On March 18, 2013 — 23 years to the day after the Gardner Museum was robbed of 13 of its treasures — the Boston FBI convened a press conference. Agents wanted to announce a break in the case.
In all the years since the museum lost the Vermeer, the Rembrandts and the Degas, authorities had never so publicly discussed progress on the case. It seemed like this would precipitate closure on the Gardner mystery.
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“For the first time, we can say with a high degree of confidence we've determined that in the years since the theft the art was transported to Connecticut and to the Philadelphia area,” announced Rick DesLauriers, the special agent in charge of the FBI Boston division.
Once the art was in Philadelphia around 2003, they claimed they determined that it had been offered for sale. And then … that’s it. Where the art was now, they did not know.
In this episode, we’re going to follow that trail to Philadelphia.
Bobby Guarente, the now-deceased, longtime associate of the TRC Auto Electric gang in Dorchester, had a long rap sheet for bank robberies, cocaine dealing and murder. His summer home up in Maine was twice named by confidential sources as the place the stolen Gardner art was stashed.
The Gardner’s security director Anthony Amore and an FBI agent’s trek up to Maine in 2010 failed to turn up any paintings, but it did involve a new lead from Guarente’s widow, Elene.
“My Bobby had those paintings,” she told them. She explained how, back in 2003, her husband handed over the stolen Gardner artwork to his friend, Bobby Gentile, in a Maine restaurant parking lot.
Bobby Gentile, with a long criminal record of his own, lived in Manchester, Connecticut — and his lawyer says he doesn’t acknowledge receiving the stolen artwork. Without any evidence, the FBI tried a few different tactics to get him to talk — they offered immunity for answers, they sent in informants to catch him talking, they arrested him on distributing prescription medication with the aim of getting him to talk. That gave authorities the chance to search his Connecticut home for the art.
Inside, they found ammunition, guns, silencers, explosives, cash. They found police caps and handcuffs. (Remember: The thieves who entered the Gardner Museum that night in 1990 wore policemen disguises, and handcuffed the security guards on duty.) They also found a sheet of paper listing all 13 stolen artworks and how much each would get on the black market, folded inside a copy of the Boston Herald from the day the news broke about the Gardner heist.
But no paintings. And Bobby Gentile didn’t mutter a word.
But, he did talk about being a made member of the Philadelphia mob, and his drives back and forth to the city. It seems the FBI’s best guess in 2013 was that Gentile had brought the art down to Philadelphia on one of those drives.
If the art turned up in Philadelphia, where it went next isn't clear. The trail goes cold.
This episode was adapted for the web by Amy Gorel.
RICK DESLAURIERS: OK, good afternoon everybody. Great to have each of you here today. My name is Rick DesLauriers and I'm the special agent in charge of the FBI's Boston division.
KELLY HORAN: On March 18, 2013 — the 23rd anniversary of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum robbery — the Boston FBI convened a press conference to discuss the case. In the previous two-plus decades, they’d never done anything like it. So in a room packed wall to wall with press, in air that must have felt taut with expectation, the then-head of the Boston FBI spoke.
DESLAURIERS: For the first time, we can say with a high degree of confidence we've determined that in the years since the theft the art was transported to Connecticut and to the Philadelphia area. For example, recently, we determined that approximately a decade ago some of the art was brought to Philadelphia where it was offered for sale.
HORAN: This was big. This was new. This was the FBI lifting the lid of secrecy on the Gardner case and inviting the public to peek inside. And what they showed us were the dots that they’d connected from Boston to Connecticut to Philadelphia.
DESLAURIERS: However, we do not know where the art is currently located. And with a high degree of confidence we believe those responsible for the theft were members of a criminal organization with a base in the mid-Atlantic states and in New England.
HORAN: This was the United States government saying: We figured out who committed the biggest art heist in history. We know where the criminals took the art after they stole it. There was just one problem.
SHELLEY MURPHY: Look, when the FBI says, "We solved it. We know who did it." It's like, "No, you don't!" Because you don't have the paintings.
HORAN: Boston Globe reporter Shelley Murphy has covered organized crime in Boston since the 1980s.
MURPHY: You probably have stuff that we don't know that makes you pretty sure you know who did it, but based on what's been made public it doesn't appear that there's ever been confirmed sighting of any of the paintings.
