Do authorities have a lead on one of the biggest unsolved heists of all time?
Law enforcement officials today searched the Manchester, Connecticut home of Robert Gentile, a 75-year-old alleged mobster and a man they believe has information about the 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art theft, in which 13 masterpieces were stolen.
Gentile, a reputed associate of Boston capo Robert Luisi, was arrested in February for possession and sale of prescription painkillers. A subsequent search of his home by FBI agents turned up what a federal judge described as a “veritable arsenal” including pistols, a shotgun, silencers, ammunition, and brass knuckles, according to The Hartford Courant. Weapons charges were filed against Gentile last month.
In March, a federal prosecutor acknowledged the Isabella Stewart Gardner connection in court.
“The government has reason to believe that Mr. Gentile had some involvement with stolen property out of the District of Massachusetts,” Assistant U.S. Attorney John Durham said, according to the Courant.
Gentile’s attorney, A. Ryan McGuigan, said his client knew nothing about the artwork.
“What is happening, Your Honor, is that the government is asking you to set a punitive bond, to keep him uncomfortable, to torture him,” McGuigan said in court. “He unfortunately doesn’t have the information that the government is looking for. But the government believes he does.”
More than 20 law enforcement agents were back at Gentile’s house on Frances Drive today, and were seen processing evidence under a canopy set up on the front lawn, the Courant reports.
“They have brought with them a ground-penetrating radar device, as well as two beagles and a ferret, to look for what they say are weapons. But we all know what they are actually looking for — and they are looking for the paintings,” McGuigan told The Boston Globe.
Tom Carson, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Connecticut, could neither confirm nor deny to TPM that the search was related to the stolen artwork.
The heist took place on the night of March 18, 1990, when two thieves dressed as Boston police officers entered the museum, tricked and tied up two security guards, and then made off with thirteen works of art. Among the works were Vermeer’s The Concert, Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee, his only known seascape, and five drawings by the Impressionist artist Edgar Degas.
Reports peg the total value of the stolen work at around or over $500 million. According to the museum, which continues to offer a $5 million reward for information leading to the recovery of the works, the theft “remains the single largest property theft in recorded history.”
The Courant reports that during the 1990s, Gentile was associated with a Boston mob crew “that at least one FBI informant has linked to the Gardner heist.” People who know Gentile, meanwhile, told the paper that if Gentile did have knowledge about the artwork, he would have tried to trade it for the $5 million reward.
Gentile pleaded not guilty to the charges against him on April 23, and is being held without bail.
Eric Lach is a reporter for TPM. From 2010 to 2011, he was a news writer in charge of the website’s front page. He has previously written for The Daily, NewYorker.com, GlobalPost and other publications. He can be reached at ericl(at)talkingpointsmemo.com