The heist of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum lasted an astounding 81 minutes, as we explored in the first episode of Last Seen. It's said that the thieves acted like they had the run of the place, as if they knew no one would be coming, as if they had an inside man.
When something is stolen from a museum, the most likely culprit is an employee. According to data reviewed by the FBI, about 80 percent of museum robberies are inside jobs.
Case in point: the time the “Mona Lisa” was stolen from the Louvre in 1911.
In the second episode of Last Seen, we’re taking a closer look at the man who was keeping watch at the Gardner Museum that night, and opened the doors to the thieves.
Rick Abath was a 23-year-old Berklee dropout on the night of his $500 million mistake. He was playing in a jam band, working at the museum overnight to make a living. Then two thieves, dressed as policemen, showed up at the Gardner. They duct-taped him and tied him up in the basement as they ransacked the museum.
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He has never been arrested for anything related to the Gardner heist. But he’s also never escaped the suspicion of investigators who say that the men who robbed the museum had help from the inside.
There's a few things to consider:
- First, Abath could have simply said the wrong thing to the wrong person about the museum's loose security protocols. There were numerous instances when the night watchmen allowed others into the museum after hours. There was even one time about two and a half months before the heist when Abath moved a party — including the group of drunk and tripping partygoers — from his place in Allston-Brighton to inside the museum.
- Twenty minutes before Abath buzzed the thieves into the museum on the night of the heist, the alarm readout tells us that he opened and closed the outside door. Was he signaling the thieves? Or, as Rick says, was this a routine thing he did every night to make sure the door’s alarm was working?
- There are suspicions that Abath stole Manet's "Chez Tortoni" from the Blue Room on the first floor. Unlike in the two rooms that the other 12 artworks had been stolen from, there were no movements recorded by motion sensor detectors in the Blue Room other than Abath's movements during his rounds that night. Then, unlike any of the other frames, the frame of "Chez Tortoni" was left on the security director's chair. Abath had been known to complain about the museum's security shortcomings and had just given his two-week notice.
As for Abath, he has always maintained his innocence. He lives a modest existence and is somewhat unconcerned with solving the case."I seem to be the only one who’s not trying to figure it out. And that mainly comes down to: I’m glad to be alive."
This episode was adapted for the web by Amy Gorel.
KELLY HORAN: Imagine all the mistakes you’ve ever made. Now imagine that just one of them, one lapse in judgment in one millisecond in time, hung over you for all of your days to come. Imagine being known above all else for that one thing you did that you can never undo. And now imagine that the going estimate for the cost of your mistake is upwards of $500 million.
Rick Abath, who was manning the watch desk in the Gardner Museum at 1:24 in the morning on March 18, 1990, doesn’t have to imagine any of this. He’s lived it.
RICK ABATH: I haven’t hidden it from anybody close to me. I haven’t hidden it. No, I’ve told this story a billion times over the past 22 years. At the same time, I’m not just advertising it normally either. It’s not like when I go to get a job, I’m like, “Oh, hey, I opened the door on this job 22 years ago, and they got robbed like $500 million, so hire me!” You know what I mean.
HORAN: Abath has always maintained his innocence. And, he says, he’s always been forthcoming about his decision to open the door the night of the robbery. Even in his earliest exchanges with the first Boston FBI agent on the case.
ABATH: And I said, “What do you want to know? I will tell you anything.” And I immediately spilled my guts. I didn’t have anything to lose.
HORAN: Rick Abath has never been arrested for anything related to the Gardner heist. But he’s also never escaped the suspicion of investigators who say that the men who robbed the museum had help from the inside, that they knew their way around it and knew the police weren’t coming. Their implication is that Abath is the reason why.
JACK RODOLICO: Those investigators have never publicly named Abath as a suspect. They won’t even name him as one of the security guards on duty that night. But Rick Abath must be a suspect. Why else would he have to keep answering investigators' questions and testify before a grand jury?