JACK RODOLICO: When it comes to the investigation into the Gardner crime, the FBI has said so little. So when they came out and told this story, it felt like something major was about to happen.
DESLAURIERS: With today's announcement we begin the final chapter.
RODOLICO: It’s been five years since that press conference. That’s a pretty long final chapter. And that public statement remains the most specific the Boston FBI has ever been about what happened to the stolen art. In the absence of any new statements from the Boston FBI, we’re going to follow the trail to scrutinize the story they told in 2013. Does it hold up?
From WBUR in Boston and The Boston Globe, this is Last Seen. I’m Jack Rodolico.
HORAN: I’m Kelly Horan. This is Episode 5: "The Bobbys."
Our story begins in a state the FBI didn’t mention in the press conference: Maine. We’re starting there because two separate confidential sources told two separate investigators — the case agent from the Boston FBI and the Gardner Museum’s Anthony Amore — that that’s where the stolen art was once hidden — presumably before it made its trip down the eastern seaboard, to Philadelphia. The sources didn’t just say Maine, they also gave an address — the former summer home of a serial bank robber, cocaine dealer, murderer and long-time associate of the TRC Auto Electric gang: a man named Bobby Guarente.
ANTHONY AMORE: I remember going. It was very, very cold. It was desolate. There's nothing around except snow. It looked like Fargo.
HORAN: Anthony Amore and the Boston FBI agent trekked up to the middle of Maine in February of 2010. Once at the long-abandoned house, they looked for the kind of hiding place both sources had described. They found it on the second floor.
AMORE: There was a small door, like half the size of a normal door, and you open it up and it looks like a place you can keep pots and pans, relatively large. And I flashed my light in there and you could see further in there was a hiding spot. Definitely could have fit our art back there. So it checked out.
HORAN: But when the FBI agent crawled inside, he found nothing. So, no paintings, but there definitely was a hiding place. And that piqued their interest in Bobby Guarente as a suspect for having at least possessed the Gardner Museum’s art. On their way out of town, Amore and the FBI agent stopped off at the home of Bobby Guarente’s widow, Elene.
AMORE: This small woman with short, dark hair opens the door. She was smoking.
HORAN: Elene Guarente said living with her late husband was a nightmare.
AMORE: And she told us this monster used to come home and beat her on the weekends. And I asked her, “Do you have any pictures of him,” because they’re hard to come by. And she said, “No, I threw them all away as soon as that son of a bitch died.”
HORAN: They weren’t planning on spending much time with Elene Guarente. But something happened after Amore asked if she’d ever heard of the Gardner Museum.
AMORE: She said, "No." And we’re like, “Well, thank you, Elene, blah, blah, blah.” But I notice, I notice her hand shaking now. It starts to shake. And she starts crying. Like, seriously, crying. Not a tear. She’s crying, like, I have never experienced before. And she breaks down and says, “I have heard of the museum. My Bobby had those paintings.”
HORAN: Elene Guarente claimed her Bobby had two of the Gardner paintings. When Amore asked what the paintings looked like, she described an image of a woman sitting down, seen in profile. In two of the paintings stolen from the Gardner — “The Concert” by Vermeer and “A Lady and Gentleman in Black” by Rembrandt — there is a woman sitting, in profile.
AMORE: She told us a story about when Bobby got out of jail for the last time that they went to Portland, Maine. And met with a friend of Bobby’s and his wife and they had dinner at a Howard Johnson’s up there.
HORAN: Elene Guarente said that during that dinner in 2003, her husband and this other guy walked out to the parking lot during the meal before coming back inside.
AMORE: And then on the ride home, he told her you can stop worrying. I got rid of those paintings. And it’s then she understood that he gave those paintings to the guy they were at dinner with.
HORAN: Whom did Bobby and Elene Guarente have dinner with? Whom did Bobby Guarente allegedly give the paintings to?
AMORE: She said, "I know it. It’s at the tip of my tongue. He’s a gambler." She was trying to remember — I think she said he cooked.
HORAN: Elene Guarente paged through an old address book and found the name: Bobby Gentile. He had a nickname: The Cook.
