Law enforcement agents search a car at the home of reputed Connecticut mobster Robert Gentile in Manchester, Conn., looking for paintings stolen from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in 1990, worth half a billion dollars.
Photo credit: (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Law enforcement agents dig in the front yard of the home of reputed Connecticut mobster Robert Gentile in Manchester, Conn., Thursday, May 10, 2012. Gentile's lawyer A. Ryan McGuigan says the FBI warrant allows the use of ground-penetrating radar and believes they are looking for paintings stolen from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in 1990, worth half a billion dollars.
Photo credit: (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
May 11--MANCHESTER -- Dozens of FBI agents -- some in hazardous material suits, others with ground-penetrating radar and bomb-sniffing dogs -- carried out another search Thursday at the home of reputed mobster Robert Gentile, who authorities suspect has information about a sensational art theft from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
Agents used the radar to search for buried objects in the neat yard around the 75-year-old Gentile's suburban ranch home. They spent hours inspecting his 1989 Buick, parked in the driveway. They carried boxes of material from the house and a backyard shed.
There was no indication that they found any sign of the $500 million or so in irreplaceable art stolen from the Gardner over the night of March 17 and early morning of March 18 in 1990. Among the materials that the FBI carried from or dug up around Gentile's home Thursday were a gun and a silencer found buried in the backyard, according to people familiar with the events.
The pistol and silencer are likely to result in new charges against Gentile, a sworn member of the Mafia and convicted felon who has been denied bail and held in prison since February on drug and weapons charges. Federal authorities have not tied Gentile to the Gardner job in public, but they have pressed him privately for information about the heist for years, according to a variety of sources familiar with the investigation.
When the FBI picked up the hot-tempered Gentile and a 75-year-old co-defendant in February on charges of illegally selling prescription painkillers, agents asked about the Gardner theft as they drove him from his home to the federal courthouse in Hartford, according to the co-defendant.
Gentile -- short, white-haired, overweight and nearly crippled by an assortment of maladies -- claims to know nothing.
"Lies, lies," Gentile said while appearing in court in March. "It's all lies."
Gentile's lawyers claim that federal prosecutors are piling charges on a "sick old man" in a futile effort to force him to divulge information that he doesn't have about the Gardner job.
"They are telling my client he is going to die in jail unless he gives them more information, and he doesn't have any more information," A. Ryan McGuigan, one of Gentile's lawyers, said Thursday. "I'm sure that if they can charge him with another crime, they will."
The Gardner heist, the biggest art theft ever, devastated the art world. The inability of investigators around the world to find even a hint of the stolen art has fed an enduring mystery. If Gentile has any knowledge to share about the disposition of the artworks, it would be the biggest break yet in the case.
Among the stolen pieces were three Rembrandts, a Vermeer, a Manet and five drawings by Degas. One of the stolen pieces, "Storm on the Sea of Galilee," is Rembrandt's only known seascape.
At least two thieves were involved in the theft, smashing frames to rip out the canvases. They dressed as police officers and used the uniforms to trick one of two museum guards into opening a door about 1:30 a.m., as the celebration ofSt. Patrick's Daywound down in Boston.
FBI agents see in Gentile not an old man who limps with a cane but a violent gangster who has been active in rackets in Hartford and Boston since the 1960s. In the 1990s, not long after the Gardner job, he was associated with a Boston mob crew run by Robert Luisi, a Philadelphia gangster who moved into a vacuum created by the FBI's success against the homegrown New England mob.
It was Luisi who "made" Gentile by inducting him into the Philadelphia mafia group, federal prosecutors said.
During the 1990s, Gentile was reported by at least one FBI informant to have been associated with gangsters who had access to the paintings, according to FBI reports. Among them is Robert Guarente, a robber and drug dealer who, until his death in 2004, was suspected of having knowledge of the paintings, according to several sources.
FBI agents from Boston and New Haven descended on Gentile's quiet neighborhood before 8 a.m. Thursday in at least two trucks and dozens of cars. They erected tents to work beneath and stuck brightly colored plastic flags into the parts of the yard they penetrated with radar waves.
News crews from Boston and Hartford were herded across the street by the Manchester Police Department. Neighbors had to navigate dozens of law enforcement and news vehicles parked on a narrow suburban street. A news helicopter filmed the search from above.
Gentile has been detained in a prison in Rhode Island since Feb. 10, when he was arrested on charges of conspiracy to distribute and distribution of prescription painkillers, such as Oxycontin, Percocet and Dilaudid.
Federal agents searched his home and backyard shed a first time when they arrested him on the drug charges. The charged him additionally with weapons offenses after the search turned up what a federal judge characterized as a "veritable arsenal" of explosives, guns, silencers, handcuffs, brass knuckles and other weapons.
A federal prosecutor said the first search yielded about two dozen crates of drugs, cash, phony identification documents, weaponry and police uniforms that agents hauled out of the house. The judge called Gentile a threat to society and denied him bail.
Gentile pleaded not guilty to both the drug and weapons charges. As a felon, the enhanced penalties he faces if convicted could amount to a life sentence.
The FBI returned to the house with a new search warrant Thursday, authorizing agents to search the property and the earth beneath it for firearms.
"Ostensibly, they are looking for firearms," McGuigan said outside Gentile's house, "but they are really looking for paintings."
During arguments in court over Gentile's release on bond while he awaits trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Durham tied him to a theft in Massachusetts without mentioning the stolen art.
"The government has reason to believe that Mr. Gentile had some involvement with stolen property out of the District of Massachusetts," Durham said.
Durham also implied in court that the government has had unproductive discussions with Gentile about the missing paintings.
On Thursday, the FBI, the U.S. Attorney's office and the Gardner museum all refused to discuss the search.
The museum said in an email that it "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."
Friends of Gentile have said that he would have claimed the reward long ago if he knew what had happened to the paintings.
Copyright 2012 - The Hartford Courant, Conn.