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Episode 4: 'Two Bad Men'40:36
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George Reissfelder and David Turner were both pulled into the gravitational orbit of crime boss Carmello Merlino at TRC Auto Electric in Dorchester in the late '80s. (Courtesy Boston Globe)MoreCloseclosemore
George Reissfelder and David Turner were both pulled into the gravitational orbit of crime boss Carmello Merlino at TRC Auto Electric in Dorchester in the late '80s. (Courtesy Boston Globe)

After more than 28 years, authorities have yet to make an arrest, or recover any of the artwork stolen, in the Gardner Museum heist.

Crime boss Carmello Merlino, who we met in the last episode, was hardly the last best suspect to come out of a crew of criminals based in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood. Two of his closest associates have long been on the radar of those looking into the heist.

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In this episode, we take a closer look at David Turner and George Reissfelder — two criminals with very different backgrounds who found themselves pulled into the gravitational orbit of Merlino in the late 1980s.

David Turner had been a standout athlete in high school, described as charismatic and loyal by friends. George Reissfelder, on the other hand, left prison in 1982 after serving 16 years for a murder he didn’t commit. After being released on the wrongful conviction, he had few options.

Their paths converged in the late '80s at TRC Auto Electric in Merlino's cocaine business. Law enforcement was watching it closely, and would take it down in 1991. In the meantime, convicted criminal Robert Beauchamp had some advice for his former boyfriend, George Reissfelder. He was worried that the TRC gang was getting sloppy.

He told Reissfelder and Turner that they should steal a piece of art as a sort of crime insurance. That way when they got in too deep with their cocaine business, they'd have something to turn into authorities to make a deal.

So the question is, whether they went through with that idea — and now share the distinction of taking part in the greatest art heist in history.

Subscribe to our newsletter for the latest updates, join our Facebook group to discuss the investigation and if you have a tip, theory or thought, we want to hear it.

This episode was adapted for the web by Amy Gorel.


Transcript:

KELLY HORAN: This is the story of two men. One of them was born lucky. The other wasn’t. One of them had options and from them, chose a life of crime. The other had none, and defaulted to one. And when these two men met, the lucky one was young and handsome and had also, it is alleged, gotten away with murder. The other one was middle aged and beaten down and had done hard time for a murder he didn’t commit.

This is the story of David Turner and George Reissfelder, two men who prove that the criminal life is an equalizing one that erases distinctions like where you came from and where you could have gone.

This is David Turner, on a lousy phone line from prison, after his luck had run out.

DAVID TURNER: Um, you know, actually I had nothing to do with the robbery. It was 17 years ago. I was 23 years old. It's just rumor and conjecture, you know. How do you defend yourself against that?

HORAN: And this is George Reissfelder, remembering his worst hard time.

GEORGE REISSFELDER: One night I woke up about 12, 1 o’clock in the morning, sweating, shaking. I stood up at the cell door, looked out at the cell block — it was quiet. That’s when it really dawned on me. I said to myself, "This is real, and I just might be spending the rest of my life in here."

JACK RODOLICO: David Turner and George Reissfelder found themselves pulled into the gravitational orbit of crime boss Carmello Merlino at TRC Auto Electric at the same time — the late 1980s.

That’s the auto body shop about four miles from the Gardner Museum that doubled as an underworld nerve center. Drug deals, illegal weapons, armored car heists, murder.

Last time, we told you about the FBI sting in 1999 that brought Merlino and that criminal enterprise down.

But we didn’t tell you everything.

RODOLICO: From WBUR Boston and The Boston Globe, this is Last Seen. I’m Jack Rodolico.

HORAN: And I’m Kelly Horan. This is Episode 4: "Two Bad Men."

And here’s someone who spent years trying to follow the trail of both of them.

BOSER: My name is Ulrich Boser, and I'm the author of "The Gardner Heist." My book argued that David Turner and George Reissfelder were the individuals who robbed the museum.

HORAN: Boser, who is a senior fellow at a Washington, D.C., think tank now, remains passionate about the Gardner mystery.

BOSER: At the heart of this case is a question mark: We don't know where the paintings are. And it's remarkable. These are five hundred million dollars’ worth of art that's stolen. Let's just be clear, right. You could trade the paintings to, you know basically make a Hollywood film, right? And have money left over to buy, like, a seven-bedroom house. It is-- it is crazy how valuable they are. You know, if you just look at the Vermeer per inch what you could buy with it.

