As Gangster Report celebrates its one-year anniversary this summer, let’s look back on one of the site’s first long-form investigative pieces, published in the fall of 2014.
THE ART OF THE HEIST – How A Group of Clueless Boston Mob Thugs Pulled Off The Biggest Rare-Art Theft In World History & Never Got Caught
By SCOTT M. BURNSTEIN: GANGSTER REPORT (July 2015)
Part I: Beginner’s Luck
Bobby D probably did the job. It was the biggest art heist in history, a half-billion dollar score. Boston Bobby might have moved the very valuable paintings to Philly. Bobby Boost could have had some, too, and transported them to Connecticut and then off to Maine. Bobby the Cook is said to have taken at least one piece, maybe more, from Bobby Boost in Maine and returned it to Connecticut. The rest of the lucrative haul lay somewhere in hiding, cultural treasures, seminal artifacts from bygone eras in time, buried like dead bodies. Like Bobby D.
The mob had bullied their way into the art game. They proved fast-learners.
In the early-hours of St. Patrick’s Day 1990, about 1:30 in the morning on March 18 to be exact, two armed robbers dressed as police officers talked their way into the Isabella Gardner Museum. The Isabella Gardner is a small, but very elite, privately-funded precious-art museum in downtown Boston, Massachusetts, located near the famous Fenway Park.
Pulling their weapons and tying up the museum’s security guards in the building’s basement, the two men had free access to the place for the next hour and a half, coming away with more than a dozen paintings and drawings that are estimated to be worth a staggering $500,000,000 – confirmed as the largest art-robbery ever, the thieves scored original Rembrandts, Degas, a Manet and a Vermeer, worth tens of millions each.
And if either of them had even the slightest idea of the waters they were wading in, any remote clue of the inner-workings that was the cloak-and-dagger world of fine art theft, they would have come away with a lot more. They succeeded in spite of themselves.
To this day, almost 25 years later, the case remains cold, not a single person arrested, not a single piece of artwork retrieved. Just this past spring, the Boston FBI publically stated that the investigation was open, very active and that several sightings of the missing art had been recently authenticated. One of the suspects was recently sent to prison on an unrelated conviction.
Although no charges have ever been filed (the statute of limitations has expired), the FBI believes it has a pretty good idea of what happened and who did it – according to an interview with lead federal investigator Geoff Kelly in May, the heist was planned and carried out by members and associates of the New England mafia aka the Patriarca Family and the stash of looted masterpieces shuffled between Boston, Connecticut, Maine and Pennsylvania by representatives of both the Patriarcas and the Philadelphia mob. Where they exactly reside today is unknown and remains one of the most fascinating and vexing unsolved crimes in American history
One retired federal agent that worked the case in the 1990s and early 2000s agreed to speak to Gangsterreport.com about his knowledge of the legendary crime.
“The whole thing began with Bobby Donati, they called him “Bobby D,” he was a lifelong wiseguy who belonged to the North End crew,” the former ‘G’ Man said.
Coming up in the mafia under the Angiulo brothers (New England mob underboss Jerry Angiulo and his four sibling lieutenants), when the Isabella Gardner robbery occurred in 1990, Bobby D belonged to a Patriarca regime ran by then-capo Vincent (Vinnie the Animal) Ferrara, a growing power in Family circles at that time and the man that took over the Angiulo’s North End neighborhood operations upon their imprisonment in the 1980s. Donati was known as an accomplished cat burglar and all-around hard-core gangster and hit man, running with a rugged bunch of Beantown burglars, hoods and mobsters (including his brother “Dickie D” Donati) that were unafraid to get their hands dirty and had those hands in multiple gangland rackets across New England.
The FBI believes that Donati got a tip in the years leading up to the heist about the lax security at the museum from an indebted gambler to one of the sports books that he ran on behalf of Ferrara.
“Some degenerate bettor that owed Donati money traded info he had on the museum for a pass on his gambling debt,” the retired agent said. “The guy had the skinny on the joint because he used to work there as a maintenance man and knew what little security they had going on at the place.”
The one problem was that although Bobby D had stolen and fenced a lot of things in his life, he had never stolen artwork and knew nothing about the complicated black market associated with moving such exclusive and rare hot merchandise. So according to what the FBI has been told by informants, Donati brought in an expert. That expert was Myles Connor, a Bostonian considered the No. 1 art thief in the United States by the federal government at his peak in the 1970s and 80s.
