to coincide with the anniversary of the March 18, 1990 theft of thirteen paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a man was arrested this week who has been identified previously by the FBI as a “person of interest” in the theft. So has there been a break in the case? Not really, but the details bear scrutiny. If, as a judge was told by the prosecution, Robert Gentile had been recorded offering to sell the paintings for $500,000, it would be a major breakthrough (and remarkable, given that a $5 million reward is available). But the recording has not been made public, and the FBI has greatly overstated the certainty of various players' involvement before, so the view here is skeptical until further evidence.
As most are familiar, two men dressed as either policemen or security officers robbed the Gardner in 1990, and the paintings have not been seen since. Reputed sightings and supposed links have been floated repeatedly, but nothing has actually led to the paintings.
The center of this week’s news is a Connecticut man named Robert Gentile, whose name has come up before in connection with the Gardner theft. Gentile has consistently denied any knowledge of or involvement in the theft or possession of the paintings.
The FBI has said that they believe that Gentile received some or all of the paintings from a man named Robert Guarente, who is now deceased. Guarente’s widow has supposedly told the FBI that she saw her late husband give a disputed number of paintings to Gentile.
It was Gentile whose home was searched in 2012 in the last real development in the case, such as it was. That search did not yield the paintings, but did yield certain weapons with whose illegal possession Gentile was then charged. As detailed brilliantly in the new book Master Thieves: the Boston Gangsters who Pulled off the World’s Greatest Art Heist by Stephen Kurkjian (just published and an absolute must-read), the police then leaned heavily on Gentile, making clear that unless he cooperated and helped find the paintings, they would seek the heaviest possible sentence against him, almost ensuring that he would spend the rest of his life in jail. He flatly denied any knowledge, and over the prosecution’s objections, was sentenced to a term that eventually allowed his release. But critically, while incarcerated, his daughter fell ill and died. Had he provided the information that the police thought he had, he would have been able to be with her.
This week Gentile was arrested again, and his attorney called out the latest charge as a set-up. According to the Associated Press:
Gentile’s attorney, A. Ryan McGuigan, said his client began working with the FBI 3 1/2 years ago to help find the stolen artwork. But because the FBI believes Gentile has not been forthcoming with everything he knows about the heist, McGuigan said, the agency has set up his client for arrests twice in the last three years.
“It’s my argument that a crime isn’t committed if it’s not orchestrated by the FBI,” said McGuigan, who said his client is not withholding any information.
This is a compelling point. Gentile was arrested on weapons charges that have nothing whatsoever to do with the Gardner. He has never been charged with anything to do with the Gardner. So the prosecution bringing that up at a totally unrelated hearing lends great credence to the theory that the latest charge is a pretext to pressure him without any actual evidence of the supposed prior bad acts. Here is the problem: Gentile has already been in a situation where, if he had information, he could have improved his own fate immeasurably, and not learned about his daughter’s death only behind bars. Moreover, the statute of limitations on the crime ran out years ago, and the museum has been very clear that anyone who leads it to the paintings will enjoy the reward regardless of their prior role. Thus, if Gentile had any information, he literally has nothing to lose and everything to gain by revealing it. What do the police suppose will be different this time? The simplest explanation may in fact be that he in fact does not know anything. As noted above, the prosecutor this week claimed that Gentile had offered the paintings for sale to an undercover FBI agent, so we will see if there is anything to that. Even in that event, however, it cannot be ignored that offering a connection to someone who has information is like Danny Ocean at the end of Ocean's 11: "I know a guy. We were in the joint together. Anybody pulls a job in the western US, he knows about it. Give me 72 hours. I'll find out who took your money." To which Terry Benedict replies with disgust, "You know a guy," and calls the police.
The FBI has also intimated that it believes a man named David Turner actually committed the robbery. Problematically for the FBI, it had Turner over a similar barrel before when he was facing decades in prison—and he went to prison denying any knowledge whatsoever. Fool me once….
Kurkjian’s book, by the way, offers a fascinating theory about who actually robbed the museum. He suggests that it was a man named Bobby Donati, and argues that his motive was to create a bargaining chip to spare Donati’s then-boss Vinnie Ferrara from prison. Donati was brutally murdered in 1991, however, so if he did commit the crime, he took that secret to the grave. Kurkjian writes that he reported this theory to the FBI, who declined to follow up on it. He is also critical, as we have been, of the 2013 press conference in which the FBI asserted definitively to know who committed the crime and what happened afterwards, pointing out the many fatal flaws in the theory the FBI presented. Lastly, Kurkjian tells a chilling what-if tale from shortly before the robbery: a security guard at the Museum of Fine Arts who got a knock on the door from men claiming to be police.
One idea Kurkjian persuasively sets out is the missing motive for the crime. As he writes, portable valuables were something that by the early 1990s were seen as a currency to trade for leniency in sentencing. For experienced criminals, that would make much more sense than actually hoping to fence unique works of art, and the idea that the paintings were stolen at the behest of some reclusive billionaire long ago ceased to deserve any serious consideration.
The only other recent "news" was a Breitbart.com story last week offering a different theory and claiming "FBI Solves Decades-Old Art Heist, Suspect Had Been Represented By John Kerry." According the story, a man named George Reissfelder committed the crime. Why can we dismiss that out of hand? First, Kurkjian actually considers the possibility in the book (well before the Internet post), and debunks it. The other reason? The Breitbart story was a transparent political hit job. Reissfelder was once represented by John Kerry, later U.S. Senator and now Secretary of State. Breitbart's antipathy towards Kerry is little secret, and the fact that Kerry's photograph, not Reissfelder's, leads the article speaks volumes about its motivation. The article quoted "sources" at the Boston FBI, but that's about all that is worth.
Based on all this, it is hard to see this week’s news as actually leading any closer to the paintings. This remains a great tragedy.