HORAN: And running through this story, Boser says, is a tale of two cities. The tension between those who possess the Old Masters, and those who would risk everything to steal them.

BOSER: The Gardner is the perfect vehicle to tell the story of Boston. It in my mind represents so much of the city's respect for art and culture, its value of learning, and these sort of really richer ideas. And then also represents this other side of the city that is rough, and dirty, and criminal, and we have this tension that rests at the center of it all.

HORAN: And someone who moved between those worlds and settled in the latter is David Turner. He turned down our request for an interview, but Ulrich Boser spoke with him in 2007. Not in person — Turner was on a phone line from prison. That’s because Turner was one of the men, alongside Carmello Merlino, arrested in that early morning Loomis-Fargo vault sting on TRC Auto Electric.

Remember the two suspects who fled TRC and crashed their car after FBI agents pursued them? David Turner was in the passenger seat.

BOSER: I do believe that David Turner is going to go down in history alongside the Boston Strangler, alongside Whitey Bulger, as one of the most notorious criminals to come out of Boston.

HORAN: Turner told Boser that, once the FBI had him in custody, there was just one thing the agents wanted to know. Boser typed notes as he listened to Turner on speaker phone.

TURNER: You know, they wanted to know about the Gardner Museum. What he always said was, you know, "Give us the paintings and you can go home," you know. They told me they had information from several sources that I was an actual participant in the robbery.

HORAN: David Turner told Boser that the FBI said, essentially, 'we know you did it.'

RODOLICO: So, who is David Turner? And why were the Boston FBI agents who arrested him so convinced that he knew something about the Gardner heist, they offered him a get out of jail free card to talk?

MICHAEL BLANDING: Well, let me take you back to the beginning.

RODOLICO: This is investigative reporter Michael Blanding.

BLANDING: When I was a staff writer at Boston Magazine, I received a letter from a prisoner. This one in particular really caught my attention because it mentioned the Gardner Museum robbery. And so right away I was intrigued by it and wrote right back to the person who wrote me the letter, which was a fellow by the name of David Turner.

RODOLICO: That first letter started a correspondence between Blanding and Turner that lasted for several years. Some of Turner’s letters, Blanding says, offered tantalizing hints about the Gardner heist and other unsolved crimes.

BLANDING: I can show you one of these letters that I found where he says, "I'm happy to share this information about the Gardner Museum, as well as these other crimes that, that I have knowledge of." And he never said that he actually participated in any of the crimes, but he certainly made it seem like he had some ability to talk about them.

RODOLICO: In a letter dated Oct. 26, 2003, Turner proposes that Blanding write a book about his life. In a neat schoolboy’s script, Turner writes: “I would briefly go into my childhood and the events that I believe contributed in my going down the wrong path, namely the death of my father.” He continues, “I think a book of this type would appeal to a wide audience. ... The target would be the true crime, artsy type.”

“Let me know what you think. I hope to hear from you soon. Best regards.”

BLANDING: He was always just a consummate gentleman in all of his correspondence with me. I sort of grew to believe that there was always some sort of angle that he was working.

HORAN: David Turner’s high school career had been dotted with superlatives. At school in a suburb of Boston, Turner had been a standout three-season athlete. His peers had voted him “most unique” and had given him the nickname “Crackerjack.” He had a broad, round face with wide, high cheekbones, a mop of light brown hair, and a grin that conveyed confidence — and mischief.

BLANDING: You know, I talked to several of his childhood friends who said he was just, you know, really intelligent, and charismatic, and loyal. He would always be there for you. And, you know, just painted this picture of this, you know, real all-American kid, you know, somebody who was like really going places.

HORAN: Just not places like TRC Auto Electric.

Because one of his accomplices from TRC had brought along a hand grenade for the Loomis-Fargo vault heist, David Turner had also received a long sentence.

TURNER: Thirty-eight-and-a-half years. No one would be happy about it, but you woulda thought, you know, once they had arrested us and, you know, the paintings didn't show up, you know, they would have gotten reasonable with us. But, you know, it's business as usual for the Boston office of the FBI.

HORAN: By “business as usual,” Turner meant that he believed he’d been set up for one crime — the planned Loomis-Fargo robbery — because the FBI needed leverage in order to question him in another one: the Gardner case.