HORAN: So in this episode we’re asking: What if Rick Abath didn’t just make a mistake when he let the thieves into the Gardner Museum? What if buzzing them in was all part of a larger plan to rob it? What if Rick Abath was the inside guy on the largest art heist in history?
RODOLICO: From WBUR Boston and The Boston Globe, this is Last Seen. I'm Jack Rodolico.
HORAN: I'm Kelly Horan. Episode 2: "Inside Job."
RODOLICO: Whenever something is stolen from a museum, the most likely culprit is an employee. According to data reviewed by the FBI, about 80 percent of museum robberies are inside jobs. So given that stat — and the fact that this security guard opened the door and let the thieves walk right into the Gardner — it makes sense that investigators would look hard at Rick Abath. Our colleague from The Boston Globe, Steve Kurkjian, has been looking hard at Abath, too. He’s been reporting on the heist for more than 20 years for The Globe, and he’s written a book about it, “Master Thieves.”
It took Steve a while to find Abath.
STEPHEN KURKJIAN: I spent a whole day up in Brattleboro, Vermont, trying to find Rick. I couldn't find him, couldn't find him. But I had been told he may be staying at a shack up in the hills. I went there. Around 9 o'clock at night, I find there is a tar paper shack, and there's a car in the driveway. So I walk up and knock on the door and someone answers, "Who is it?" And I say, "Steve Kurkjian from The Boston Globe, trying to reach Rick Abath to talk to him about the Gardner Museum." And phew, the door flies open and out comes Rick.
RODOLICO: In 2013, Steve and Rick Abath sat down in an Indian restaurant over chicken vindaloo and beer.
ABATH: For some reason, you know, I seem to be the only person involved in this thing who doesn’t give a f--- who did it.
ABATH: I seem to be the only one who’s not trying to figure it out. And that mainly comes down to: I’m glad to be alive.
KURKJIAN: Do you have a feeling of shame as to what happened to this, that you feel personally responsible for what happened here?
ABATH: No, I mean I feel bad about what happened, obviously, but no.
HORAN: So who was Rick Abath on March 18, 1990?
KURKJIAN: He had long, flowing, curly hair. Didn't dress when he came to the museum as a night watchman or a guard. I think the night of the theft he was wearing sort of tight red leotards and a cowboy hat.
HORAN: Abath’s getup the night of the robbery does bear mention — if only because Abath himself knew how un-security-guard-like he appeared to the cops, who were really robbers.
ABATH: Cause I knew how it looked. I mean, I’m long haired, big-ass Stetson hat. I had my Berklee College of Music tie-dye on. And I had my Gardner Museum security shirt over that. It was unbuttoned.
HORAN: From the crime scene photos of Abath when he was found in the basement shackled and duct-taped the morning of the heist, we see that he also wore white high tops, faded red corduroys — not, as Steve said, leotards — and a fanny pack. Not exactly a picture of authority. But, Steve says, Rick Abath was an original.
KURKJIAN: He was outgoing in a creative way. But this group, this place, this that they lived in in Allston-Brighton became a hub of both rock 'n' roll, too much beer and too much drugs. And they would hold rock 'n' roll sessions in the basement.
ABATH: So it was a frat house before we moved in. There was already a bar in the basement when we moved in. We built a stage on the other side of the basement, and we were ready to rock.
KURKJIAN: So you’d hold these, what? Hootenannies, down there?
ABATH: At least once a month: $5 a head, usually two or three kegs.
HORAN: Abath and his housemates played in the jam band Ukiah. Abath partied a lot. And one party in particular, one that he wrote about in a paper for a writing class 20 years after the robbery, really caught our attention. It was just two and half months before the Gardner heist.
KURKJIAN: And they had started their New Year's Eve celebration at the house, typically, with a lot of drugs, and they were doing mushrooms, and he describes the goo that was made up for him and his pals.
HORAN: About that goo. Abath and his pals boiled hallucinogenic mushrooms, reduced them to a blue goo, and drank it. Then, tripping, Abath moved the party from his basement to the Gardner Museum.
