The end may be near in the long, strange standoff between geriatric Hartfordgangster Robert “The Cook” Gentile and the investigators who suspect he is concealing information about history’s richest art theft, the heist a quarter century ago of $500 million in paintings and other works from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
The 81-year old mafia soldier, who for years has been at the center of law enforcement efforts to recover the Gardner art, is scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in Hartford Tuesday for sentencing, yet again. The event could mark a turning point in a frustrating investigation of one of the world’s great art mysteries.
Gentile, whose arrest record dates to the Eisenhower administration, has been locked up for 41/2 of the past 51/2 years on a succession of drug and gun cases constructed by FBI agents pressing him — futilely, it has turned out — to cooperate with their Gardner investigation.
He has remained mute. He insists he knows nothing about the heist or the missing art — in spite of old age, dire health, a $10 million reward, lousy prison food and a growing body of evidence to the contrary, much of it consisting of his admissions recorded by FBI informants.
The FBI believes it has identified the two Boston hoodlums — both now dead — who broke into the museum early on March 18, 1990. Acting with inexplicable violence, they battered frames from gallery walls and tore away canvases. They drove off with 13 pieces, including Vermeer’s “The Concert” and Rembrandt’s only known seascape, “Storm on the Sea of Galilee.”
Gentile landed in the Gardner case 20 years later, in February 2010. It happened when investigators interviewed the widow of Robert Guarente, a Boston bank robber, drug dealer and, as it turned out, long-time Gentile associate.
Guarente had moved to Maine after his last prison sentence, for drug dealing, and died in 2004. In 2010, the Gardner investigators suspected that he had, at some point, obtained Gardner art from the gang that stole it. The investigators went to the Maine woods in search of clues.
Guarente’s widow, Elene, stunned the investigators when, without being asked, she blurted out that her late husband once had two of the Gardner paintings and that she had been present at a Portland hotel when he passed the paintings to a long-time associate from Connecticut — Gentile.
Gentile, to that point, was hardly known. He had been ignored by organized crime investigators in Connecticut as a knock-around hoodlum, undeserving of a spot on law enforcement’s priority list. Elene Guarente changed his life. He became a target of intense investigation. It was learned that, while no one was paying attention in the late 1990s, he and Guarente were inducted into the mafia as soldiers on the Philadelphia mob’s Boston crew.