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Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Connecticut mobster and a $500 million Boston museum heist

Robert Gentile's connections with Robert Guarante, a bank robber seen above with a shirt over his head after an arrest in Natick, Mass., in 1968, intrigued federal authorities investigating the theft of half a billion dollars in art from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in March 1990.

It was a shore dinner in Maine a decade ago that transformed Robert Gentile, an aging, unremarkable wise guy from Hartford, into the best lead in years in one of the world's most baffling crime mysteries, the unsolved robbery of half a billion dollars in art from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Gentile disagrees with most of what the government says about him. But he does not dispute that he and his wife drove to Portland, Maine, from their home in Manchester. It was nothing then for the couple to jump into a car and cross New England for a meal. Gentile is said to be passionate about food. His nickname is "The Cook."

Neither is there disagreement that Gentile was meeting Robert Guarente and his wife. Guarente, a bank robber, moved from Boston to Maine in 2002, after his last prison sentence. He was living in the woods, two hours north of Portland. Guarente had been associated for years with three Boston criminals who the FBI believed were involved in or had information about the Gardner heist. One of the three was Guarente's nephew; another was Guarente's driver.

Gentile and Guarente had been friends and partners since the 1980s when they met at a used car auction. Federal prosecutors have said in court: They were inducted into the mafia together. They are believed to have "committed robberies and possibly other violent crimes together." And they roomed together for a while outside Boston while acting as "armed bodyguards" for the mafia capo who was their boss.

No one disputes that Gentile picked up the check in Portland. Or that he continues to complain that Guarente's wife, Elene, ordered an expensive lobster dinner.

What is disputed, hotly, is what happened outside in the parking lot. Elene Guarente has told the Gardner investigators that she believes her husband put one or more of the stolen paintings in their car before they left their home in the woods and that the art was handed off to Gentile in Portland.

Gentile claims that Elene Guarente's account, which she first gave investigators in 2009 or '10, is, as he once muttered in court, "lies, lies, all lies." Through his lawyers, he denies receiving a painting or paintings, denies having knowledge about the robbery and denies knowing what happened to the art afterward. Gentile said he met with Guarente in Portland because his friend, who died in January 2004, was sick, broke and in need of a loan.

Gentile's most emphatic denial may have come earlier this month when a federal judge sentenced him to 21/2 years in prison on what the government called unrelated drug and gun charges. At age 76, overweight, crippled by back injuries and suffering from a heart condition, Gentile pleaded guilty to the charges — knowing that doing so meant a certain prison sentence — in spite of an offer of leniency and a chance at the $5 million reward if he helped recover the art.

Gentile's lawyer, A. Ryan McGuigan, accused the FBI of concocting the drug case to pressure Gentile to cooperate in the Gardner investigation. The judge brushed aside the argument, concluding that Gentile did not need to be persuaded by an FBI informant to engage in the profitable sale of prescription painkillers. In any event, McGuigan said Gentile had nothing to trade the government for leniency or the reward, no matter how badly he wanted both.

As he settles into prison, Gentile could become another dead end in the succession of dead ends that have characterized the Gardner investigation. But the account of how he became, at least briefly, the best potential lead in the Gardner case offers a glimpse inside a sensational robbery from which the art world may never recover.

Gentile And The Gardner

The FBI will not discuss Gentile in the context of the Gardner robbery. But its interest has become apparent in other ways, including filings in court, a sensational press statement it issued in March, its pursuit of Gentile's Boston associates and a curious price list found in Gentile's home.

Buried among the guns and other odd items in Gentile's basement was a list of the stolen Gardner paintings and accompanying values. An infamous art thief from Massachusetts said recently that he wrote the list and that Gentile probably acquired it, in a transaction not directly related to the robbery that may have been nothing more than an attempted swindle.