KURKJIAN: This is ridiculous. And now Rick is on the job here for at least a year. And that he would open up the doors of this museum for a psychedelic party for him and his random friends is incredible.
HORAN: So, tripping on mushroom goo, Rick Abath, security guard, shows up with a handful of hallucinating friends for his night protecting the museum.
KURKJIAN: Let me just read — and these are Rick's words — "My best friend Ed showed up just before dawn with someone we didn't know, a mousy kid who looked tweaked out on crystal meth.”
HORAN: Abath writes that he and his buddies spent most of the night in the courtyard. For many who love the Gardner Museum, that courtyard is a kind of sacred space, so even just the idea that this happened has an air of sacrilege to it.
There’s all the antiquities representing female power that Isabella Stewart Gardner herself chose — Artemis, the eternally virginal goddess of the hunt; the pleasure-seeking maenads; Medusa, keeping her deathly watch. And along an edge of the courtyard, a second century Greek marble throne that Gardner herself — and, it should be said, only Gardner — sat in. Until Rick Abath did that night. Here’s Steve again, reading from Abath’s description of the party.
KURKJIAN: "I picked up a cup of water from the guard desk. I was very thirsty. I went to chug it down and got a bitter, burning taste. Gin went all over the place as I coughed and spit. The place was a mess."
RODOLICO: So, isn’t it possible, drunk and stoned, that Abath said the wrong thing to the wrong person? Remember, the thieves seemed comfortable in corners of the museum the public did not access: the basement, the security office, a conservators’ lab hidden behind a secret door. They knew to move Abath away from the museum’s only panic button, and they knew where to find the security tape that recorded their entry into the museum. Steve asked Abath: Isn’t it possible that you accidentally gave someone — a stranger — inside knowledge of the security in the place.
ABATH: It’s possible. It seems like they had some kind of knowledge of what the security in the place was like, but I don’t know who they are, or how they gained that knowledge.
KURKJIAN: Yeah, yeah. $64 question.
ABATH: More than that. $5 million question.
HORAN: We’re not talking about a museum that was just named for Isabella Stewart Gardner. This was a palace that she built. Literally. From the ground up. All of it was borne of her vision, her collecting and her direction.
In 1936, Morris Carter, the man Gardner chose to become the first director of her museum during the last years of her life, reflected on it as her living monument.
CARTER: A visitor therefore has the feeling that he is making the acquaintance of an extraordinary personality. Inconspicuously carved in a relief, over the main entrance, appears Mrs. Gardner’s motto, "C’est mon plaisir." It is my pleasure.
HORAN: In her will, Isabella Stewart Gardner states that her collection and the museum that house it are "For the education and enjoyment of the public forever.” But for Gardner, the museum also served a private purpose: It was her bid for immortality. She lost her only child, a son, when he was just shy of 2 years old. A tiny child’s sarcophagus in the courtyard offers a poignant reminder. And Gardner lost her husband not long before the pair planned to purchase the land on which the museum would be built. Death took her most beloved, but it would not touch her stone and stucco monument.
RODOLICO: But thieves just might — and Gardner knew it. In 1911 the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in Paris. Gardner was alarmed. A headline in the New York Times not long after that heist reads: “Mrs. Gardner’s Art Museum Under Guard.”
NEWS CLIP: Mrs. John T. Gardner is taking no chances. She does not intend to have any member of the so-called international gang of high art thieves despoil the Fenway museum of any of its priceless pictures.
RODOLICO: The article reports that Rembrandt’s “Storm On The Sea” and Vermeer’s “The Concert” were under special guard. Gardner knew those two pictures required extra protection, so she hand-picked her guards and gave them an order: Shoot to kill.
HORAN: So, nearly a century before the greatest art heist in history, Isabella Stewart Gardner herself foresaw the importance of dedicated security, which leads us to wonder: What happened over the course of the 79 intervening years so that, come March 18, 1990, a 23-year-old music school dropout named Rick Abath was the Gardner Museum’s best line of defense?
