Law enforcement officials descended today on a Manchester, Conn., house, digging in the yard of Robert Gentile, an alleged mobster who officials suspect may have information about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art theft.
Frances Drive was choked with unmarked police vehicles and television news crews and their vehicles, a resident said in a telephone interview this morning.
Gentile’s attorney, A. Ryan McGuigan, said today that the FBI is leading the search.
“They have brought with them a ground-penetrating radar device, as well as two beagles and a ferret, to look for what they say are weapons. But we all know what they are actually looking for—and they are looking for the paintings,” McGuigan said.
Tom Carson, a spokesman for the US attorney’s office in Connecticut, declined comment on the search in an e-mail.
“The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum does not have any comments about the Robert Gentile case,” the museum said in a statement. “The Museum continues to offer a $5 million reward for information leading to the recovery of the artworks in good condition. Anyone with information about the theft, the location of the stolen artworks, and/or the investigation, should contact the Gardner Museum.”
Authorities have said that at least two men dressed as police officers talked their way into the Gardner on March 18, 1990, tied up the security guards, and left with 13 masterworks, including three by Rembrandt and five by Degas. Some of the stolen pieces could sell for $50 million on the open market, art experts say.
Despite an intensive search by law enforcement, no one has ever been charged in the case and none of the paintings have ever been recovered.
Gentile has been jailed on federal drug charges in what McGuigan has characterized as an effort to pressure the 75-year-old man into admitting he has information about the Gardner robbery when he does not.
“This case comes down to the fact that this guy sold his own painkillers to some kid who was working for the FBI, so they could search his house,’’ McGuigan said. “It’s a ruse.”
The neighbor said she knew Gentile and his wife, both of whom have been in the home for many years. She said she was concerned for the well-being of Gentile’s wife, who has continued to live in the home since her husband was taken into federal custody earlier this year.
“They are very nice people, very quiet people,’’ the neighbor said.
Another neighbor, Joseph O’Reilly, said police cars and news vans have been “coming and going all day. None of the cars look like police cars. Not one of them you would think is a police cruiser.” O’Reilly said he cannot see the full search from his house, but said his neighborhood is abuzz with interest.
“There are people walking around on the street,” he said. “You can tell everybody is kind of curious.”
O’Reilly said he moved to Frances Drive about a year ago, and was surprised when he heard that a man up the street was arrested. “Somebody mentioned that there was an article in the paper in February that they arrested a mobster up the street from my house,” he said. “I turned on the news this morning and saw our street on Channel 6.”
At the museum in the Fenway area this afternoon, several patrons expressed hope that the investigation would lead to the recovery of the famous works.
“It has been the great mystery of the Back Bay,” said Wendy Swart Grossman, a Brookline consultant and writer. “It [the heist] left huge gaping holes in the collection, and it’s a huge story. It’s a fascinating piece of the Boston story.”
Lisa Pinto, an administrative worker from Worcester, sized up some of the possible challenges investigators face in the long-running case. “My theory is whoever did that heist was knocked off because no one is talking, but somebody would have to know where the art is,” said Pinto, 45, who was visiting the Gardner for the first time. “I think it’s such a well-kept secret, but money talks and greed usually overcomes common sense and loyalties.”
Kate Connell, 27, of Somerville said the puzzle lends the museum a special air.
“In a way, I find the mystery of the heist intriguing,” Connell said. “The haunting feeling of those empty frames is very interesting.”
McGuigan said that law enforcement has acted courteously towards Gentile’s family today, adding that agents stopped at the home of Gentile’s son to let him know about the excavation effort before it began.
Gentile is being held without bail following his arrest in February on drug charges. An earlier search of his home yielded silencers, ammunition, and firearms.Globe correspondent Patrick D. Rosso contributed to this report.