“After 19 years of not hearing a word from the people charged with the task of solving the Great Museum Robbery, they popped up; they wanted to talk,” Abath wrote in the manuscript he shared. To his surprise, one agent told him, “You know, we’ve never been able to eliminate you as a suspect.”
And, he said, they told him they had been watching his bank accounts for years for any signs of sudden wealth.
But if Abath was part of a $500 million art heist, his lifestyle in Brattleboro certainly doesn’t reflect it. He lives with his wife in a modest apartment outside the center of town, where he moved in 1999 to be close to his two children from an earlier relationship.
But investigators say that Abath’s partying lifestyle during the two years he worked at the Gardner could have brought him in contact with the kind of people who might plot a major art theft.
In 1990, Abath was a Berklee School of Music dropout and a member of the struggling rock group Ukiah, and sometimes showed up for the midnight shift at the Gardner drunk or stoned. In a 2005 interview with the Globe — under a grant of anonymity — Abath admitted using marijuana and alcohol before work. In the recent interview, he said he sometimes took LSD and cocaine, too.
The 23-year-old was chronically short of money — the Gardner paid just $7.35 an hour, and his band had to scrape for gigs — so he staged monthly keg parties in Allston that drew hundreds of college-age kids, most of whom were strangers, to raise funds.
On several occasions, he recalled, others who worked as Gardner guards or night watchmen would show up, and invariably the conversation would turn to the inadequacy of the Gardner’s security system, which was plagued by false alarms and featured just a single panic button in case of emergency, located at the front security desk.
“Could someone who had friends who were robbers or in the underworld have heard us complaining how awful the security system was? Absolutely. We were talking about it in the open all the time,” Abath said. “But did I know someone picked it up and used it to rob the place? Absolutely not.”
But investigators are reluctant to rule out the possibility that the thieves had help from the inside since studies show that nearly 90 percent of museum robberies worldwide turn out to be inside jobs. And they’ve questioned Abath closely about his circle of friends and acquaintances in 1990.
On the night of the robbery, Abath said he showed up for work completely sober, having just given his two-week notice to quit the boring job. He and one other watchman would take turns patrolling the museum and staffing the security desk.
Coincidentally, the nearby Museum of Fine Arts had adopted a new security procedure that required night watchmen to get a supervisor’s permission before admitting people after hours — the guards had refused entrance to real Boston police officers who came to the door a few months earlier.
“The museum was at its most vulnerable during the night shift,” explained William P. McAuliffe, the former top State Police commander who instituted the policy after taking over MFA security in 1989. “The entire security rested in the hands of one or two people.”
The Gardner took no such precautions, leaving Abath to make his own decision when the faux police officers rang the buzzer at the entrance on Palace Road at 1:24 a.m. They had been sitting quietly for at least an hour in a civilian car — witnesses recalled it as a hatchback — perhaps trying to avoid the glances of several tipsy college-age people who had emerged from a St. Patrick’s Day party in a nearby apartment building.
About 20 minutes before the thieves came to the door, Abath did something that prompted investigators to ask whether he was signaling the robbers: He opened and then quickly shut the Palace Road door after he had toured the museum galleries and was about to replace his partner at the security desk.
Gardner security officials say that their guards were not supposed to open doors as part of their patrol, and federal investigators have told Abath that none of the other watchmen they interviewed did so.
But Abath vehemently denies he had any bad intentions in opening the museum door.
“I did it to make sure for myself that the door was securely locked,” Abath said. “I don’t know what the others did, but I was trained to do it that way.” He said security logs would show that he tested the door on other nights as well. The FBI seized the logs, but has declined to comment on what they show.Continued...