HORAN: It’s entirely possible that Rick Abath is guilty only of being a really lousy security guard. But there’s more you need to know. Twenty minutes before Abath buzzed the thieves into the museum, the alarms readout tells us, he opened and closed the same door. Why would he have done that? Was he signaling the bad guys, investigators have wondered. Was he saying, "Hey, the coast is clear." Or was it, as Rick Abath has always said it was, just something he did every night to make sure the door’s alarm was working?
ABATH: I don’t recall when I did it but it was something I did regular. To test the alarm. We’d pop the door open, you know, and let it close.
JON-PAUL KROGER: I don't care what he says — there's no way.
HORAN: Jon-Paul Kroger trained the guards — including Rick Abath — for the overnight shift at the Gardner Museum.
KROGER: That right there is a huge risk. It makes no sense that you would allow yourself to — why in the world would you open that up? There's a camera outside that shows Palace Road. There's no reason in the world why you would ever open that door. Any door!
HORAN: So if it could somehow be proved that Abath opened and closed the outside door every time he worked the overnight, then his opening it the night of the heist looks a lot less suspicious. But how to prove it?
Can we talk about Rick Abath?
ROB FISHER: We can.
HORAN: In 2010, Rob Fisher, the assistant U.S. attorney in charge of the Gardner investigation, had an idea. Show me the security tape from the night before the robbery, when Rick Abath was also on duty. Show me that Abath opened and closed the door that night, and I’ll believe that he did it as a matter of course.
And what did you see when you watched the video from the night before?
FISHER: It was not a guard checking to make sure the doors were secured and locked. It was somebody being let in after hours and being let in, you know, where the robbers went almost exactly 24 hours later.
HORAN: So, the surveillance footage from the night before the Gardner heist does show Rick Abath opening the door. But he’s opening it to let someone in.
When the U.S. Attorney’s office released the surveillance video 25 years after the heist, they did so with a public appeal: Who is this man? It was the closest thing to a bombshell that we’ve had in the Gardner mystery. Was it a bad guy? Was it a dry run for the robbery? Are we finally going to solve this thing?
Well, no. And no. And no.
Do we know who came in the night before?
HORAN: Who is it?
AMORE: It's a person we've identified and we are absolutely certain that his entry was not connected to the heist in any way, shape or form.
HORAN: Anthony Amore won’t ID the night-before visitor. But three former security guards we interviewed confirmed his identity, as well as a source close to the investigation. The man in question was the Gardner Museum’s deputy director of security. So, it turns out Rick Abath was just letting in his boss. But Jon-Paul Kroger, who trained the guards for their third-shift duties, says no one was to be let into the museum after hours. Ever. Not your boss. Not even cops.
KROGER: The protocol was very straightforward: name and badge number, call and verify their identity, and then if there's a legitimate reason for them to be there then only you let them in. Rick has made some statements that they were never trained on that, that's completely false.
HORAN: Did anybody ever say, "Even if the Boston Police come to the door in the middle of the night, don’t let them in, get their badge number, call the local precinct?"
RANDY: No, no one ever said things like that to me.
HORAN: The other guard on duty the night of the heist, the one we’re only calling by his first name, Randy, says security at the Gardner Museum was lax.
RANDY: I do remember somebody ordered a pizza or some kind of food delivery and they just buzzed them right in when they came to the side door. It looked like that kind of thing was done there all the time by night guards.
RODOLICO: If Randy, as he says he did, witnessed a pizza delivery guy being buzzed into the museum in the middle of the night, how tight could that security protocol have been?
CYNTHIA DIEGES: Certain people really did take their jobs seriously and then others really did not.
RODOLICO: Cynthia Dieges worked at the Gardner Museum as a security guard at the time of the heist. To hear her tell it, if there was a rule against late night visitors, it wasn’t followed — not even by the Gardner’s then-director Anne Hawley.
DIEGES: She had dinner with people and brought them in after dinner, like at 10 o'clock at night or later. She would bring people into the museum and go into the galleries.
