Edmund H. Mahony
How A CT Man Is Helping The FBI Solve Gardner Museum Heist
For five years, investigators have focused on a once-obscure gangster from Hartford as perhaps the last, best hope of cracking history's richest art heist, the robbery a quarter century ago of $500 million in paintings and other works from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
But what put Robert "The Cook" Gentile at the center of the mystery and why authorities have pursued him relentlessly has never been explained — until now.
In a series of interviews with The Courant, a longtime Gentile associate who agreed to work with the FBI said he told agents that Gentile has acted for years as if he had access to the missing art, has talked about selling it and, for a time, kept what appeared to have been a lesser-known Gardner piece — a 200-year-old gilded eagle — at a used car lot he owned in South Windsor.
Sebastian "Sammy" Mozzicato delivered the astonishing account of Gentile and the world's best known stolen art to the FBI a year ago, after agents, dangling a $5 million reward as a lure, enlisted him and a cousin as secret cooperators in the recovery effort. Investigators have suspected for years — and Gentile has denied for just as long — that he is withholding information about the art.
Agents recruited the cousins, Gentile associates for decades, as participants in a sting that agents hoped would shake loose enough information to locate the art.
On the night of March 18, 1990, two thieves disguised as Boston police officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and stole 13 works of art valued at about $500 million. The FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office continue to investigate, and the museum offers a $5 million reward for information leading to the artworks' recovery.
The sting failed when Gentile grew suspicious, Mozzicato said. But before Gentile walked away, the cousins enabled the FBI to record him committing to the sale of multiple paintings for millions of dollars. Mozzicato said he believes Gentile has had access to the art since the late 1990s — which is when investigators suspect he was part of a Boston gang that gained control of the art from whoever stole it.
Sources close to the investigation said Mozzicato's account to the newspaper is consistent both with what he told the FBI and with what agents have collected elsewhere. His story of the art, from the mob's perspective, is now at the heart of the investigation.
A federal prosecutor has even claimed — during a proceeding in an unrelated case — that Gentile "specifically suggested" he has two of the paintings. But, suspicion aside, none of the art has been recovered, and no one has been charged with stealing or hiding it.
The government's assertion and Mozzicato's inside account enrage Gentile, 80, whose health problems have reduced him to rolling around a federal jail in a wheelchair while awaiting trial on weapons charges. He has been locked up on drug and gun charges for most of the last five years.
In repeated interviews over the past year and a half, Gentile has spat angry denials at suggestions that he knows anything about the heist or missing art. But he can be vague, too. He shrugs and smiles when told that people who know him argue that he is a swindler who made himself a top Gardner target by claiming — falsely — that he could obtain the art to cheat would-be buyers.
Apparently, the government is relying on sources which include murderers, drug dealers and career criminals...Not exactly fine company to keep.- Defense Lawyer A. Ryan McGuigan
In a court filing, defense lawyer A. Ryan McGuigan implies that Gentile's con is so slick he duped the FBI. McGuigan argues that Gentile was running a "scam for all it was worth in hopes of getting some quick cash" and "proceeded to lead his merry band of informers and double agents on a merry hunt for nonexistent paintings."
In an interview, McGuigan dismissed Mozzicato's claims.
"Apparently, the government is relying on sources which include murderers, drug dealers and career criminals," McGuigan said. "Not exactly fine company to keep."
One aspect of Mozzicato's account is undisputed: It explains how someone who for years had law enforcement convinced that he was a second-rate crook became the potential key to recovering some of the world's most revered art. It doesn't answer why, if Gentile knows anything, he continues to turn up his nose at the reward and submit to continuous investigation and arrest.
Federal prosecutors contend Gentile is a sworn Mafia soldier, and some in law enforcement speculate that he is enjoying the consternation he is causing by adhering to the mob's oath of silence. Gentile denies being a member of the Mafia.