Today, Connor, 71, is retired. Sort of – he’s stopped pulling big scores, at least, switching to petty crime. Two years ago he took a pinch for robbing a woman of her cell phone in Rhode Island. He’s authored a book and currently lectures about his life in the Eastcoast underworld and time as a gallivanting pilferer of artistic masterpieces throughout the latter-part of the 20th Century.
Back then, however, in the late-1980s, Connor was as active as ever and heavily intrigued by Donati’s tip and the mother-load of priceless riches that lied within the confines of the Isabella Gardner.
The two of them planned to take it down. Connor has admitted to the FBI that he and Donati cased the museum in the summer of 1989.
But Connor was locked up in January 1990 on series of racketeering and art-theft charges, sentenced to serve the next 20 years in prison, leaving Donati all by himself on the job.
Bobby D got antsy. He wasn’t intending on waiting another two decades for Connors to get out of prison before acting on the tip.
Enter David Houghton.
Donati and Houghton, a hulking gangland strong-arm and street-tax collector, hung out together at TRC Auto Electric, a car repair shop in working-class Dorchester, Massachusetts, just outside Boston’s city limits, owned by Patriarca Mafioso Carmelo (The Auto Man) Merlino.
“The Auto Man, Carmelo Merlino, told Donati he had a buyer for the score overseas, they got the okay to pull it and the rest is history,” the former Fed says.
The take could have been much larger. The thieves, believed by most authorities to have been Donati and Houghton, both had untrained eyes and bypassed several, even more valuable pieces in the museum.
“Those two didn’t know a Rembrandt from a root beer bottle,” the one-time mob-buster said of the pair. “They were in over their heads on the whole thing.”
FBI records from the early-1990s reveal intelligence coming in from informants on the street pointed to Ferrara and East Boston mob chief and Patriarca street boss and consigliere Joseph (J.R.) Russo as giving the go-ahead for the job to Donati through Merlino.
However, things fell apart quickly. Merlino’s buyer fell through and literally a week after the epic heist Ferrara and Russo, along with 19 others, were swept up in a giant federal racketeering case that sent both of them to prison (Russo would die while incarcerated, Ferrara has been out for a decade and reportedly has gone legit and surrendered any and all of his interests in the mob).
The artwork was placed into storage in Revere, Massachusetts until Donati, Houghton and Merlino could line-up another prospective buyer, according to Massachusetts State Police documents. Revere is a suburb of Boston and known for years to be where many of the Patriarca mob brood held and currently hold residence.
With the indictment and incarceration of Ferrara and Russo, Bobby D and his two accomplices had more pressing concerns to worry about than selling the boosted art. The Patriarca syndicate, which had recently seen tensions calm after a spattering of violence the year before (Boss-candidate Francis (Cadillac Frank) Salemme survived an assassination attempt and underboss William (The Wild Man) Grasso was killed by the Ferrara-Russo faction of the Family on the same day in June 1989) was back at war. Cadillac Frank Salemme took the reins in Boston from his rival, the departing Russo, and took aim at those he considered responsible for the botched hit on him and were still on the street following the March 1990 bust.
One of the people he turned his attention to was Bobby Donati, 50 years old and tabbed by some as a frontline soldier in the early-stages of the dispute repping Ferrara, someone he sometimes acted as a driver for and escorted around town to the city’s most posh restaurants and clubs in Vinnie the Animal’s heyday as a big shot in the Beantown underworld.
The rare art Donati had access to, his share of whatever was sold, was simply an added bonus, per the former FBI agent.
“Bobby D was in the crosshairs the second Vinnie and J.R. were put away,” he said. “Frank Salemme knew about the Gardner Museum stash, but he would have been killed anyway. Salemme wanted to get rid of anyone he saw as overly loyal to Vinnie Ferrara. Donati fell into that category.”
On September 24, 1991, Donati’s badly-beaten body was found hogtied in the trunk of his car. Massachusetts State Police reports indicate that certain groups in the state’s law enforcement community believed Bobby D’s murder was carried out by East Boston mafia henchman Mark Rossetti, a future New England mob capo who would be outed as a Confidential Informant for the FBI.