RODOLICO: Does that set a certain mindset for the guards who are guarding the doors?
DIEGES: I mean, I would say so, yes sir. I would say that that breaks that mindset, that breaks that chain of command. "Do not let anyone in after 5." Well, what is a guard, an underling, supposed to then do?
RODOLICO: So why is this a big deal? Why can’t the museum director come in at night to walk through the galleries with a trusted friend? Why can’t the deputy security director come in and chat with a guard? Well, it’s a very big deal, according to security experts. What if the director at the door is under duress, with a gun to her head? What if there’s a bad guy just beyond view of the security camera, waiting for his chance to slip into the museum? That’s why you never let anyone in after hours. The simpler the rule, the easier it is to follow. No one means no one.
So, if Abath’s own bosses broke the rule, is it fair to blame him for breaking it too? And does all this door opening business say more about the state of security at the Gardner Museum than it does about Rick Abath?
HORAN: What was the security situation at the Gardner Museum in 1990? Lyle Grindle was director of security at the Gardner from 1981 until his retirement in 2004. And five years ago, Grindle told Steve Kurkjian that conditions at the museum during those early years were "prehistoric."
GRINDLE: I didn’t have an office. I didn’t have a phone. I had an IBM typewriter and my desk was a table outside the men’s room in the basement, outside the guard’s room. It was very, very difficult to get a new mentality started.
HORAN: In the 1980s, the Gardner Museum was cash-strapped and sleepy, with a board that so literally interpreted Isabella Stewart Gardner’s will that it wasn’t fundraising. They couldn’t alter the collection in any way, after all, so they didn’t need money for new acquisitions. But they did need money — for lots of things.
GRINDLE: I had to start someplace. And I started fire protection. Six battery-operated smoke detectors in the entire complex.
HORAN: There were many priorities competing for limited funds. Rembrandt portraits had been stolen from the Worcester Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in the 1970s. Anne Hawley had those thefts in mind when she asked the board to look into the cost of insuring the Gardner’s collection. But a more urgent need at the time appeared to be climate control in a museum that was at the mercy of Boston’s weather.
HAWLEY: When I first got there that summer there was a cloud in the courtyard because there was so much humidity, and so much condensation. And you could walk into the — not the courtyard — to the Spanish Cloister, and it would get to be 100 degrees on the third floor. People would faint; really elderly people would faint. It was really bad.
HORAN: So, the museum installed an HVAC system and fire protection. They didn’t get around to insuring the collection.
STEVE KELLER: Things there were not too different than they were in many museums at the time. It takes a Gardner-sized theft to scare the devil out of the museums.
HORAN: Steve Keller is a museum security expert. In the late 1980s, prompted in part by an FBI warning in 1981 that a pair of well-known thieves had been casing the Gardner, the museum hired Keller to size up its security apparatus. Keller had one main recommendation: layers. Build more layers between would-be bad guys and your collection.
KELLER: In theory, the way it works pretty much everywhere today because we've written new standards based upon the Gardner theft, if I were to make a move towards you I would be behind a bullet-resistant wall and a bulletproof glass.
HORAN: They have it now, but the Gardner didn’t have any of that back then. They had the watch desk and a single panic button for the entire museum.
KELLER: The person who you let in through that door ultimately was just across a counter from you.
HORAN: In other words, once the thieves walked in the door the night of the robbery, the museum was essentially theirs for the taking.
The thieves who robbed the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum tripped the motion detector alarms hundreds of times over the course of the 81 minutes they were in the museum. Every time they did so, a computer at the watch desk announced the intrusion, via dot matrix printer. “Someone is in the Dutch Room. Investigate immediately.”
Those alarm readouts tell us that the thieves were very busy on the museum’s second floor. In fact, the readouts tell us that the thieves were exclusively busy on that floor, stealing 12 pieces from two galleries — five Dutch paintings and a Chinese gu from the Dutch Room, and five Degas sketches and a bronze eagle finial from the Short Gallery.