AMORE: We walked out of the apartment, and we slowly and calmly walked to the car. And as soon as we noticed we were out of sight we looked at each other, our eyes opened wide, and we high-fived and we'd never done that before. I remember him saying to me, "Can you believe it? Can you believe it?" Like we finally had a big break in the case.
RODOLICO: This was 20 years after the Gardner heist. It had taken that long to get a high five. Anthony Amore and his FBI counterpart weren’t leaving Maine with the paintings, but they were leaving with two names that would prove to be compelling suspects in the trafficking of the Gardner art: two gangsters named Bobby. In the case of Bobby Guarente, it validated investigators’ long, hard look at the TRC Auto Electric gang, because Bobby Guarente had been close to several members. Guarente was also connected to Bobby Gentile, aka The Cook. And it was that connection — these two Bobbys — that opened a new avenue of investigation, one that led to Connecticut.
RYAN MCGUIGAN: I asked one person in the criminal underworld who I had, I guess, the pleasure of knowing, and his quote to me was, “Bobby Gentile, best damn sausage and peppers I ever had.” Hahaha. And the second I heard that I’m like, he’s really The Cook.
RODOLICO: This is Ryan McGuigan, Gentile’s defense attorney. The FBI never mentioned Gentile by name at its press conference, but McGuigan says, anytime the FBI says Connecticut, they mean Gentile.
MCGUIGAN: I mean, they could’ve just said it went from Boston to Philadelphia, but they didn’t. They said it went through Connecticut.
RODOLICO: The FBI went from Maine to Gentile's home in Manchester, Connecticut, and confronted him. Did Bobby Guarente give him the stolen art in a Maine parking lot seven years earlier?
MCGUIGAN: He remembers distinctly the dinner because his wife ordered the double lobsters, which was the most expensive thing on the menu. And you’ve met my client so you know that he’s a bit parsimonious when it comes to paying for other people’s stuff, so he was a bit miffed by that. But he certainly doesn't acknowledge receiving two very, very large paintings in the trunk of his car.
RODOLICO: Bobby Gentile had a criminal record stretching back to 1956. McGuigan says the FBI had no proof that Gentile had received the paintings in that Maine parking lot, so they asked for his help finding them. They gave him a letter of immunity from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and reminded him he would be eligible for a $5 million reward from the museum.
MCGUIGAN: They asked him a lot of questions. He provided answers to the questions as best he could. I'm sure that they would claim that he was not as forthright as he should have been.
RODOLICO: He wasn’t, according to federal prosecutors. They say Gentile flunked a lie detector test and lied to a grand jury. So, with no cooperation from Gentile, the FBI changed tactics. This time they sent in an informant, wearing a wire. And Gentile started talking — telling stories. He claimed the other Bobby, Bobby Guarente, masterminded the heist. He hinted that he knew where the art was. This is all according to what prosecutors would later say in court.
Our colleague from The Boston Globe, Steve Kurkjian, says these secret recordings must have had FBI agents on the edge of their seats. Then, one day in 2012...
STEPHEN KURKJIAN: The informant sees a handful of Percocets on the table and he reaches over and says, "Can I take these?" And Gentile says, "Yeah, they're no good. My back is — that doesn't relieve my back pain.” But that's a crime.
RODOLICO: The FBI swooped in and arrested him for distributing his prescription medication — hoping the prospect of jail time would get him to talk.
KURKJIAN: What they're doing is upping the ante, making it more crucial that he cooperate in their investigation. “When did you have the paintings, how did you get them, and where are they now? What did you do with them?” If he doesn’t cooperate then he’s gonna have to face these criminal charges.
NEWS CLIP: Teams of law enforcement agents have swarmed the home of a reputed mobster.
HORAN: After Gentile’s arrest, federal agents searched his Connecticut house, looking for the art.
NEWS CLIP: Good afternoon, Keith. You can see the federal agents. They’re working under that canopy — a sort of command center they’ve set up right in the driveway. This is a mystery.
HORAN: Here’s what the TV crews could see: streams of men, some in dark suits, others in white coveralls, walking in and out of a house on a leafy suburban street.
NEWS CLIP: The federal agents swarming this modest ranch house early this morning. It’s the home of 75-year-old Robert Gentile.