Turner alleged entrapment by the FBI and twice appealed his conviction — and lost.

RODOLICO: But the reason the Boston FBI was so interested in David Turner in the first place is because of other crimes he is alleged to have gotten away with. Crimes with dates that bookend the Gardner heist and with M.O.s that resemble it.

Robert Sikellis is the former assistant attorney general for Massachusetts who spent years in the 1990s trying to put David Turner behind bars for those crimes.

SIKELLIS: The feeling was to, you know, to really take a run at David Turner. The feeling was that he was a very dangerous individual.

RODOLICO: Sikellis’s break came in 1992, when a longtime friend and sometime accomplice of David Turner’s was swept up in the drug-trafficking sting on TRC Auto Electric. His name was Charlie Pappas.

Charlie Pappas was a second-generation coke dealer for Carmello Merlino. When he was hauled in on drug-dealing charges, Pappas’s best option to avoid prison time was to flip on Turner. The two young men had been inseparable for years. Their criminal pastimes overlapped, too.

BLANDING: Eventually, and I should say allegedly, David was involved with a number of more serious crimes. There was a murder of a gay social worker who gave Turner and Pappas a ride home from Provincetown, and he turned up dead that night. They were never able to pin Turner to the crime, however. There was a robbery of the Bull & Finch pub, the Cheers — you know, the pub that serves as the model for Cheers. And someone lifted $50,000 from, uh, the Bull & Finch, and David was thought to be involved with that. And then there was a home invasion robbery that happened in 1990 where allegedly Turner and Pappas came and invaded the home of this couple, and made off with $130,000 in cash and jewelry.

HORAN: David Turner’s rap sheet is both long and incomplete. Missing among its 29 charges is that social worker’s beating death in 1985 — the summer after Turner graduated from high school.

Robert Sikellis says Turner was one of the coldest criminals he’d ever met.

SIKELLIS: In my opinion, it was just ice cold. I mean, it was--, it was--, it was chilling to be in the same room at times. And that's from very seasoned State Police investigators, as well. He was a cool customer, as they say. I mean, he showed no emotion whatsoever. Very stoic, very focused, very sure of himself. And seemed wholly uninterested and unconcerned with what was going on around him — although he was not-- not-- not a dumb person, that's for sure.

HORAN: Sikellis’s first run at David Turner in the so-called Cheers robbery ended in an acquittal. Sikellis next prepared to prosecute Turner for a 1990 home invasion. Charlie Pappas agreed to testify that he had been the getaway driver for Turner and his accomplice in that robbery.

Then, just days before the trial was set to start in late 1995:

SIKELLIS: Charlie Pappas was shot and killed on Thanksgiving eve. I still remember that very, very vividly. I got a call from a State Police lieutenant, and we all rushed to the scene. He'd been shot, if I remember, twice in the mouth, if memory serves. We were never able to prosecute anyone for that. We have-- we had very clear suspicions as to who that was, given he was a cooperating witness, but unfortunately we never had enough evidence to prosecute.

HORAN: Charlie Pappas had been shot twice in the mouth.

SIKELLIS: It was explained to me as a young prosecutor at the time by some very, very seasoned State Police agent that's the telltale sign of, "Don't be a rat. Don't talk. Don't cooperate."

HORAN: Robert Sikellis says he believes that David Turner was behind the killing.

SIKELLIS: He was our prime suspect.

HORAN: As ever, suspicion clung to David Turner, but charges didn’t. A prosecutor dubbed him “the Teflon gangster of the South Shore.”

RODOLICO: So, four years before the Boston FBI sting on TRC Auto Electric that would finally put David Turner in prison, Robert Sikellis, who had tried and failed twice to do so, had an epiphany about Turner’s alleged robberies: They looked an awful lot like the Gardner heist, but on a much smaller scale.

 

Sikellis realized that the entire time he’d been working with Charlie Pappas to nail Turner for those robberies, he could have been asking him if Turner had also been one of the men who robbed the Gardner.

SIKELLIS: And unfortunately, by the time we sensed any connection to the Gardner Museum, Pappas was dead.

RODOLICO: Two thieves relying on an inside guy, wearing disguises, using handcuffs in the middle of the night at the end of a holiday weekend. In details of David Turner’s alleged robberies, it was hard to miss the hallmarks of the Gardner heist.

This is when David Turner, a free man, if not an innocent one, landed squarely on the radar of investigators for the Gardner robbery, too.