But a 13th piece was stolen that night. Édouard Manet’s top-hatted cafe-goer with the beguiling brown-eyed gaze, the painting "Chez Tortoni." That painting hung in the Blue Room, on the museum’s first floor. But there weren’t any alarms set off on the first floor. Security expert Steve Keller says that would have been just about impossible.
KELLER: You would have to have gotten past a motion detector twice. The odds of getting past those motion detectors are in the millions to one.
HORAN: Keller went to the museum shortly after the robbery to look into this for himself. First, he checked to see if the motion detectors in the Blue Room were broken. They weren’t. Then he tried to trick them.
KELLER: You know the rescue blankets, the aluminum, shiny, rescue blankets. They protect your infrared heat from being sent out into the room. So I put a rescue blanket over me and tried to go past it and then was not able to. I put a regular blanket down so I wouldn't damage a table, and I crawled under the table, across the braces on the table. And I couldn't defeat them. So neither could they.
HORAN: So how did that Manet get out of the gallery if no alarms were tripped?
KELLER: It just baffles me how that got out of there. That painting was removed from that room earlier than when the burglary occurred.
HORAN: This is potentially damning. Because the only footsteps recorded in the Blue Room the night of the robbery belonged to Rick Abath. We know this, because on his rounds that night, he swiped the magnetic strip to verify that he checked that room.
RODOLICO: Are you 100 percent convinced that painting was stolen by a guard.
KELLER: No I’m not 100 percent. I’m just saying it’s a theory. I don’t know who else would have taken it.
HORAN: Were there two heists at the Gardner Museum that night? Whereas the thieves who pillaged the second floor galleries left behind smashed glass and damaged frames, whoever stole "Chez Tortoni" removed it — frame and all — from the Blue Room. And then that thief did something surprising, and investigators think, telling: He removed "Chez Tortoni" from its frame and placed the empty frame on the security director’s chair.
Steve Kurkjian addressed how bad this all looks for Rick Abath at that Indian restaurant back in 2013.
KURKJIAN: So you you go to the Blue — you do your regular tour through the Blue Room and that’s the last footstep, they say, is seen in the Blue Room.
ABATH: Exactly. Yeah. They wanted to know how it would possible for the thieves to get that painting out of that room. And I said I didn’t know. And so they put forth the theory that, well, I perhaps took the Manet on my round and stashed it somewhere.
KURKJIAN: And you told them what?
ABATH: That I absolutely did not.
KURKJIAN: But you have to acknowledge the suspiciousness.
ABATH: Oh, yeah! I totally get it.
RODOLICO: Quick recap: Rick Abath opened and closed the door to Palace Road 20 minutes before the thieves got there. He let them in. He stepped away from the panic button. His footsteps alone were recorded in the Blue Room. "Chez Tortoni’s" frame was left on the security director’s chair. And Abath had given his two-week notice right before the heist.
HORAN: So why, in 28-and-a-half years, have investigators been unable to charge him with anything? Maybe it’s because even if Rick Abath could not have done things more suspiciously if he’d tried, suspicious behavior doesn’t mean complicity. This guy who has lived what appears to be a modest existence — maybe he really did just make a mistake when he was 23.
RODOLICO: The FBI still doesn’t publicly connect Rick Abath to the Manet stolen from the Blue Room. They still don’t publicly connect him to anything. Is Rick Abath a suspect in the greatest art heist in history? If he isn’t, and if he’s been living under a cloud of speculation all these years, shouldn’t the FBI just say so?
HORAN: And if he is a suspect, our question is: Is that because the Boston FBI believes he's guilty, or because they don’t have a better idea? We wanted to put this question directly to the Boston FBI, but they declined to speak with us.
RODOLICO: Next time, we venture four miles from the Gardner Museum — and a world away — to a grimy little autobody shop that one investigator likened to a Grand Central station for criminals. Did some of them rob the Gardner Museum?
Last Seen is a production from WBUR and The Boston Globe. Digital content was produced in partnership with The ARTery, WBUR's arts and culture team. Read more on the Gardner heist from The ARTery.