HORAN: From the street, here’s what the TV cameras couldn’t capture: federal agents in Gentile’s basement uncovering a small arsenal, ammunition, guns, silencers, explosives and lots of cash. And remember, the Gardner thieves conned their way into the museum by dressing up as cops. Once inside, they handcuffed the guards in the basement. While searching Gentile’s house, FBI agents also found police caps — and handcuffs. Steve Kurkjian says they found something else in that basement, too.
KURKJIAN: They came up with one sheet of paper that listed all the 13 pieces of art that had been stolen from the museum and what each piece would get on the black market.
HORAN: What was that? A shopping list? A receipt? Whatever it was, it was folded inside a 22-year-old copy of the Boston Herald, the first edition published with news that the Gardner had been looted. That piece of paper convinced investigators they needed to keep looking. Because their search warrant didn’t extend to the shed out back, they got another one. Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Kelly was there during the search.
BRIAN KELLY: And the FBI was looking around and they found a secret compartment beneath the shed. And everyone got real quiet like, “Uh oh, you know, this is where they may be buried.” They had to move a big piece of equipment, which exposed the trap door, and they opened the trapdoor. And we’re all looking and it looks like they were pulling up a giant, you know, container. One of those plastic containers, I don’t know if it’s Tupperware or what it’s called. And like, “Here it is, here it is.” And empty. Nothin'. We thought we had something, and we got nothin’.
HORAN: No paintings. But evidence that suggested that Gentile knew more about the stolen Gardner art than he was admitting. And the feds had a slew of new charges against him. Gentile was a felon distributing narcotics and hiding weapons in his home.
KURKJIAN: And even though he's in jail and he's still refusing to give them any palpable assistance, they think they've found the right person.
RODOLICO: So now is a good time to remind you that this is what precipitated the FBI’s press conference. Everything seemed to point to this one guy — 76-year-old mobster Bobby Gentile who had recently undergone quadruple bypass surgery and was living a seemingly quiet life with his wife of 50 years. As the cameras clicked at that press conference in Boston, Gentile sat in jail, waiting to be sentenced on all these charges. For the FBI to stand at a podium and tell the world this story, they must have been confident they had their man.
So what did Gentile do?
He did not return the art and collect a hefty retirement. He did not share information about the art in exchange for a get-out-of-jail-free card. He pled guilty. Sentenced to two and half years, he chose time over talking, and walked out a free man.
HORAN: When Bobby Gentile was released from prison, one of the first people to go see him was Steve Kurkjian.
KURKJIAN: So he does get out of jail in late 2013 and he is smokingly angry that he had fallen for the setup that the FBI had entrapped him in.
GENTILE: It's a curse. It's a curse. I mean, it's like a dream. I can't believe this happened to me, ruined my f-----’ life. Ruined my f-----’ life. My wife's home here for two years by herself with two broken arms, nobody to take care of her.
HORAN: Gentile told Steve that the FBI was pressuring the wrong guy.
GENTILE: How can they squeeze me? I don't know nothing. You know what I mean? Never seen the paintings. Never did nothing to the paintings. Never even talked about the paintings.
HORAN: But Bobby Gentile himself had been caught on secret recordings talking about “the pictures,” as he used to called them. He remembered that meal in Maine with Bobby and Elene Guarente. He bragged about being a made member of the Philadelphia mob. Gentile also told Steve that he had not only driven to Philadelphia — he’d done so with another mobster, who also happened to be named Bobby.
GENTILE: Back and forth they were doing, they were booking. They were booking. They'd go down, bring the money if you want it. So I met a couple of trips to help them drive back and forth.
KURKJIAN: To Philadelphia?
GENTILE: Yeah. There was no cocaine. It was all about collecting money from the bookmakers.
HORAN: Maybe Gentile tried to traffic the stolen Gardner art on one of those trips to Philly. In 2013, that appears to have been the FBI’s best guess.
RODOLICO: If the Gardner art did surface in Philadelphia around 2003, some key people there would have known about it.
GEORGE ANASTASIA: This is the heart of South Philadelphia. That’s where we are.
RODOLICO: Meet George Anastasia. He’s covered organized crime in Philadelphia for 40 years. He gave me a tour of the Italian market district — the fish on ice, the awnings, the fruit piled high.
