Abath said he knew he wasn’t supposed to let uninvited guests inside, but he was less clear on whether the rule applied to police officers. With his partner patrolling the galleries, Abath decided to buzz inside the men dressed as police officers.
As the pair walked into the Gardner, Abath was at the security desk with quick access to the panic button that would have notified a security firm of an emergency. But one of the thieves — who Abath said was about 5 feet 7 inches tall, with gold-rimmed glasses and a “greasy looking mustache” — asked him to step away, saying, “I think there is a warrant out for your arrest.”
In quick succession, Abath said the officers asked for his ID, put him up against the wall and handcuffed him. Abath said he thought it was just a misunderstanding until he realized the officers hadn’t frisked him before he was cuffed — and the officer’s mustache was made of wax.
“We were being robbed!” Abath wrote in his manuscript.
Abath and his partner, who was also handcuffed as soon as he arrived at the security desk, were wrapped in duct tape and taken to different areas of the basement where they remained until police found them eight hours later. By then, the thieves — along with Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” Vermeer’s “The Concert,” and the other art works — were long gone.
Although the masterpieces the thieves stole are valued in the millions, they left behind what is considered Boston’s most prized painting, Titian’s “Rape of Europa,” leaving investigators to wonder about their sophistication. The brutishness with which they treated the art, cutting two Rembrandts from their golden frames while breaking the frames on two Degas sketches, convinced investigators that the men were common criminals taking advantage of a “score” rather than experts commissioned to steal particular works.
Perhaps most baffling is why they spent only 81 minutes inside the museum, mostly in the Dutch Room and Short Gallery on the second floor, when they could have continued undetected for hours.
Equally perplexing, motion detectors that tripped as the thieves made their way through other areas failed to record them entering or leaving the first floor’s Blue Room, where “Chez Tortoni” by Manet was taken. There, the only footsteps detected, at 12:27 and again at 12:53 a.m., matched the times Abath said he passed through on patrol.
Adding to the strangeness, police found the frame from the Manet on security chief Grindle’s chair near the security desk. Was this the gesture of a disgruntled employee sending a message to the boss?
Abath said investigators all but accused him of stealing the missing Manet.
“They wanted to know if I had taken the painting and stashed it somewhere,” Abath said. “I told them as I’ve said a hundred times before and since, I had absolutely nothing to do with the robbers or the robbery.”
Abath’s denials did not deter James J. McGovern, who worked on the federal investigation for the US Attorney’s office in 2006, from writing a novel that portrays a night security guard as an accomplice in the Gardner heist.
In 2012’s “Artful Deception,” McGovern writes that the watchman let the thieves inside to pay off a large cocaine debt. The character with whom the night watchman makes the deal closely resembles David A. Turner, the 1985 Braintree High graduate who has long been considered a suspect in the robbery.
Turner was sentenced to nearly 40 years in prison for involvement in a 1999 scheme to rob an armored car warehouse in Easton, a plot that he has contended in court was set up by the FBI to force his cooperation in solving the Gardner crime.
But Abath said he never had any connection to Turner — and has no recollection of buying cocaine from him — though he does say that Turner looks vaguely like the younger, more stocky of the two thieves.
Despite the lingering suspicions about his conduct on the night of the robbery and the admitted excesses of his lifestyle at the time, Abath said he does not feel ashamed that his actions led to the greatest loss of art masterpieces in world history.
“I know I wasn’t suppose to let strangers into the museum after hours, but no one told me what to do if the police showed up saying they were there to investigate a disturbance,” Abath said. “What was I supposed to do?”
Stephen Kurkjian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.