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If Bobby Donati Pulled Off The Gardner Heist, This Man Was The Reason Why

Robert "Bobby" Donati. MoreCloseclosemore
Robert "Bobby" Donati.

Robert "Bobby" Donati was a small-time Revere businessman whose gambling debts led him to become a white-collar criminal and mob wannabe. His is a name often heard as one of the two thieves who pulled off the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist in 1990. He would have been around 50 years old at that time.

By 2013, the FBI asserted that the two men who were responsible for the theft were dead. But officials declined to identify the men or suggest what their motive might have been. The idea that Donati was one of those men began to gain credibility thanks to the word of former associates Myles Connor and Vincent Ferrara. This was in large part through two books: my book "Master Thieves" and Connor’s memoir "The Art of The Heist." Both detail how getting Connor and Ferrara out of jail may have been the motive for the robbery.

Connor’s criminal record attests to his claim of being perhaps Boston’s best known art thief. In his book, he explains how he and Donati pulled off the theft of five valuable paintings by Andrew Wyeth and his father, N.C. Wyeth, from an estate in Maine in 1974. While Donati had identified the estate as vulnerable to robbery, it was Connor’s job to find someone who would purchase the paintings. That plan went awry when the prospective purchaser turned out to be an undercover FBI agent and Connor was arrested.

Soon released on bail, Connor devised a scheme he thought would give him a lenient sentence for the Maine robbery. He and several associates stormed into Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and stole a large Rembrandt off a gallery wall. Months later, Connor arranged to return the Rembrandt. That he only received a four-year term — and served less than half that time — when he could have been sentenced to twice as many years gave rise to the notion often-heard in Boston’s underworld circles of returning valued art as a get-out-of-jail-free card.

That message may not have been lost on Bobby Donati — and might prove to crystalize a motive for a heist as audacious as the Gardner. Donati would reportedly mention the idea to his close friend Vincent Ferrara soon after Ferrara had been arrested on racketeering and other federal crimes in late 1989. Donati had joined Ferrara’s gang in the early 1980s after being released from prison on a fraudulent stock scheme. Ferrara, a North End native and college graduate, was drawn to Donati’s lighter side, and soon promoted him to his driver as he assembled a crew.

Ferrara’s rise would be suddenly cut short in mid-November 1989 when he and two of his associates were charged in a 57-count indictment that included racketeering, obstruction of justice, loan sharking and murder. Ferrara was taken to a cell in Hartford to await trial. Donati, according to an intermediary to Ferrara, would be among the first people to visit Ferrara. Donati proposed the idea of pulling off a robbery that would grab such attention the authorities would be willing to exchange Ferrara for a return of the stolen valuables.

The intermediary said Ferrara urged Donati not to do it, saying the charges pending against him were too serious to gain his freedom from such a deal. But Donati was adamant — the only way that he and other members of Ferrara’s crew could survive was if their leader was back on the street.

After the Gardner heist, Donati visited Ferrara two more times, according to the same source, and told him he had been responsible. But, because of the intense FBI manhunt for the thieves, Donati planned to hide the artwork and lay low for a while before negotiating an exchange for Ferrara’s freedom.

Whether Donati — or anyone on his behalf — ever reached out to the federal authorities to begin such negotiations could not be determined. The FBI declines to discuss any involvement Donati might have had in the theft, and Donati was killed in a brutal fashion on the porch of his Revere home in September 1991. His body was found several days later stuffed in the trunk of a Cadillac and why he was killed remains unknown.

Anthony Amore, the Gardner’s security director who works closely with the FBI on the investigation, declined to discuss Donati’s possible involvement. But he did tell Last Seen’s senior producer Kelly Horan he believes Connor was the "inspiration" for the theft. (Connor was in prison at the time of the Gardner heist.) In his book, Connor acknowledges that he and Donati had often visited the Gardner Museum and plotted how to rob it — and that he was convinced that Donati completed the job along with another friend of Connor’s, David Houghton of Malden.

And Houghton’s motive? It was to spring Connor from prison — at least according to Connor. Connor had just begun serving a 10-year sentence for drug trafficking. Houghton, who died of natural causes in 1991 and looked nothing like the police sketches, could have been the third man on the heist — waiting outside or around the corner.

Donati does have a faint resemblance, however, to the shorter of the two men.

So, with a varying degree of success, I reached out to family and friends in search of other evidence as to whether Donati might have been one of the two thieves. His sister, Lorraine, said she doubted her brother had the strategic prowess to pull off an art theft of this magnitude. A friend recalled that shortly after the theft, Donati showed up at a favorite Revere hangout carrying a paper bag that contained two police uniforms. Another friend, noting that the least expensive of the 13 stolen items was a hard-to-reach gold-plated eagle finial, recalled that Donati had a “thing” for such ornaments.

Donati was also a close friend of Robert "Bobby" Guarente, a former bank robber who has been linked to the Gardner crime. Guarente’s widow told the FBI in 2010 that her husband had possession of several of the masterpieces but had given them over to his best friend, Robert "Bobby" Gentile. In the time between Donati’s disappearance and the recovery of his body in 1991, a family member was calling Guarente’s home in central Maine asking if anyone there had seen Donati.

His FBI file, which I gained through a public records request, contained no clues but it did offer one tidbit that only deepens his connection to the Gardner heist: A team of federal agents had Donati under surveillance for a few days before his death.

Ferrara would remain in federal custody until 2005. He was released on the grounds that prosecutors had failed to provide his defense team with exculpatory evidence that showed Ferrara had not been involved in the murder of a drug dealer as his indictment had alleged.

On freeing him, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Wolf said Ferrara had led and exemplary life in prison, “deeply dedicated to his family,” and fully expected that he would stay out of trouble and avoid associating with any of his past criminal cohorts. According to the intermediary, Ferrara has remained committed to that pledge but remains hopeful to learn if his long-ago friend, Bobby Donati, had been involved in the Gardner theft.

Stephen Kurkjian Contributor
Stephen Kurkjian is the consulting producer of Last Seen.

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