The lawyer for the latest person of interest in the investigation into the mysterious 1990 art heist at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum said today that his client, despite being hounded by investigators for at least two years, maintains he has no information about the notorious crime.
A. Ryan McGuigan, the lawyer for 75-year-old Robert Gentile, said federal prosecutors are torturing his client by keeping him jailed on drug distribution charges in Connecticut in an effort to squeeze information out from him about the museum heist.
But “he spoke with authorities, he’s cooperated with them as best as he could, he just didn’t have anything for them,” McGuigan said, adding that Gentile has even been brought before a grand jury to testify.
Gentile, a reputed member of the Mafia from Manchester, Conn., is being held without bail following his February arrest for allegedly distributing illegally obtained prescription drugs. He faces the potential for far more serious charges after investigators allegedly found guns and other materials, including silencers and ammunition, during a search of his home.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Connecticut said an investigation into Gentile remains ongoing.
McGuigan said the original drug charges were based on information provided by a confidential informant who had tried to entice Gentile into egregious, illegal behavior before.
He questioned whether his client was set up by the confidential informat, whose relationship with Gentile suspiciously began after investigators identified Gentile as a person of interest in the Gardner art theft.
“If you believe in that coincidence, I’ve got a bridge to sell you,” McGuigan said. “This case is a pretext to get him incarcerated to the point they believe he will give information up, and in all honesty, he just doesn’t have it.”
Federal prosecutors acknowledged during a bail hearing in US District Court in Hartford on Tuesday that they believe Gentile may have information about the painting thefts, the Hartford Courant first reported. Tom Carson, a spokesman for the US attorney’s office in Connecticut, confirmed the interest in Gentile related to the museum investigation, but would not elaborate.
Assistant US Attorney John Durham, the same prosecutor who led the investigation into the FBI’s scandalous ties with organized crime figures in Boston, said in court that discussions with Gentile had so far been unproductive.
The heist remains one of the most mysterious thefts of art in the world, and the Gardner Museum is offering a $5 million reward for any information. Federal investigators have also offered immunity for information about the theft.
The heist was pulled off on March 18, 1990. Authorities said at least two men dressed as police officers conned their way into the museum in the early morning hours, tied up the security guards, and left with 13 masterworks, including three Rembrandts, and five by Degas. Some of the stolen pieces could sell for $50 millio on the open market, art experts say.
Investigators have long suspected Boston’s underworld of carrying out such an orchestrated crime.
Gentile is said to be a “made” member of the Mafia with ties to a Philadelphia crime family, Durham said in court Tuesday. He was introduced to the Mafia by capo Robert Luisi, who was from Medford and had ties to Philadelphia, according to Durham.
Luisi was a well-known Boston Mafia figure who pleaded guilty in 2000 to the murder of a rival gangster and who agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for a lighter sentence. He later reneged on cooperating and was sentenced in 2003 to 20 years on cocaine charges.
Durham said in court Tuesday that Luisi implicated his associates, including Gentile, in other crimes.
McGuigan, Gentile’s lawyer, said his client had no information about the heist, suggesting that if he did, he would have likely stepped forward and collected the $5 million reward.
In the meantime, he said, his client – whom he described as an elderly, obese man – is growing ill in a detention center awaiting trial as prosecutors press him for information.
“It’s the largest unsolved art theft in the history of the world, and they’ve had one lead in 22 years that went nowhere. This is the second one,” McGuigan said.Milton J. Valencia can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.