Mozzicato played a leading part in the failed FBI sting in 2014 and '15. But he has told agents that he believes Gentile was involved with the art at least 15 years earlier, beginning in the late 1990s. Among other things, Mozzicato said he told the FBI how:
>>In the late 1990s, he was instructed to move a package of what he suspects were paintings between cars outside a Waltham, Mass., condominium used by him, Gentile, fellow mobster Robert Guarente and other partners of their Boston gang, which was a faction of the Philadelphia Mafia. A day or two later, Mozzicato said Gentile and Guarente drove the purported art to Maine, where Guarente owned a farmhouse.
Not long afterward, Mozzicato said he listened to an animated discussion between Gentile and Guarente about whether they should give what they referred to only as "a painting" to one of their Philadelphia mob bosses as "tribute." Mozzicato said Gentile argued that the painting was "worth a fortune" and told his old friend Guarente "You're out of your (expletive) mind" to give it away.
Also in the late 1990s, Mozzicato said Gentile gave him photographs of five stolen paintings and asked him to act as an intermediary in recruiting a buyer. Mozzicato said the potential buyer was shocked by the paintings and complained, half jokingly, that they could be arrested just for talking about them. Mozzicato said Gentile then cut him out of the deal, but acknowledged later that it fell through.
Mozzicato said he and his cousin saw, on repeated occasions, what he believes was the gilded eagle, cast two centuries ago in France as a finial for a Napoleonic flagstaff. He said they saw it often on a shelf at Gem Auto, the used car business Gentile formerly owned on Route 5 in South Windsor. Mozzicato said he thinks Gentile later sold the eagle. Mozzicato said he identified the finial from a photo provided by the FBI.
There have been several intriguing, if murky, stories about the missing art, but Mozzicato's is one of the more remarkable to emerge since the robbery on March 18, 1990.
Early that morning, as St. Patrick's Day celebrations wound down across Boston, two thieves disguised themselves as police officers and bluffed their way into the Gardner, an Italianate palazzo in Boston's Fenway. They bound the guards, battered and slashed some of the world's most recognizable art from walls and frames, and disappeared.
The thieves took 13 pieces, including "The Concert" by Vermeer and two Rembrandts, one of them his only known seascape, "Storm on the Sea of Galilee." The art was uninsured under the terms of the bequest that created the museum, and empty frames now hang where art was displayed.
In spite of the reward and promises of no-questions-asked immunity for anyone returning the art, the investigation has run down repeated dead ends, in many cases because promising targets are dying off among the aging circle of New England mobsters. Nonetheless, a federal grand jury in New Haven was actively investigating last summer and fall.
An Unlikely Break
It was not was until decades after the robbery and the events described by Mozzicato at the Waltham condo during the late 1990s that Gentile moved to the center of the Gardner investigation. It happened entirely by chance early in 2010.
Gardner investigators were in Maine, tracking Guarente, who they believed had managed to take control of at least some of the art. He was a well-connected Boston bank robber and drug dealer who was known by the nickname "Unk."
Guarente's farmhouse was in the woods north of Portland. After his last arrest for cocaine distribution in the late 1990s, he flirted with the idea of cooperating with drug investigators. He didn't. He went to prison, moved to Maine upon his release and died from cancer two years later, in 2004.
Gentile acknowledges that he and Guarente had been friends since the 1970s, when he said they met at a regional automobile auction near Hartford. Law enforcement and other sources said the two were sworn in, with others in their Boston gang, as soldiers in the Philadelphia Mafia in the late 1990s.
A search by the Gardner investigators of Guarente's farmhouse turned up empty. But they got a break when they returned the keys to his widow, Elene Guarente. She declined to discuss the encounter with The Courant. But a person with knowledge of the event gave the following account:
After first denying even being aware of the Gardner museum, she blurted out, inexplicably, "My Bobby had two of the paintings."