TURNER: I've seen memos that they sent directly to, uh, the director of the FBI saying that they believe I was a participant. They, they, uh, sent my prints to Washington, trying to match up with prints at the Gardner. Came back negative.

HORAN: Ulrich Boser says that while David Turner had to deny involvement in the Gardner heist, he seemed unable to keep from insinuating that he knew something about it.

BOSER: The most curious thing that happened with me and David was that he-- he wrote me this letter where he included this poem and essentially said, you know, he did not commit the Gardner theft, but he did want to be on the cover of my book.

And in my mind, you know, it was-- it was a form of bragging, right? He tried to insert himself into this case. And if he did commit the robbery, and we don't know that for sure, right? He's in a tough position, right? He doesn't have access to the paintings or he'd be out of prison.

HORAN: Now, David Turner has always said he’d never cooperate with authorities investigating the Gardner heist. But what if he could lead them to the stolen Gardner art? Would they let him go? What if he couldn’t give them the paintings, but could give them something useful? That’s what Boston Globe reporter Shelley Murphy wondered in 2016, when she made a sharp discovery.

SHELLEY MURPHY: I was hearing some things about whether or not he might cooperate. And I looked at the Bureau of Prisons' website, which shows a release date. And when I looked at it, I knew. I said that wasn't the release date that was there before. And I noticed that the release date had changed. So that's how I saw it, that I knew that he initially was supposed to get out on one date. And suddenly, they just took off a bunch of years.

HORAN: David Turner’s 38-and-a-half-year prison sentence was suddenly seven years shorter. Why? Why would a judge shave that time off the sentence of a man suspected in an at least one unsolved murder? Our colleague Steve Kurkjian thinks he knows.

STEPHEN KURKJIAN: Seven years reduction off a criminal sentence? There’s only one reason for it, according to the Bureau of Prisons: because he cooperated. What was he cooperating on? The Gardner Museum. What did he give? That’s the ultimate question.

HORAN: Shelley Murphy, who wrote a Globe piece about this with Steve, says this makes sense.

MURPHY: I mean, I think our story certainly suggested it was a possibility, because there’s no public explanation as to why it was reduced. And in those cases it generally means cooperation. If it was because of some new federal sentencing guideline, you know, decision it would be detailed in the record. And it's not.

HORAN: Was David Turner in on the robbery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum?

MURPHY: The FBI has said they believe the two thieves that actually went in are dead. So, that tells you they don't believe David Turner went inside. So, everything that we've seen about David Turner, he's usually the guy inside, like strong arming, like he's very aggressive. And so, what role would he have played? You know somewhere on the outside, standing guard? Why wouldn't he be inside? And you know, it's frustrating. All these theories are frustrating. For everything that points toward these particular suspects there's something that points away.

HORAN: Something like the presumably straightforward question of where David Turner was the night of the Gardner heist. There are clues that seem to let him off the hook. And there are others that don’t. Steve Kurkjian explains.

KURKJIAN: I went looking for documents. I found receipts. Credit card receipts. They showed David Turner was in Florida on March 15, three days before the robbery. Where was he? He was buying spy equipment from a Miami shop called the Spy Shops of Miami.

HORAN: And after that? There are no credit card receipts for the day of the heist, March 18. But, Steve says, there is one for two days after — March 20.

KURKJIAN: It showed he was turning in a vehicle, a rental car, at the Fort Lauderdale airport, and using his credit card to pay for that vehicle. But on that receipt is another driver’s license number.

HORAN: So someone returned a car that had been rented in David Turner’s name. It’s just not clear, based on that different driver’s license number on the receipt, that it was actually David Turner. Steve doesn’t know for sure, but he knows what it looks like.

KURKJIAN: This was a ploy by him in order to later tell the investigators, “Oh, I was in Florida at the time.”

HORAN: It’s-- he created an alibi.

KURKJIAN: He created an alibi.

HORAN: And while he was in Florida, three days before the heist, Turner spent six-hundred-and-forty-five dollars and one cent in a spy supply store. We don’t know what he bought there, but we can guess.

KURKJIAN: Well, the Spy Store had all sorts of James Bond-type equipment. They had listening devices that could pick up two-way radios. They had all sorts of  -- at the day — non-digital devices, electronic devices, that could look over the fence.

HORAN: The type of equipment that could help a guy waiting outside of a museum while it’s being robbed.