“Informant B3467MSPOCU tells Officer redacted name that Rossetti slit Donati’s throat,” it said in one particular MSP file.
Rossetti’s uncle, Boston wiseguy Robert (Bobby Boost) Guarente, was about to get in on the action.
Guarante and two more Bobbys and New England Goodfellas, Robert (Boston Bobby) Luisi, Jr. and Robert (Bobby the Cook) Gentile entered the picture after Donati was murdered and his accomplice, David Houghton, died of cancer a year later in 1992. Merlino needed help moving the artwork on the black market (something he also had zero experience in, since he had no criminal history in the art-heist racket, just as Donati and Houghton didn’t) and according to federal authorities, “The other three Bobbys” would try to help him.
They would find limited success in their endeavors.
Part II; The Three Bobbys
The piping-hot paintings were up for grabs.
It was 1993. In less than three years, the whole back-end of the Isabella Gardner robbery had gone to shambles and wasn’t even close to completed.
The men that pulled off the most infamous and lucrative art heist in history, Boston mobsters Robert (Bobby D) Donati and David Houghton, were both dead, their $500 million dollar score – 13 original paintings and drawings spawned from the hands of Rembrandt, Dega, Manet and Vermeer and stolen from the Isabella Gardner Museum in March 1990 – stashed away, in storage, hidden somewhere in the greater Beantown area.
Two of the paintings alone could be worth over $100 million a pop: Rembrandt’s only seaside work, entitled, “Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” and Vermeer’s “The Concert,” an oil-canvassed masterpiece by the 17th Century Dutch painter and considered the crown-jewel of the notorious theft.
According to Massachusetts State Police records, after Donati and Houghton died, the art haul landed in the sole possession of Carmello (The Auto Man) Merlino, a Boston Mafioso alleged to have conspired with Donati and Houghton to pull off the robbery in the first place. However, Merlino, who ran a series of racketeering operations out of his Dorchester, Massachusetts car-repair business, TRC Auto Electric, had neither, the expertise needed nor the access to the pockets of the black market geared towards historic treasures, to move the art.
Prior to the robbery Merlino thought he had lined up a fence in Europe set to sell it to collectors in France and possibly representatives of the IRA in England, per the MSP files. Neither came to fruition.
The FBI knew via informants early on that Merlino was most likely involved and were watching him with intense scrutiny throughout the entire decade of the 1990s. In 1997, they inserted two agents undercover into Merlino’s crew, coming away with nothing but some innuendo and boasts by Merlino of having access to the hidden score, however nothing concrete to link anybody to.
The most promising intelligence the FBI attained was revealed in an inter-agency memo with the Massachusetts State Police and the Boston Police Department.
“Agent REDACTED was told that MERLINO was given approval by his superiors in the NEW ENGLAND LCN to move pieces of the Isabella Gardner score. MERLINO is alleged to have been passed word of the okay by NEW ENGLAND LCN Consigliere CHARLES (Q-BALL) QUINTINA.”
Throughout the course of the undercover work, the FBI found out of Merlino’s plan to rob an armored car depot and arrested him and two accomplices in February 1999 en route to pulling the job. Questioned about his knowledge of the Isabella Gardner heist, Merlino refused to answer any questions. He would die in prison.
Merlino’s right-hand man was Robert (Bobby Boost) Guarente, a lifelong crook and Boston Mafioso with a lengthy rap-sheet. His first bust was back in 1958 for forging checks. A decade later, he was nabbed for heading a bank-robbery ring and earned his nickname for knocking over some three dozen banks or armored-trucks in his career in the New England underworld.
Bobby Boost was a well-liked wiseguy and often used as a go-between for various east coast mob factions during the 1980s and 90s. His best friend and gangland running buddy was Robert (Bobby the Cook) Gentile, a like-minded gangster and thief that was frequently seen in Guarente’s company. The pair were known to have pulled numerous scores together.
Gentile’s arrest-record dated back to the late-1950s just like his pal Bobby Boost, and included collars for aggravated assault, robbery, receipt of stolen property, bookmaking and counterfeiting. For his legitimate income, Bobby the Cook was in the concrete-pouring business and his company was quite well-regarded for its quality work. His skills in the kitchen were quite well-regarded as well, gaining him his nickname.