Numerous unmarked law enforcement vehicles surrounded the Frances Drive home of reputed gangster Robert Gentile. Authorities suspect Gentile has information about the irreplaceable art that vanished in a sensational theft from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
In ensuing interviews, she said that her husband kept the paintings in Maine and, after his release from prison for the last time, he decided to pass them to an associate.
She said Guarente put the paintings in their car and they drove to Portland, where Guarente had arranged to meet another couple at a downtown hotel. After the couples sat down for a shore dinner, she said the men left briefly and walked outside.
She identified Gentile as the man who took possession of the two paintings.
Gentile claims he is the victim of lies or speculation by hustlers competing for the museum's $5 million reward. Elene Guarente, he said, is chief among them.
"Everything is lies," he said. "They got no proof."
He admits meeting the Guarentes at the Portland hotel. He said he met the couple regularly. Guarente was sick and broke, and Gentile said he was supporting him. Gentile said he and his wife liked to drive and enjoyed arranging weekend getaways or day trips around promising restaurants. He said Portland's vibrant waterfront was a favorite destination.
"Bobby Guarente always needed money," Gentile said. "One day he calls me. He said he needed $300 for groceries. That's what he used to call it, 'Groceries.' He was sick at the time."
Everything is lies...They got no proof.- Robert Gentile
"I helped him out," Gentile said. "I've helped a lot of people."
Gentile said he remembers picking up the check because Elene Guarente ordered the most expensive item on the menu — the lobster special.
"I'm a sucker," Gentile said. "I'm the one picking up the check."
He claims Elene Guarente implicated him out of spite. When her husband died, Gentile said he told her that he had health problems of his own and could no longer help her financially.
Complain as Gentile might, Elene Guarente's spontaneous statement early in 2010 invigorated the investigation and brought its weight down on Gentile. To disprove her allegation, he said he decided to cooperate himself. It did not go well.
He submitted to a polygraph examination, during which he denied having advance knowledge of the Gardner heist, ever possessing a Gardner painting or knowing the location of any of the stolen paintings. The result showed a likelihood of less than 0.1 percent that he was truthful, according to a government filing in federal court.
Gentile and his lawyer claim the results are skewed because the test was improperly administered.
The FBI next recruited a cooperating Hartford mobster "to engage [Gentile] in general conversation," according to the same filing. Gentile boasted to the cooperator that he and Guarente were soldiers in the Philadelphia Mafia. He said Guarente "had masterminded the whole thing," and had "flipped" before he died — a reference to Guarente's flirtation with cooperation. When the informant asked Gentile if he had the paintings, Gentile "just smiled," according to the filing.
Prosecutors withdrew Gentile's cooperation agreement early in 2011, claiming he lied when testifying before the Gardner grand jury.
A year later, they were preparing to indict him for selling prescription painkillers. When agents searched his small, suburban home in Manchester, they discovered the cellar was packed with money, drugs, guns, ammunition, silencers, explosives, handcuffs and a couple of odd pieces — a stuffed kestrel and a pair of enormous elephant tusks.
Significantly, they also found a copy of the March 19, 1990, Boston Herald, the edition dominated by the Gardner heist. With the newspaper was a handwritten list of the pieces the thieves stole and corresponding values.
As with just about everything else turned up in the Gardner case, the list of paintings and prices has a murky provenance.
Massachusetts art thief Florian "Al" Monday, who orchestrated the robbery of a Rembrandt from the Worcester Art Museum in 1972, said in an interview with The Courant that he wrote the list and that the values were his estimates of what the Gardner pieces were worth on the black market. Monday said he gave the list to Paul Papasodero, a forger, thief and hair stylist from Milford, Mass.
Gentile said he and Papasodero were friends. When Papasodero died in 2010, Gentile said he attended the funeral. Gentile said in an interview he got the list from Papasodero when, about a dozen years ago, he found himself — inadvertently and entirely innocently — in the middle of a scam by Guarente to sell paintings he believes Guarente did not have.
