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Newly Released Gardner Video Raises Questions About Initial Investigation

A screen grab from surveillance footage released Thursday of the night before the 1990 art heist at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. (Courtesy U.S. Attorney's Office in Massachusetts via YouTube)
A screen grab from surveillance footage released Thursday of the night before the 1990 art heist at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. (Courtesy U.S. Attorney's Office in Massachusetts via YouTube)
This article is more than 7 years old.

Thursday's public release of a 25-year-old surveillance video from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston is raising new questions about the initial investigation into the world's greatest art heist.

Both the U.S. attorney and the FBI have stated that they do not know whether anyone at the FBI ever reviewed the video until a year ago.

The video is also raising more questions about the security guard who told agents he was tricked into allowing the thieves into the museum.

On their way out of the museum on March 18, 1990, the thieves themselves apparently removed the video shot by the museum's surveillance cameras. It would have shown their arrival outside, and their entry inside the museum, after 1:24 in the morning .

But the young FBI agent assigned to the case did collect a video cassette from the recorder that had been in operation the previous day, March 17. The footage released Thursday covers six minutes and 39 seconds. It shows the arrival of a car, with two men, and the entry of one of them at 12:49 a.m. The guard publicly identified as Richard Abath admitted the men, in violation of museum security policy -- an act he would repeat the next night when the priceless art was actually stolen.

At the start of the investigation, according to former investigators familiar with the case, that video would have been crucial to the questioning of the guard's story.

Did anyone at the FBI actually look at that video taken from the museum surveillance camera 25 years ago before someone saw it last year?

"I can't answer that," U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz told The New York Times.

When reached by WBUR Friday, Dan Falzon, the former FBI agent who collected the video as the lead agent 25 years ago, declined comment. He referred us to the FBI.

At the FBI, supervisory agent Peter Kowenhoven said Thursday, "It may have been reviewed back then. I'm not sure of the answer to that question."

When asked Friday whether Falzon or any other FBI agent ever filed a report -- called a "302" -- describing what was on the video -- which would indicate someone actually watched it — an FBI spokesperson in Boston said she needed more time to answer our question.

Former investigators familiar with the case say that video would have allowed agents to challenge the account of the security guard, Abath, who from day one has adamantly denied any involvement.

About the release of that video now, Kowenhoven said: "Somebody might have been outside, we're just hoping to possibly trigger somebody's memory that will give us that lead and hopefully identify that individual."

But there actually were people outside. They went to police and WBUR talked to one of them in 2009.

"I was actually an eyewitness. I was with my friends leaving a party on Palace Road the night of the theft," said the young woman then. She requested anonymity. She said she was with her boyfriend, whose identity is public, and three other underaged teenagers, walking down the middle of the road next to the museum that night, "and I saw two men in police uniforms sitting in a car. ... I just assumed that it was police."

But the men weren't in a marked police car. And she got a good look at the driver. But she says she and her friends were not taken seriously when they talked to the police.

"It's unreal to imagine I was there and saw them up close and that that information was not considered valuable or helpful to the FBI," she said.

When she later saw the composite police sketch, she said it didn't look anything like the men she saw.

Of more importance, perhaps, is how her story differs from the account told by the security guard. According to Abath he saw headlights and then two individuals get out of the car right away.

But the young woman and her boyfriend said they were on the street for 10 to 15 minutes, maybe more, and they never saw the men get out of the parked car or make the quick exit that the guard described.

In 2009, she said she'd like to know how the museum guard saw the car and the men but not her and her friends.

In a case of lost witnesses and missed opportunities, the recently found and now newly released video may raise difficult questions for both the security guard and the earlier investigation.

This segment aired on August 7, 2015.


David Boeri Senior Reporter
Now retired, David Boeri was a senior reporter at WBUR.



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