ANASATASIA: And there was one infamous attempted hit, this block or I think the next block. There’s a guy who was sitting on a bench eating some raw clams on a half shell and it was a drive-by shooting.
RODOLICO: This neighborhood was the mafia hotbed for generations. And Anastasia knew all the mob families. He finds it hard to believe those mobsters would have known how to sell any masterpieces, let alone Rembrandts. Just consider the time they got their hands on a Lamborghini.
ANASTASIA: These guys kept it in a garage for a while, then they got a tip the FBI was onto them. They tried to move the Lamborghini. They got an Avis rent-a-truck. But it didn't have lifts, or a ramp, so they used two wooden planks to try to drive the Lamborghini onto the truck. It fell off the planks. They wrecked the car. I mean, if they can't deal with a Lamborghini, how are they going to deal with a Degas, Manet, or a Rembrandt? I don't know. It's almost dangerous to think about what might have happened to this precious stuff.
BARRY GROSS: The Philadelphia La Cosa Nostra has never been confused with a sophisticated group. It used to be joked that they couldn’t go north of Broad Street — they would be lost.
RODOLICO: A little north of Broad Street, I met Barry Gross, a retired mob prosecutor. Gross’s career in law enforcement started seven years before the Gardner heist and ended four years after the art allegedly surfaced in Philadelphia. Here’s the former head of the Boston FBI at that press conference again.
DESLAURIERS: Recently, we determined that approximately a decade ago some of the art was brought to Philadelphia where it was offered for sale.
RODOLICO: So what does Gross think? Was the art in his city when the Boston FBI said it was?
GROSS: Interesting. Uhm. I mean, they really think if they... Number one, I'm unaware… You know, I was in the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section from 1983 — from February 1983 to the end of January 2007. So that's 24 years. I prosecuted dozens of made members, four mob bosses, capos, everything. I am not aware. I'm unaware of this. Not a word. Never have heard any of this.
RODOLICO: Wait, wait, not a word of what?
GROSS: Of anything about this stolen art.
RODOLICO: If anyone in the Philadelphia mob knew anything about the Gardner art, Barry Gross says he would have known about it too. Mobsters facing prosecution didn’t hesitate to rat out other gangsters in order to knock years off their prison time.
GROSS: You know, your attorney can make an argument, "Well he cooperated. He testified and helped convict, you know, on two murders, six extortions, and, by the way, judge, the Isabella Gardner Museum paintings." I mean, that's international news.
JACK: And is that what leads you to believe that if there was even mentioning of these paintings here that you feel like you would have heard about it.
GROSS: Yes. I feel I would have heard about it, or one of my colleagues and we all worked very closely.
RODOLICO: While we were in Philadelphia, we also spoke with a former FBI agent and a former federal prosecutor, neither of whom believed the Boston FBI’s premise about where the paintings ended up. So if the Bobbys had them, what’d they do with them?
Finding a cold trail in Philadelphia, we return to the FBI's person of interest in Connecticut, Bobby Gentile. After he was released from prison, the FBI sent in more informants to try to set him up again.
KURKJIAN: And he falls for it.
HORAN: In 2015, the FBI arrested Gentile again, this time for selling a gun to a felon, who happened to be the second informant to ensnare him.
MCGUIGAN: I believe with 100 percent — well, 99.9 percent, like Ivory Soap surety — that the two informants were paid very well by the FBI. And they wanted the gravy train to continue, so they would tell them anything. So all you're doing is you're hearing back the information that you're giving, and then you're saying, "Aha! It's confirmed what I believe." Well no, it's not confirmed, you ding-dong. You just told the guy that, and he told you back the same information. It's just a hall of echoes.
HORAN: In the months before the arrest, federal prosecutors say they got Gentile on tape again insinuating he knew where the art was. Gentile’s attorney, Ryan McGuigan, has listened to some of those undercover recordings. He claims Gentile never said anything incriminating about the art and that in at least one instance, the FBI’s transcript of the tapes doesn’t match the tape recordings. Still, there have been many times when McGuigan has been frustrated with his client.