There are signs, too, that government investigators are not persuaded by what one described as Gentile's consistent denials. A federal prosecutor said in court that an FBI polygraph examiner concluded there is a 99 percent probability that Gentile was not telling the truth last year when he denied knowing anything about the stolen art. Gentile's lawyer said the results are false because the test was improperly administered.

A year ago, dozens of FBI agents swarmed over Gentile's suburban yard. They found an empty hole someone had dug and apparently tried to conceal beneath a storage shed in his backyard.

Federal prosecutors said in court that Gentile was such a fixture in organized crime in Boston by the middle to late 1990s that he, with Guarente, was sworn in as a member of the Boston faction of a Mafia family that is active in Philadelphia. In a dramatic press statement in March 18, the FBI claimed the stolen paintings were moved to Connecticut, at least for a time, and to Pennsylvania. The bureau issued the statement on the 23rd anniversary of the robbery:

"The FBI believes with a high degree of confidence that in the years after the theft, the art was transported to Connecticut and the Philadelphia region, and some of the art was taken to Philadelphia, where it was offered for sale by those responsible for the theft. With that same confidence, we have identified the thieves, who are members of a criminal organization with a base in the mid-Atlantic states and New England."

Characteristically, the bureau will not elaborate.

Not only does Gentile deny being a member of the mafia, he denies knowingly associating with gangsters. If he is being truthful, people who know him say he is one of the world's most unlucky men because circumstance in which he has become entangled.

Some of the most important art ever created disappeared at about 1:30 a.m. on March 18, 1990, as St. Patrick's Day celebrations wound down across Boston. Two thieves dressed as police officers bluffed their way into the museum, a century-old, Italianate mansion full of uninsured art and protected by an outdated security system

They bound the museum security guards and battered 13 masterworks from the museum walls before driving away in a red car fewer than 90 minutes later.

Among the missing art: a Vermeer, a Manet and five drawings by Degas. Two of the paintings — "Storm on the Sea of Galilee," Rembrandt's only known seascape, and Vermeer's "The Concert" — could be worth substantially more than $100 million, if anyone could find away to unload some of the world's hottest art.

Cooking For The Boys

In Hartford, Gentile seemed to inhabit a different world. He is short and round, with a high forehead. His hair is white and he leans heavily on a cane when he walks. He has penetrating eyes and is a pleasant conversationalist when he chooses.

Over the last eight years, he could be found most days at Clean Country Cars, a garage and used car lot on Franklin Avenue in the Hartford's South End. He put a stove and a refrigerator in a service bay and, as he wrote in a court filing, "cooked lunch for the boys."

"I like to cook," Gentile once said. "Macaronis. Chicken."

The list of attendees at his luncheons in bay No. 1, according to someone familiar with the events, could read like a federal indictment. Among others: Hartford tough guy and mob soldier Anthony Volpe and John "Fast Jack" Farrell, the Patriarca family's card and dice man.

Gentile's arrest record begins during the Eisenhower administration, although most of his involvement with the police occurred in the 1960s. Convictions include aggravated assault, receipt of stolen goods, illegal gun possession, larceny and gambling. He beat a counterfeiting case.

During three searches of his suburban ranch in Manchester last year, FBI agents found explosives, a bullet-proof vest, Tasers, police scanners, a police scanner code book, blackjacks, switch-blade knives, two dozen blank social security cards, a South Carolina drivers license issued under the alias Robert Gino, five silencers, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, a California police badge, three sets of handcuffs with the serial numbers ground off, police hats and what a federal magistrate characterized as an "arsenal" of firearms.

There was a surveillance camera trained on the approach to his home. Hanging from a hook inside the front door was a loaded, 12-gauge Mossberg shotgun with a pistol grip, a federal prosecutor said.

Gentile has giving varying explanations for the presence in his home of the weaponry and related paraphernalia. He said some of it had been there so long he forgot about it. Other material probably was dropped off by a friend who is a "dump picker." Gentile's lawyer said he is a hoarder.