Based partly on what the FBI dragged out of his cellar, Gentile was charged with drug and gun offenses and sentenced to 21/2 years in prison. The government told him he could skip prison and go home with the reward if he led the FBI to the art. Gentile said he knew nothing and served the time.
When he was released in April 2014, Mozzicato and his cousin were waiting.
Neither was what could be called a model citizen. Mozzicato had been charged with crimes repeatedly, but had avoided conviction on charges such as racketeering, extortion and assault. His cousin, Ronnie Bowes, had been convicted of murder.
This is about the people who can't see those paintings hanging on the wall. That art should be returned. Of course, the $5 million reward doesn't sound too bad either.- Sebastian "Sammy" Mozzicato
Mozzicato said he had reformed and was selling cars at a suburban Hartford dealership and said his cousin was selling antiques from a shop in Charlton, Mass., when the FBI tracked them down and offered them a crack at the $5 million. The two men, through their families, had known Gentile most of their lives. Bowes had been diagnosed with cancer and, at the time, had been told he had only months to live.
Bowes had left Connecticut years earlier, in the early 1980s, to try his hand at the drug business in South Florida. Something went wrong one night in 1983 after he agreed to sell 50 pounds of marijuana to four men from Tennessee on a swampy key in the Florida Straits, according to court records. When the smoke cleared, the Tennesseans were dead, and someone had shot off one of Bowes' thumbs.
The police caught him in Vernon. He was extradited to Key West, convicted on three murder charges and sentenced to death. An appeals court agreed with his claim of self defense and released him after 14 years. He was back in Connecticut in the late 1990s.
By the time of Gentile's release, Mozzicato said he was persuaded by events dating to the late 1990s and the events at the Waltham condominium that Gentile had access to the Gardner art. Incidents that, years earlier, appeared to be insignificant or unconnected seemed to have fallen into a pattern, he said.
There was the transfer of suspected paintings between cars and the argument about a painting as tribute to the Philadelphia mob. Mozzicato said he had been baffled initially by the frightened reaction of the potential buyer to whom he showed five photographs of paintings. He said he became convinced when, pressed by the FBI to identify the gilded eagle he said he saw at Gentile's used car lot, he selected a photograph of the stolen Gardner finial from an FBI photo array.
"I'm no art expert," Mozzicato said. "But I know this is bigger than me. It's bigger than Bobby. This is about the people who can't see those paintings hanging on the wall. That art should be returned. Of course, the $5 million reward doesn't sound too bad either."
The FBI arranged to have the cousins be among the first to welcome Gentile home from prison. Mozzicato said he was sitting on a bench at a shopping plaza in South Windsor when Gentile, understated as ever, drove up in his old Buick. Bowes was his passenger. Mozzicato said he jumped in back.
Gentile was so heavy he couldn't fasten his seat belt. Since the Gardner heist had made him a hot FBI target, Gentile was afraid any arrest, even a seat belt violation, could jeopardize his parole.
"He's got bungee cords he's got to use for the seat belt," Mozzicato said. "He says, 'I can't get arrested. The seat belt don't fit. They told me to buy this thing. I'll use this.' He's in the car. He can barely turn."
Mozzicato said he began making Gardner references immediately. He complained that he and Bowes, well-known to law enforcement as Gentile associates, were being harassed by the FBI's Gardner team. He said he told Gentile that the agents knew Gentile had enlisted him in an attempt to sell a Gardner painting. Gentile growled that the FBI didn't know what it was talking about, but referred specifically to the prospective buyer, Mozzicato said.
Mozzicato said agents were listening to and recording the conversation — and those that followed — over concealed transmitters the cousins wore.
He said he and Bowes were soon meeting regularly with Gentile, handing him cash provided by the government, a supposed acknowledge that Gentile, a made member of the Mafia, was the boss.
