Twist in $500M Mob-Linked Boston Art Heist

Museum with empty frame awaits stolen painting's return.

Note: I checked with Philly mob expert George Anastasia for confirmation: there's no historical knowledge regarding a New England branch of a Philadelphia mafia family.

Robert Gentile, "an aging, unremarkable wiseguy from Hartford [Connecticut]" grew from obscurity into infamy after the widowed wife of a dead longtime associate told the FBI that Gentile was linked to a half-billion-dollar heist that occurred some 25 years ago.

He'd been an off-the-radar mobster with a criminal history stretching back to the 1950s when he was suddenly publicly identified as the FBI's chief suspect in one of the world's most perplexing crimes, the "officially unsolved" robbery of Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in March of 1990. Experts to this day puzzle over why the robbers took certain artworks and not other more-valuable pieces. The Hartford Courier ran a story breaking the news.

A new wrinkle in this story was recently revealed, when a published report detailed how the FBI accumulated additional incriminating information about Gentile -- namely, his own words, recorded by two snitches.

No one's ever been convicted of this crime, though the FBI says it knows the identifies of the robbers, though it hasn't named them publicly. The Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI’s Boston Field Office continue to investigate the robbery in partnership with the museum, which still offers a $5 million reward for information leading to the artworks' recovery. Here's the FBI's announcement and list of the 13 stolen titles. Also see the FBI's dedicated webpage.

One of the Biggest Mob Heists Ever?
Two men dressed as police officers entered the Gardner Museum and overpowered and tied up security guards and stole 13 paintings valued at around $500 million. In addition to Degas sketches and Rembrandt works, they took a Vermeer painting, one of only 36 in existence.

But then earlier this week, on January 3, a twist in the story came to light via The Hartford Courant, which revealed there's more than the widow's testimony that's incriminating Gentile.

"What put Robert "The Cook" Gentile at the center of the mystery and why authorities have pursued him relentlessly..." stems from evidence obtained by a "longtime Gentile associate who agreed to work with the FBI."

The turncoat "told agents that Gentile has acted for years as if he had access to the missing art, has talked about selling it and, for a time, kept what appeared to have been a lesser-known Gardner piece — a 200-year-old gilded eagle — at a used car lot he owned in South Windsor."

Sebastian "Sammy" Mozzicato delivered the astonishing account of Gentile and the world's best known stolen art to the FBI a year ago, after agents, dangling a $5 million reward as a lure, enlisted him and a cousin as secret cooperators in the recovery effort. Investigators have suspected for years — and Gentile has denied for just as long — that he is withholding information about the art.

Agents recruited the cousins, Gentile associates for decades, as participants in a sting that agents hoped would shake loose enough information to locate the art.

An attempted sting op failed because Gentile grew suspicious.

During one operation, Gentile was recorded discussing the paintings with an undercover FBI agent posing a pot dealer. The agent asked Gentile why he didn't simply return the paintings and pocket the $5 million reward.

"The answer, based on Mr. Gentile's own words, was he felt that the feds were going to come after him anyway, even if he was going to turn in the paintings for the $5 million reward," a prosecutor said.

During the same conversation, Gentile wanted an interest in the dealer's pot business and was "furious" when he was declined

"Do you know who I am?" he queried the agent, noting he could have people killed.

The two cousins still managed to catch him on a recording discussing sales transactions regarding multiple paintings for millions of dollars.

"Mozzicato said he believes Gentile has had access to the art since the late 1990s — which is when investigators suspect he was part of a Boston gang that gained control of the art from whoever stole it."

Gentle is in jail for what some consider a trumped-up criminal charge. 

Mozzicato's account is consistent with what the FBI had heard from him. Other evidence and/or testimony further corroborates what he told the FBI, according to the report.

Proceedings in an unrelated case also revealed that Gentile "specifically suggested" that he has two of the stolen  paintings. Still not one of the stolen paintings was ever recovered.

Gentile, 80, is not enjoying his golden years, needless to say. He has numerous health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, and requires a wheelchair.

He's also been in jail for the past five years awaiting a trial over drugs and weapons charges.

Gentile denies all criminal wrongdoing but did agree with some of the widow's information. For example, Gentile and his wife did like to occasionally drive to Portland, Maine, from their Manchester home to indulge in Gentile's passion for good New England chow (and food in general. (A mobster "foodie," his nickname is "The Cook").

Gentile agreed that he and his wife had met with Robert Guarente and his wife Elene for a shore dinner. Guarente was an experienced bank robber who departed prison in 2002 and relocated to Maine.from Boston.

A Mutually Beneficial Relationship
Gentile and Guarente met in the 1970s at a used-car auction and became close friends. They also became something like a two-man crime wave, according to allegations. Supposedly they were even inducted into the Philadelphia Cosa Nostra family together in the same ceremony, federal prosecutors claimed in court

Other allegations about Gentile and Guarente: They committed robberies and numerous violent crimes together. The mobsters shared digs on Boston's outskirts while serving as "armed bodyguards" for their boss, a Mafia capo.

Gentile's since been described as a Hartford hoodlum who'd lived a "secret life" in Boston as a made member of "the New England branch of a Philadelphia mafia family." That was noted in a New York Times story.

The FBI considers him the only person alive with direct knowledge of the storied robbery. And he's shown he ain't talking. Period. That's why he's rolling his wheelchair in jail. Some even speculate the drug and weapon charges were trumped up to pressure him.