KURKJIAN: Exactly.

RODOLICO: When we come back — the other guy.

ROBERT BEAUCHAMP: OK, I'm Robert Beauchamp. I'm a prisoner at MCI Norfolk.

RODOLICO: In 1973, Robert Beauchamp was sentenced to life in prison for murder. The man who would become his cellmate, George Reissfelder, had been in since 1967, serving a life sentence for a murder he said he did not commit.

Our colleague from the Boston Globe, Steve Kurkjian, joined us for an interview with Beauchamp in prison.

KURKJIAN: What was your commonality? What did you see in him?

BEAUCHAMP: It was a homosexual relationship.

KURKJIAN: Yup.

RODOLICO: Could you just describe him physically? What did he look like back then and, you know, what drew you to him? What attracted you to him?

BEAUCHAMP: Well, he was halfway decent-looking. He had a-- he was very well built. He worked out all the time. He had kind of a Beatle haircut — very straight hair. And about 5'10", maybe 170, -75 pounds.

RODOLICO: Robert Beauchamp and George Reissfelder were lovers. And in 1974, the pair escaped from prison. Reissfelder was caught after three years and sent back to Massachusetts. Beauchamp remained on the lam for a decade before being caught.

It had not been a placid romance.

BEAUCHAMP: Yeah, a couple of times we had Mexican standoffs, and the only reason that he backed down was both times I had a .357 and he only had a small .22 or .25 automatic. As I had said to him at the time, "Worst you're gonna do is wound me. This hits you anywhere, you're dead." So, he backed off.

RODOLICO: In 1980, assistant district attorneys Roanne Sragow and John Kerry — yes, that John Kerry — took on Reissfelder’s claims of innocence. The pair unearthed evidence that had been suppressed at trial. They also learned that, just a year into Reissfelder’s sentence, the real killer had made a deathbed confession exonerating him. No one had let Reissfelder know.

Sragow, who is now a judge in Massachusetts, and Kerry, the former U. S. Secretary of State and presidential candidate, won Reissfelder’s release in August of 1982.

HORAN: Reissfelder had not only lost 16 years of his life in prison. His first wife left him. His kids were taken away. His mother died. And when he got out, he was denied compensation for his wrongful conviction.

Anthony Amore says Reissfelder had few prospects.

AMORE: He spent a long time — 16 years — in the country's toughest prison for something he hadn't done. Who was he going to be friends with when he got out of jail? You know, it wasn't, "Oh, George is out. And John Kerry and Roanne Sragow are going to, you know, be his best friends forever now." That's not how it works. You know, you gravitate to the people that you know.

RODOLICO: The people he knew were from prison. People like Carmello Merlino.

HORAN: Robert Beauchamp says that when Reissfelder was released in 1982, Merlino was waiting for him with a job at TRC Auto Electric.

BEAUCHAMP: And they started a major cocaine operation for years.

HORAN: Someone else was waiting for George Reissfelder when he got out, too.

JANICE SANTOS: OK. So my name is Janice Santos. Well, I was married at one time to George Reissfelder. And George Reissfelder is, I guess, a prime suspect in the robbery, the theft.

HORAN: I guess I wonder-- Did you guys fall in love when, when he was in prison?

SANTOS: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I thought so, you know, but, you know, in hindsight what did I know about love, you know? But yeah. We did. And so, the plan was for him to come out, move in with me. And that's what happened.

HORAN: Two months after George Reissfelder’s release, Janice Santos married him. It was Oct. 16, 1982, and Santos was in the Army National Guard.

SANTOS: I was 22 years old. I was working a supply job, but I had just taken the flight aptitude selection test, and I had, like, the second-highest mark in the battalion. I really did well on the test, and I went and took the flight physical, and I was going to be going to flight school.

HORAN: What were you going to fly?

SANTOS: U-eez.

HORAN: I don’t know what that is.

SANTOS: A helicopter. A UH1. It's a helicopter.

HORAN: Wow. So that seems pretty impressive. Were there many female helicopter pilots at the time in Massachusetts?

SANTOS: There were none. I would have been the first.

HORAN: But Janice Santos didn’t become the state’s first female helicopter pilot.

SANTOS: So he wouldn't let me leave the house, so I couldn't go to work. He wouldn't let me go out on the weekends to go to drill, because, obviously, when I went to work, I was gonna screw around with somebody. He couldn't watch me. So, um, eventually, after I didn't go to enough drills I got thrown out of the military — thrown out with a dishonorable discharge.