"We're giving him envelopes. 'Here Boss. How you doing?'" Mozzicato said. "He'd look inside and say, 'Hey kid. You did good today, kid. Who would have thought? This is like old times. Let's go get lunch.'"
The money was meant to reinforce a fiction the FBI hoped would induce Gentile to produce the art. Mozzicato said he and Bowes were claiming that they had created a marijuana distribution network and were flush with cash. More to the point, they told Gentile they had a way to earn even more — the rich New Jersey dealer who was buying their pot had devised a foolproof plan to cash in on the Gardner art.
Mozzicato said the cousins told Gentile that the dealer would pay $500,000 for a painting. The painting would be delivered to a lawyer in Seattle, who would arrange to return it to the museum anonymously and collect a reward under the museum's no-questions-asked offer. Gentile was promised "two ends" of the transaction — the $500,000 up-front and a piece of whatever the reward turned out to be for a single painting.
Mozzicato said he told Gentile: "'If it goes good, the first one, you can do it again, for all the paintings. Everyone's got a chance to make a lot of money.' "
Gentile seemed intrigued, Mozzicato said, but would not act. Over spring and summer in 2014, Mozzicato said the cousins pressed and complained that he was missing a chance at big money. He said Gentile waved the subject aside or ignored them. The reaction was not unexpected, Mozzicato said. Gentile could be obstinate when pressed and suspicious when pressed harder.
Gentile told the cousins that he finally agreed to test the plan with one painting. Mozzicato said he committed over a lunch with the cousins at La Casa Bella in South Windsor. Mozzicato said the FBI listened to the conversation from the parking lot.
"Bobby starts going, 'If that goes over good, we could probably do others,'" Mozzicato said. "My cousin and I are thinking: 'Bobby's dead in the water. This is all on tape.'"
Bowes wanted to leave the restaurant that minute to get a painting, Mozzicato said, but Gentile applied the brakes again. Mozzicato said Gentile wanted five days, maybe a week, to put the deal together. On one of those days, Gentile said he would have to take a five-hour drive, one way.
"Here he is saying, 'Yes. I'll get it. We'll do it for half a million. Set it up. I need a week.' My cousin says to Bobby, 'I'll go with you .' Bobby says, 'No, no, no. Me and Sammy got to go. Sammy knows the guy we got to see.'"
Mozzicato said Gentile would not reveal why he needed a week, where he was driving to, whom he was seeing or where the paintings were or how many he could get.
Bowes insisted that the cousins be allowed to tell the fictitious New Jersey pot buyer to get ready for a painting, Mozzicato said.
Mozzicato said the FBI recorded Gentile answering, "Yes, I'll do it."
'The Deal Sounds Good'
But the next time they met, Gentile was stalling again, Mozzicato said. To prod him, Mozzicato said the FBI arranged to have the cousins introduce him to an undercover agent posing as a representative of the New Jersey pot dealer. Over another lunch, the agent told Gentile that his boss might shut down the pot business if Gentile did not sell a painting.
Gentile responded with a threat of his own. Federal prosecutor John Durham described the exchange during a bail hearing in court earlier this year, providing a rare public statement about the government's interest in Gentile.
"Mr. Gentile specifically stated to the FBI undercover operative that he, Mr. Gentile, is a made member of La Cosa Nostra," Durham said. "Mr. Gentile had specifically suggested that he had two particular paintings that had been stolen in the Gardner incident many years ago. Mr. Gentile became furious with the FBI undercover person because he wouldn't engage in the marijuana deal with Mr. Gentile, at which point Mr. Gentile told the undercover agent, 'Do you know who I am?' and stated that he could have people killed and make them disappear."