In a court filing, defense lawyer A. Ryan McGuigan has implied Gentile duped the FBI -- that Gentile was running a "scam for all it was worth in hopes of getting some quick cash" and "proceeded to lead his merry band of informers and double agents on a merry hunt for nonexistent paintings."

McGuigan dismissed Mozzicato's claims.

"Apparently, the government is relying on sources which include murderers, drug dealers and career criminals," McGuigan said.

Mozzicato's account doesn't answer why, if Gentile knows anything, he continues to ignore the substantial reward and also leaves himself open to ongoing investigation. Also he's in jail.

Gentile is a sworn Mafia soldier, however, according to the FBI.

Other law enforcement sources contradict the FBI by saying he enjoys the publicity that paints him as an old-school adherent to the mob's sacred Omerta oath. Gentile also denies he's a Mafia member.

Mozzicato told agents that he believes Gentile was involved with the stolen art at least 15 years earlier than was initially known, with his involvement reaching back to the late 1990s.

Among other things, Mozzicato told the FBI:

In the late 1990s, he was instructed to move a package of what he suspects were paintings between cars outside a Waltham, Mass., condominium used by him, Gentile, fellow mobster Robert Guarente and other partners of their Boston gang, which was a faction of the Philadelphia Mafia. A day or two later, Mozzicato said Gentile and Guarente drove the purported art to Maine, where Guarente owned a farmhouse. 
Not long afterward, Mozzicato said he listened to an animated discussion between Gentile and Guarente about whether they should give what they referred to only as "a painting" to one of their Philadelphia mob bosses as "tribute." Mozzicato said Gentile argued that the painting was "worth a fortune" and told his old friend Guarente "You're out of your (expletive) mind" to give it away. 
Also in the late 1990s, Mozzicato said Gentile gave him photographs of five stolen paintings and asked him to act as an intermediary in recruiting a buyer. Mozzicato said the potential buyer was shocked by the paintings and complained, half jokingly, that they could be arrested just for talking about them. Mozzicato said Gentile then cut him out of the deal, but acknowledged later that it fell through. 
Mozzicato said he and his cousin saw, on repeated occasions, what he believes was the gilded eagle, cast two centuries ago in France as a finial for a Napoleonic flagstaff. He said they saw it often on a shelf at Gem Auto, the used car business Gentile formerly owned on Route 5 in South Windsor. Mozzicato said he thinks Gentile later sold the eagle. Mozzicato said he identified the finial from a photo provided by the FBI.

There have been several intriguing stories about the missing art. Mozzicato's account, however, is among "the more remarkable" to come to light since the 1990 robbery.

Guess who in this picture is Robert Guarente...

Guarente's farmhouse was located in north Portland, Maine, in the woods. He died from cancer two years later, in 2004.

Investigators searched Guarente's farmhouse and found nothing. A source who knew of his widow Elene's meeting with the Courier regarding her meeting with the FBI offered this account:

She first denied knowing anything about the stolen art work. But then she confessed: "My Bobby had two of the paintings." In additional interviews, she revealed  that her husband kept the paintings in Maine and, after his last release from prison, he passed them to an associate.

She said Guarente put the paintings in their car and they drove to Portland, where Guarente had arranged to meet another couple at a downtown hotel. They sat down for a shore dinner -- after which the men departed together and left the restaurant for a while. Gentile was the man who took possession of the two paintings, Elene said.

Gentile claims he has bee victimized due to the competition for the $5 million reward -- and among those seeking to pocket that money, he said, is Elene Guarente.

"Everything is lies," he said. "They got no proof."

He admits meeting the Guarentes at the Portland hotel. He said he met the couple regularly. Gentile said his friend was sick and broke. As noted, he also said that he and his wife liked to drive and enjoyed occasional getaways at newfound eateries known to have excellent fare. Portland's waterfront was among his favored destinations, Gentile said.

"Bobby Guarente always needed money," Gentile said. "One day he calls me. He said he needed $300 for groceries. That's what he used to call it, 'Groceries.' He was sick at the time."

"I helped him out," Gentile said. "I've helped a lot of people."

Gentile said he remembers picking up the check on the night he and Guarente supposedly ducked out of the restaurant. He recalls that night, he said, because Elene Guarente ordered the menu's most expensive item — the lobster special.

"I'm a sucker," Gentile said. "I'm the one picking up the check."

Elene Guarente implicated him to get back at him, he said, because after her husband died, Gentile, suffering from his own maladies, was unable to continue providing financial assistance.

The widow's session with the FBI in early 2010 stimulated the probe into the crime and also shined a bright spotlight on Gentile, who initially tried to prove he was correct about her claims being false.

As the Courant noted:

He submitted to a polygraph examination, during which he denied having advance knowledge of the Gardner heist, ever possessing a Gardner painting or knowing the location of any of the stolen paintings. The result showed a likelihood of less than 0.1 percent that he was truthful, according to a government filing in federal court.

Searching Gentile's home

In 2011, as part of a pending indictment for drugs, FBI agents searched Gentile's home in Manchester and found, hidden in the basement, money, drugs, guns, ammunition, silencers, explosives, handcuffs -- as well as a stuffed kestrel (a small falcon) and a pair of enormous elephant tusks.

Also found a copy of the March 19, 1990, Boston Herald, which included major coverage of the Gardner heist. With the newspaper was found a piece of paper that contained a handwritten list of the pieces the thieves stole, alongside the corresponding values.