HORAN: Reissfelder was vicious to Santos. He went through her stuff, looking for evidence that he couldn’t trust her. A poem a previous boyfriend had written threw him into a rage. Just a warning: What you’re about to hear is disturbing.

SANTOS: He was frothing at the mouth about this thing. And he grabbed me by the hair, and then-- and then-- and of course, I was stupid. I fought back. And this is-- was always my problem, you know. I always fought back. And, uh, so then he grabbed me by the throat and started choking me. So I mean, so very quickly, within the first two weeks, it was violent. And I figured, "Well, he just got out of prison. He's just got to adjust a little bit,' and it didn't happen. And then it got to where I was-- I wanted to leave, or wanted him out of there. And he said, "You can't leave me. I will go after your-- I'll go after your family." And know he would have. He was very capable. So I just became a prisoner for six, seven years.”

HORAN: George Reissfelder had an altogether different take on his life with Santos. Here he is in the 1986 documentary about wrongfully imprisoned men, "Exonerated: The Wrong Man."

REISSFELDER: I was fortunate. I was finally able to move up to New Hampshire and get away from the rat race. I married a beautiful young girl. I’d love some day to own my own house. Maybe a couple more years down the line having a couple of little ones running around. That would be nice. That’s all I want.

HORAN: In one scene, Santos walks behind Reissfelder, her head down. She’s so young. She looks submissive. We never hear her voice.

Even as that documentary aired, Santos was trying to find the courage to leave Reissfelder. She finally managed it in 1989. The following year, her divorce would come through, and her ex-husband would join a cast of men named in connection to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum robbery.

RODOLICO: In the late 1980s, David Turner and George Reissfelder’s lives in crime converged. Carmello Merlino’s coke-dealing operation out of TRC Auto Electric was thriving. It was also being surveilled by a law enforcement operation that would take it down in 1991.

Robert Beauchamp says the TRC gang was flying too close to the sun. And from his perch in prison, he says, he knew it. So he offered Reissfelder, who still visited him in prison — sometimes with David Turner in tow — some advice.

BEAUCHAMP: Turner was interested in getting out of the drug business. And I kept telling Reissfelder the same thing: "Sooner or later you guys are gonna get popped because you're dealing with the scum of the earth with junkies, and as soon as one of them gets busted, you know, they have diarrhea of the mouth. They're gonna sell out their mothers to get out of jail. And they're gonna say, 'oh, he's my supplier, Reissfelder.' "

So that's when we started talking about getting some crime insurance, figuring that that was going to happen sooner or later. So that's when I suggested to him, "You know, if you could steal a few million dollars’ worth of art and just put it away, then if you get popped you can, you know, wheel and deal it at that point." So he told Merlino and Turner about it, and they all thought that that was a fairly good idea. And I told him probably the best museums to rob would be university or college ones because they probably have the least amount of security. And so I guess Merlino basically — and maybe Reissfelder and Turner to a far lesser extent — started canvassing museums in the Boston area. And eventually Merlino decided on the Gardner.

RODOLICO: Did you get all that? Robert Beauchamp says the idea to steal paintings as crime insurance was his. Steal a painting. Get popped. Swap that painting for freedom. Easy.

Just don’t blame Beauchamp for the Gardner heist.

BEAUCHAMP: My only connections with the Gardner robbery is I had the generic idea they should steal art as crime insurance. I never ever mentioned the Gardner. And that's it. I don't want to take any blame for the Gardner.

RODOLICO: Over the years, Beauchamp has told many versions of his theory about the Gardner heist and the whereabouts of the paintings. Anthony Amore told us, his leads haven’t panned out. But the one detail that Beauchamp has never changed is who he says, did it: Carmello Merlino, David Turner and George Reissfelder.

BEAUCHAMP: When he came to see me after the Gardner robbery I just looked at him and shook my head and said, "Way too much, George." Because I realized at that point-- I thought maybe they'd steal maybe up to five million dollars at the most, but when it turned out to be hundreds of millions, I said, "You know what type of investigation this is going to be compared to what it would have been?"

RODOLICO: Way too much, George. If Beauchamp had harbored any doubt at all about whether his old friend and lover had pulled off the Gardner heist, he didn’t once he saw the police sketches of the suspects.