Around 1997, Guarente and Gentile went to work for Robert (Boston Bobby) Luisi, Jr., a recently-named capo in the Philadelphia mafia operating in New England. Mainly, they acted as bodyguards and cocaine distributors on his behalf. Boston Bobby lost his father and brother to a November 1995 mob slaying in a Charlestown restaurant, two of the final victims of the long-ranging conflict that engulfed the Patriarca syndicate throughout the late-1980s and into the early-to-mid 1990s.
Luisi, Jr. met some members of the Philly mob in prison and defected for the offer of being made into La Cosa Nostra, something he failed to do while serving under the Patriarca regime. Initiated into the mafia by Philadelphia LCN boss Joseph (Skinny Joey) Merlino (no relation to Carmen), Boston Bobby was immediately promoted to captain status and allowed to put a crew together to run in Massachusetts. The “Three Bobbys,” Bobby Luisi, Jr., Bobby Guarente and Bobby Gentile were all inducted into the mafia in the same ceremony.
“Those three were mob vagabonds that anchored their ship to whatever or whoever suited their individual interests the best,” said a retired FBI agent of the threesome of New England goombahs. “Frankly, they were second-rate wiseguys and their involvement in this whole thing demonstrates how desperate things got with trying to move this artwork, to just find any kind of money to show for their efforts.”
According to FBI and Massachusetts State Police records, Luisi, Jr. was given paintings from the Isabella Gardner robbery via Guarente, who in turn had got them from Carmello Merlino (no relation to Skinny Joey), and took them to Philadelphia, possibly selling them to an art collector in suburban Bucks County.
Skinny Joey’s Boston mob crew was short-lived and ill-conceived. Luisi, Jr. was busted in a drug-distribution conspiracy and turned over on Guarente, Gentile and Skinny Joey himself.They all went to prison and the paintings remained unearthed.
When Bobby Boost Guarente got out from behind bars in 2000, he retired to Maine. The FBI believes he brought the Isabella Gardner artwork with him.
In March 2002, Gentile drove from Boston to Portland, Maine to meet Guarante for dinner. It was immediately after finishing their meal at a fancy seafood restaurant on the water that authorities think Bobby Boost passed two of the stolen paintings to Bobby the Cook Gentile in the eatery’s parking lot.
So says Guarente’s widow, Elene. She came forward in early 2010, some half-dozen years following her husband’s death as a result of cancer, and told investigators that Guarente had a stash of the paintings in their cabin in the woods in Maine and removed at least two of them prior to leaving for their 2002 rendezvous, which he handed over to Gentile after they ate but before they parted ways.
Gentile, 77, denies Elene Guarente’s allegations or ever possessing the ripped-off art. However, the case for that argument took a blow in a 2012 federal raid of his Manchester, Connecticut home, where the FBI discovered amongst an arsenal of weapons and a large cache of prescription painkillers that he had no prescription for, a hand-written list of each of the stolen pieces of Isabella Gardner artwork accompanied with their estimated black-market values. Further hurting his cause is the fact that Gentile reportedly failed an FBI-administered lie-detector test.
Facing narcotics and gun charges, Bobby the Cook stayed true to the code of the streets and refused to spill the beans. Instead, he took the fall and last year he was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison. Gentile was under constant surveillance by the FBI in Connecticut during the 2000s, as his Clean County Used Cars lot was a local Hartford mob hangout.
The paintings remain missing.
The Isabella Gardner Museum displays blank frames in the places on its walls where the 13 stolen pieces once hung. It’s going on 25 years and every single frame is still empty.
“Besides the Jimmy Hoffa disappearance, I think not solving the Gardner heist sticks in the Bureau’s crow more than any other case ,” the former FBI agent said. “And these weren’t super thieves, Thomas Crown-types. They were knockaround guys that fell into the score of a lifetime by sheer blind luck and didn’t know what the fuck to do with it. Now in the end, everyone’s deprived. The people that got the art aint selling it, or if they did sell some of it, they got a pittance of what they stole. So they aren’t coming out ahead. And then in terms of culture and history, everyone, the whole god damn world, is deprived of appreciating that brilliant artwork because it’s sitting in hiding in someone’s basement, not on display in a museum or where people can view it. Nobody won in this thing, everybody got screwed.”
To this very day, the Isabella Gardner leaves the frames where the artwork once hung from the museum walls empty, (as seen in this story’s feature image).