MCGUIGAN: You know how many times I've tried to beat him over the head, and I've tried to cajole him, I've tried to threaten him, everything I've tried — starting with the premise that, you know what, he might know where these paintings are, and he's just, for some reason the FBI is right and I'm wrong, and he's a sociopath, and he thinks that this is all funny, and he's playing a game.
HORAN: Steve Kurkjian has the same questions about Gentile. But he says just because the guy talks about the paintings doesn’t mean he knows anything about them.
KURKJIAN: I think he said more than once that he's a victim of his own con. And his own con being, when in the right company, which are people he wants to impress. He includes this allure that he does have access to the paintings.
HORAN: Remember, for criminals who have only ever known the wrong side of the law, there’s an almost irresistible urge to connect themselves to a big, headline-grabbing crime. Maybe that’s all Gentile was doing — posturing.
KURKJIAN: Whom are you to believe? Is this Bobby, the con man, talking? Or does Bobby really have a deeper story of his involvement with the Gardner paintings?
RODOLICO: So you can see how the FBI would want to continue this dance with him because he keeps saying things that...
KURKJIAN: ...gives anyone, anybody reasonable, the sense that he really does have access to the paintings.
AMORE: What I believe is that Bobby Gentile knows something about our paintings and will not tell us.
HORAN: The Gardner’s Anthony Amore doesn’t buy that Gentile doesn’t know anything.
AMORE: If tomorrow there’s a knock at the door at the museum and the Japanese Yakuza has our paintings, I would say, “How do you know Bobby Gentile?” I’ve never in my life conversed with someone so willing to lie about things that were demonstrably true than him. He knows something and he will not tell us.
HORAN: Ryan McGuigan knows his client made it easy for the government by repeatedly committing crimes they could hold over him. But he asks: What has that leverage gotten the government? Twice, Gentile received prison sentences that could have ensured he died behind bars. Both times, he didn’t give up any information about the stolen art.
These are the same tactics — with the same outcome — that the Boston FBI used on the TRC Auto Electric gang, and it has to make you wonder: Do these guys know something or not? Is there just a whole class of criminal who would rather serve time, and even die in prison, than cooperate with the feds?
McGuigan says there was this one moment — more than any other — that convinced him that, in spite of the FBI’s belief that Gentile knows something, he’s not their guy. In September 2016, McGuigan got a call from a prison hospital in North Carolina. His client was on his deathbed. He flew from Connecticut to be by Gentile’s side.
MCGUIGAN: And I looked up and his eyes were looking right at me. And he said, "It's you. It's you. It's you. It's my lawyer." And he kept saying, "I can't die here. I can't die here. I can't die here." And I told him, I don't know if it was coldly or just matter of factly, that, "You're gonna die.”
And I told him that, "If you tell me where the paintings are, or anything more about the paintings that I need to know, I can guarantee you that I will have you on a medevac plane and you can die in your bed this very night with your wife. Forget about 5 million bucks, forget about 10 million bucks. Forget about anything. At the end of your life, what is the thing that's most important?"
And he had tears coming down both the sides of his face. And he said, "But there ain't no paintings." And I looked at a defeated man, in the face of a defeated man. After that day I've never entertained the thought that that man has any idea where the paintings are because that day any human being would tell you.
HORAN: Gentile survived that ordeal. He’ll be 82 when he gets out of prison late this year.
RODOLICO: It’s been five years since the Boston FBI opened “the final chapter” of their investigation into the Gardner heist. Five years since the press conference when the lead authority on the case claimed the stolen art went from Boston to Connecticut to Philadelphia. That remains the only explanation the FBI has ever offered about what happened to upwards of $500 million worth of art. And it seems that what the FBI said doesn’t hold up.
The FBI has declined to talk to us, but we’re left wondering: Do they still think that story is true? What other leads are they following that don’t involve an old and lying gangster in Connecticut? In a story featuring so many unreliable narrators, is the FBI one of them?
HORAN: So we continue to look for other plausible explanations about what might have happened to the art. And while we were in Philadelphia, we sat down with a former FBI agent. A retired art recovery expert who had a wild tale to tell about the Gardner’s lost masterpieces. And his story wasn’t about Italian-American mobsters from the Eastern seaboard.
Next time: French gangsters in Miami, an undercover operation on a yacht and allegations of misconduct against the Boston FBI.
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.