BEAUCHAMP: And when I started seeing the FBI sketches of them I thought, those disguises weren't really all that good. I mean, if you knew who it was you could just look at it and tell them it was who it was. Of course they didn't have anything with Merlino because he waited outside the museum in a van, you know, and a walkie talkie keeping, you know, as a lookout.

KURKJIAN: How do you know that?

BEAUCHAMP: Reissfelder told me.

HORAN: In 2009, Anthony Amore, working with the Boston Herald newspaper, hired a forensic medical artist to redo the police sketches of the Gardner heist suspects. She worked solely off the description given to her by one of the guards who had seen both thieves.

AMORE: She'd never seen George Reissfelder in her life. And, um, when she unveiled these portraits to me, and she brought up one of the images — the thief with the slimmer face — I looked at it and said, "Wow, that's George Reissfelder." But let me be very clear. I'm not saying George Reissfelder committed the heist. I'm just saying the work of art looked exactly like George to the point where we had a police uniform photoshopped onto him, and you hold the two and he looks exactly like this composite work of art.

HORAN: George Reissfelder does resemble the police artist’s sketch of one of the suspects. Long narrow face. Prominent chin. Bowl haircut. Of all the men floated as possible suspects in the Gardner heist, no one is more of a dead ringer.

Anthony Amore showed the drawing to Janice Santos.

SANTOS: I said, "Yeah, it looks like George.” And I told Anthony right off, but I don't-- the George that I knew it would never ever put on a cop uniform, so I don't-- I really don't know that he would have done this. And I don't think he could have done it, but--

HORAN: Why do you think he couldn't have done it?

SANTOS: The George that I knew wasn't-- He never-- he couldn't think on his feet. And you kind of have to think on your feet doing something like that. You have to be really planned and articulate. I don't know that he could have pulled it off. Like I said, he could have changed, but the guy that I was married to could not have done that.

HORAN: But someone else could have. And when Janice Santos first learned about the heist, she had an immediate intuition about who that was.

SANTOS: I thought it was Mel.

HORAN: Yeah, so you hear the news and you think Carmello Merlino.

SANTOS: Yeah.

HORAN: Carmello Merlino. The very man who died in prison rather than give up anything he might have known about how the Gardner heist went down or where the paintings might have been.

HORAN: On March 11, 1991, almost the anniversary of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum robbery, George Reissfelder died. He was 51. The cause of death was a cocaine overdose.

But his story doesn’t end there.

RODOLICO: Some time after Reissfelder’s death, his brother, Richard Reissfelder, who has also since died, reached out to Anthony Amore. He’d heard his late brother’s name mentioned in connection with the Gardner heist, and he wanted to clear his brother’s name. Amore invited him to the museum and asked him to look at images of the stolen art.

AMORE: I always start with "[Christ In The] Storm On The Sea Of Galilee," which is the one that's most commonly recognized by people. And he had never seen it, and had never seen "The Concert." And after you pass by those two it seems like an exercise in futility, but I went through the other 11 pieces. And the last one was "Chez Tortoni." And when he saw it, he, I can only describe it as jumped in his chair and became very upset and told me — I'm paraphrasing — he said, "Anthony, I have to tell you. I've seen that painting in my brother's apartment." He was very upset. It was visceral. He was teary-eyed. And he said, "My brother did it. My brother did it. He had that painting."

HORAN: And before then he was saying that his brother hadn't done it, but it was seeing that painting that convinced him that his brother must have done it.

AMORE: Yes. And I believed him.

RODOLICO: Amore says Richard Reissfelder put him in touch with someone else who’d also seen Manet's "Chez Tortoni" in George Reissfelder’s apartment. Amore reached out to that person, and after a long delay came the response: Yes, they’d seen it in the apartment.

AMORE: And I replied and said, “On a scale of one to 10, how certain are you?” And the person replied, “10.”

HORAN: A search of George Reissfelder’s apartment turned up a cache of stolen goods, including drugs and weapons. But no Manet. So, if it had ever been there, where did it go?

At a press conference five years ago, the Boston FBI said that they knew where the Gardner art was taken after it was stolen.

PRESS CONFERENCE: For the first time, we can say with a high degree of confidence, we've determined that in the years since the theft ...

HORAN: Next time, we follow the stolen art’s trail and tell you with a high degree of confidence what we think.


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.

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