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Was anyone watching the Gardner Museum watchman?

Former Gardner Museum night watchman Rick Abath is pictured at an undisclosed location on Thursday, February 21, 2013. On the anniversary of the infamous Isabella Stewart Gardner museum heist, Abath, whose mistakes let the thieves -- disguised as police -- into the building is going public with his story. Twenty-three years later, investigators are still interested to know if Abath was in on the never-solved theft. (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)
Former Gardner Museum night watchman Rick Abath is pictured at an undisclosed location on Feb. 21. Twenty-three years later, investigators are still interested to know if Abath was in on the never-solved theft. (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)For The Boston Globe

Night watchman Richard Abath may have made the most costly mistake in art history shortly after midnight on March 18, 1990. Police found him handcuffed and duct-taped in the basement of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum seven hours after he unwisely opened the thick oak door to two thieves who then stole 13 works of art valued at more than $500 million.

For years, investigators discounted the hapless Abath’s role in the unsolved crime, figuring his excessive drinking and pot smoking contributed to his disastrous decision to let in the robbers, who were dressed as police officers. Even if the duo had been real cops, watchmen weren’t supposed to admit anyone who showed up uninvited at 1:24 a.m.

But, after 23 years of pursuing dead ends, including a disappointing search of an alleged mobster’s home last year, investigators are focusing on intriguing evidence that suggests the former night watchman might have been in on the crime all along — or at least knows more about it than he has admitted.

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Why, they ask, were Abath’s footsteps the only ones picked up on motion detectors in a first floor gallery where one of the stolen paintings, by French impressionist Edouard Manet, was taken? And why did he open the side entrance to the museum minutes before the robbers rang the buzzer to get in? Was he signaling to them that he was prepared for the robbery to begin?

No one publicly calls Abath a suspect, but federal prosecutors grilled him on these issues last fall. And one former prosecutor in the case has written a recently published novel about the Gardner heist in which the night watchman let the thieves into the museum to pay off a large cocaine debt.

“The more I learn about Rick, the more disappointed I get in him,” said Lyle W. Grindle, the former director of security at the Gardner who hired Abath in 1988.

Now, for the first time, Abath is discussing publicly what happened and admitting that some of his actions are hard to explain, but insisting he had nothing to do with what is regarded as the biggest art heist ever.

Abath, then a rock musician moonlighting as a security guard, said he opened the doors that night because he was intimidated by men dressed as police officers who claimed to be investigating a disturbance. His own uniform untucked and wearing a cowboy hat, Abath knew he looked more like a suspect than a guard.

“There they stood, two of Boston’s finest waving at me through the glass. Hats, coats, badges, they looked like cops,” Abath wrote in a manuscript on the robbery that he shared with The Globe. “I buzzed them into the museum.”

Abath, now 46 and working as a teacher’s aide in Vermont, pointed out that his explanation passed two lie detector tests right after the crime. However, he admits he can’t explain why motion sensors in the gallery that housed the Manet detected footsteps only at the two times Abath said he was in the room — and not later when Abath was bound in the basement and the thieves were looting other galleries.

“I totally get it. I understand how suspicious it all is,” said Abath in a recent interview. “But I don’t understand why [investigators] think . . . I should know an alternative theory as to what happened or why it did happen.”

Now that FBI agents have captured elusive mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, the fate of the Gardner’s stolen masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas and Manet has replaced “where’s Whitey?” as Boston’s most enduring mystery.

No one has ever been charged in the crime and seemingly promising leads, like the one that led to the search of alleged mobster Robert Gentile’s Connecticut home last May, have invariably fizzled. With no sign of the art works, investigators are left to wonder if the thieves died and took their secret to the grave, or if they are in prison and unwilling to cooperate out of fear of retribution by other conspirators.

But US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said the investigation — carried out by her office, the FBI, and Gardner security director Anthony Amore — remains “active, and, at times, fast-moving” even though the statute of limitations for prosecuting the robbery ran out in 1995. Ortiz could still charge anyone possessing the stolen paintings, but she said her office would consider immunity in return for help recovering the masterpieces.

“I am optimistic, and in fact everyone involved in this investigation is optimistic, that one day soon those paintings will be returned to their rightful place in the Fenway,” said Ortiz in a statement.

Abath, who agreed to speak to the Globe to gain publicity for a book he is writing about the robbery, said he first realized he was under suspicion four years ago when FBI agents asked to meet him at a Brattleboro, Vt., coffee shop.

“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.

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?”

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