Frustrated by the delays, Mozzicato said his cousin offered Gentile a way to save face on the chance that the paintings had been lost or destroyed. The FBI knew that someone had dug a hole beneath a shed in Gentile's backyard, apparently as a hiding place. If the art had been buried, it could be ruined,
"Ronnie says to him, 'If you don't have the paintings anymore, if you destroyed them, if you don't want to do it anymore, just tell me. So we don't look stupid. Because the guy in New Jersey is asking. I told him I'd ask you. Sammy said he would ask you. So, if you don't want to do it, just say so.' And then Ronnie says to Bobby, 'If you're just doing this to steal the half a million, that's fine too.'"
"Bobby says, 'No. No. No. I'd never do that,'" Mozzicato said. "And then he goes, 'Let's do it. The deal sounds good. We can all use the money.'"
Into The Woods
Not long after, in August 2014, Mozzicato said Gentile called with instructions. He was to drive to a pay telephone in South Windsor and wait for a call. From the pay phone, Mozzicato said Gentile directed him to a truck stop on I-84 in Ashford.
At the truck stop, he said, Gentile ordered him to leave his cellphone and car behind. He said Gentile drove the two of them through the woods for a half-hour or so to a house on the Massachusetts side of the state line. Inside, Mozzicato said, a man was seated in a corner and a couple of guys were standing apart, as if waiting to be told what to do. Mozzicato said one of them frisked him.
"So I look at Bobby," Mozzicato said. "He give me the look, like, 'Go with it.' Then, the guy in the corner says, 'So Sammy. How ya doing? I heard about you from Unk.'"
Unk was Guarente's nickname.
Mozzicato said the man refused to identify himself, which did not seem to bother Gentile. Mozzicato said Gentile told him to explain the plan to sell a painting for $500,000. Mozzicato said he did. He said the man considered for a while and responded with a couple of questions.
"So the guy just comes out with all these hypotheticals," Mozzicato said, "He says, 'Let's just say, hypothetically, not that I have them or anything, these pictures. But hypothetically,' he says, 'Bobby is saying, you got a guy. So, hypothetically, if I had one, or two, or maybe three, if I had them, you could get me this money and do this deal?'"
The man wanted the identity of the buyer. Mozzicato said he told him it was none of his business. Mozzicato said Gentile ordered him to wait outside. A few minutes later, he said Gentile came out and drove them back to the truck stop.
A few days later, Mozzicato said Gentile told him to rent a commercial storage unit and a car. Then, Mozzicato said, Gentile canceled the car. Mozzicato said he accompanied Gentile when he picked up a supposedly indestructible German lock from a used-car lot in Hartford's South End, where Gentile used to pass the time with a handful of aging Hartford gangsters.
Then, Mozzicato said, Gentile went silent again. Mozzicato said he believes Gentile had grown suspicious.
Mozzicato said: "Now this kind of conversation starts: He says 'Something ain't right.' He's talking with Ronnie one day, 'You know, Ronnie? We've been through a lot. You and Sammy are all I got left. But something ain't right.'"
"Then he started with me. 'Sammy boy. Sammy boy. These paintings bring nothing but heartache. They are nothing but a problem.'"
Mozzicato said Gentile complained that, even if he were to cooperate with the government and turn in the paintings, he was convinced the FBI would figure out a way to prevent him from getting the reward.
Mozzicato said, "He says, 'The feds will never let me spend the money. I don't care what deal my lawyer tells me.'"
Six months later, on March 2, 2015, the FBI watched as Bowes used $1,000 in FBI cash to buy a .38 Colt Cobra revolver and six rounds of ammunition from Gentile. Within weeks, Bowes was dead of cancer and Gentile had been indicted on weapons charges.
The FBI gave Gentile another opportunity. If he cooperated, he would avoid a long prison sentence and perhaps collect a reward. He cursed at the agents and claimed again to know nothing about the art.
A federal magistrate declared him a threat to public safety, again, and denied him bail while awaiting trial and the likelihood of another prison sentence.
He is arguing that the charges should be dismissed because of prosecutorial misconduct. He said the gun case was contrived to force him to give up information about the art — information he doesn't have.