He is handicapped by back pain, probably the result, according to multiple sources, of a blow his father delivered with a metal bar when he was 12 years old. He left school two years later to work for his father's masonry business and became the youngest bricklayer and cement mason to join the International Union of Brick Layers and Allied Craft Workers.

He took a stab at the restaurant business in the 1970s, but closed his place, the Italian Villa in Meriden, after two years.

Gentile and his brothers had a reputation as top concrete finishers, according to friends. When union construction slowed in the 1970s, he went to work for a builder of swimming pools in greater Hartford.

Meeting Guarente

Gentile moved from swimming pools to used cars, according to friends and material filed in court. He met Guarente at one of the automobile auctions where dealers buy inventory, said associates of Gentile and a person familiar with the investigation.

A source who claims to have met repeatedly with Guarente beginning in the 1990s said that Guarente was a bank robber whose last arrest and conviction, in the 1990s, was for cocaine trafficking.

"Guarente was Gentile's connection with Boston," said the source. "Until then, Gentile was his own man. He did his own thing, his own way. Guarente was a stone cold criminal and robber. He told me he robbed 30 banks and, toward the end, he was selling huge amounts of drugs."

Said a law enforcement source: "Guarente was the hub of so many people. He is an interesting guy because he is not well known. But he knows everybody."

One of the places Guarente visited, according to a variety of sources, including an FBI report, was TRC Auto Electric, a repair business in Dorchester, Mass., a hangout of reputed Boston mob associate Carmello Merlino.

Gentile met Merlino at least once: He was with Guarente when he stopped by the garage to talk about having work done on his car, according to a source who knows all three men.

Merlino and his crew were on the FBI's list of Gardner suspects in the 1990s, according to filings in federal court. The legal filings and FBI reports show that, by 1997, the FBI had inserted two informants in Merlino's operation. Over the next year, the informants reported that Merlino treated Guarente like a partner. They also reported that Merlino talked as if he might have access to the stolen art.

In one of the FBI reports, an informant said it appeared to him that Merlino "was getting the authorization to do something with the stolen paintings." A lawyer with knowledge of a variety of Gardner cases said the informant reports, collectively, suggest Merlino was trying to take possession of the paintings.

Merlino also was meeting, according to FBI reports and other legal documents, with two younger men: robbery suspect David Turner, who was Guarente's driver; and, less frequently, with Stephen Rossetti, Guarente's nephew. When he was questioned by the FBI, Gentile was asked to identify Turner from photographs, said a source familiar with the investigation.

While looking for the stolen paintings, the FBI learned that Merlino and the two younger men were planning to rob an armored car depot. Agents intercepted and arrested the men on their way to the depot in early 1999. An FBI agent later testified in court that, immediately after the depot arrests, he tried to question the three about the Gardner heist. They refused to talk.

The three robbers argued unsuccessfully that the FBI, through its informants, created a conspiracy to rob the depot to leverage them to talk about the stolen art. Gentile's lawyer failed when making the same claim in court about his drug and gun indictments.

The Philadelphia Connection

Guarente also introduced Gentile to Robert Luisi, the Boston mobster who a federal prosecutor said sponsored Gentile and Guarente for membership in the Philadelphia mafia — a city where the FBI said some of the stolen Gardner art was taken.

Luisi had tried to join, but was not accepted by, the New England mafia, an associate said. Philadelphia agreed to accept him when he reached out through a man he met in prison. He agreed and, according to court filings, became the boss, or capo, of the Philadelphia mob's Boston crew.

Guarente became Luisi's second in command and Gentile became a soldier in his crew, according to a prosecution court filing.

As it turned out, Philadelphia's Boston crew collapsed within months of being created. Within a year, Luisi had been indicted in a cocaine conspiracy. Worse for Gentile, Luisi agreed to cooperate with the government.

Gentile's lawyer said in court that Luisi lied to curry favor with the FBI.

During his interviews with the FBI, Luisi said Gentile and Guarente committed robberies together. He said they lived with him for a while in Waltham, Mass., while acting as his armed bodyguards.

Luisi told the FBI that Gentile always armed himself, usually with a snub nose .38-caliber revolver and a .22-caliber derringer. He said Gentile gave him a silencer for his own handgun.

The FBI found a half dozen silencers in Gentile's cellar, as well as two snub nose, .38-caliber revolvers and a .22-caliber derringer, according to a government legal filing.

Luisi said that, in the late 1990s, Gentile was planning the robbery of an armored car carrying cash from a casino in Ledyard and that Luisi had introduced him to a crew of Charlestown robbers who could help, a federal prosecutor said in court.

It was Luisi who told the FBI that said Gentile's nickname was "The Cook."

Gentile acknowledges using the name "The Cook," according to a government court filing. But his lawyer said he denies almost everything else.

He acknowledges working for Luisi, but said he was paid what amounted to small change for cooking and running card games, his lawyer said. Another source who knew Luisi in the late 1990s said "Luisi had apartment where they hung out and Gentile would cook. Gentile was the cook and the bodyguard."

Within a year of Gentile's alleged induction in the mafia, his network in Boston was in disarray.

Guarente was indicted for selling cocaine on April 1998. He was released from prison in December 2000 and died in January 2004.

Merlino and his crew were charged in the Loomis Fargo robbery on February 1999. Merlino died in prison and the others have decades left to serve on their sentences.

Luisi was charged in a cocaine conspiracy on July 1999.

When Guarente's wife told investigators in 2009 or '10 about the meal in Portland, only Gentile was a alive and out of jail.

A Postscript

One of New England's most colorful thieves, Florian "Al" Monday, believes he knows the significance of the list of stolen Gardener paintings — and their black market values — that the FBI found in Gentile's cellar.

He said it is his.

Monday said, in a recent interview, that he has been engaged in the murky business of stolen art at least since 1972, when he and a small group he recruited stole Rembrandt's "St. Bartholomew" from the Worcester Art Museum. In the process, one of them shot and wounded a security guard. The painting was quickly recovered and the gang was arrested. Monday got nine to 20 years in prison.

Because the Gardner thieves carried weapons, Monday said he was an early suspect in the theft of those Gardner paintings.

"Of course, everyone thought that I had stolen them since I'm the guy that invented that methodology, of robbing museums with a gun," Monday said recently.

He got stung in 2002 when he and a partner, a Rhode Island swindler who put up $250,000, tried to buy an etching they had been persuaded was one of the Gardner's Rembrandt pieces. It was a forgery.

Monday said he believes his list of the stolen Gardner art fell into Gentile's hands under similar circumstances.

Monday said he drafted the list for a partner, who knew both Gentile and Guarente. The partner wanted to buy Gardner art because he had lined up a pair of prospective buyers. Gentile was the middleman through whom Guarente and Monday's partner communicated, according to Monday and another source.

Monday said he was putting up the money for the deal, but would not say where he got it. He said he did not know and never met either Gentile or Guarente.

"Guarente? I know nothing about him," Monday said. "I never negotiated any prices for him. I hadn't heard of Gentile until recently. The list ... was a list of the paintings and the prices that I was willing to pay for them. That's what those figures are. It is not their value. It is what I was willing to pay for them."

The deal fell apart, Monday said, when the partner suspected that he was being hustled, and that Guarente had no Gardner art to sell.

Monday said his partner paid Guarente $10,000 when Guarente said he needed the money to travel to Florida to obtain whatever art was involved. Monday said he suspects Guarente never went to Florida.

The partner was next told that he had to pay to see proof that Guarente actually had the Gardner art. The proof was to be a photograph, purportedly of the stolen art.

Guarente mailed the photograph to Gentile. The partner, who carried a jeweler's loupe, recognized it as a photograph of a page in an art book. He left with the money but forgot the list.



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