Who stole 13 works of art from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on March 18, 1990, and where the artwork is today, are two different questions. The thieves stupidly cut two paintings out of the stretchers. Certainly they weren’t stealing paintings because they loved them. It seems that the thieves didn’t steal the artwork for themselves, although they may have taken the ku and the finial for themselves. If I piece together all of my research and take a guess, how can I explain the Gardner heist?
The first questions are “who” and “why”. There were two thieves. Who were they? I think that there are two possible explanations: either both thieves died shortly after the heist, or David Turner was one of the thieves. Turner’s accomplice could have been Stephen Rossetti or he could have murdered his accomplice. Bobby Donati, David Houghton, George Reissfelder, Lenny DiMuzio, and Charlie Pappas all died shortly after the heist. Donati, DiMuzio, and Pappas were all murdered, and Reissfelder’s death is suspicious. What do we know about the heist and how can that information be used to determine who was behind the heist?
The heist was carefully planned, otherwise the thieves would have been caught. The thieves took their time, spending 81 minutes in the museum. Clearly they weren’t concerned with the police showing up and spoiling their fun. The thieves must have done their research and had knowledge of the museum’s security systems. One of the first things they did was ask the guard at the desk to step away from the desk, and away from the only alarm that he could activate to notify the police. The thieves were prepared. Who was behind the planning and why did they want the artwork?
Myles Connor and Bobby Donati both had experience stealing artwork, and had cased the museum. Ralph Rossetti planned, but never executed, a robbery of the Gardner Museum in 1982. Did the thieves get the information to outsmart the security at the Gardner Museum from these sources? Did the people behind the heist find inspiration in news headlines? There are similarities to Brian McDevitt’s failed Hyde Collection robbery. The thieves could have used information from experienced art thieves, new reports of art heists, and/or they may have had inside information on the museum security.
Was it Connor, Donati, Rossetti, one of the guards, or someone else who helped plan the heist? Based on the fact that two paintings were cut from the stretchers, the thieves were not acting alone. Thieves smart enough to plan and execute a museum heist would be smart enough to know that cutting art from the stretcher would damage it and greatly reduce its value. The thieves were the muscle doing the job; they weren’t taking the artwork for themselves. Who wanted the artwork, and how did they recruit the thieves for the job?
Myles Connor’s story that David Houghton visited him in prison and confessed that he and Bobby Donati were the thieves is a tempting explanation. If Connor and Donati cased the museum together, Donati would have gained the information needed to successfully execute the robbery. But Donati and Houghton couldn’t have been the thieves. Donati was 50 at the time of the heist and Houghton weighted 300 pounds. Even though the descriptions the guards gave of the thieves are not great, Donati and Houghton clearly don’t match. The police descriptions list the thieves as being in their 20s or 30s, and having a medium build.
David Turner matches the description of one of the thieves and resembles the police sketch. Turner also has a history of committing robberies and Boston mafia connections that could have been behind the heist. He robbed cash from a Boston bar, and he robbed a woman at her home stealing cash and jewelry. The fact that Turner stole jewelry suggests that he had the connections to turn stolen goods into cash. Could he have stolen the Gardner art? Yes. Turner earned the nickname “Teflon Gangster” because of his ability to get away with his crimes. He also had all the right connections. He was close with Stephen Rossetti, whose Uncle was an art thief who planned to heist the Gardner Museum. Both Rossettis and Turner were part of Carmello Merlino’s crew.
David Turner usually stole cash. He wouldn’t have been the person who decided to steal paintings. Who instructed David Turner to rob the Gardner Museum? Perhaps Turner’s friend Stephen Rossetti recruited him to help with the heist his Uncle Ralph had planned. Turner, Stephen Rossetti and Carmello were friends and associates up until the FBI arrested all three of them for plotting to rob an armored car. Did Turner, Stephen Rossetti and Merlino plan the Gardner heist together? They would have had the knowledge of the museum, and the mafia connections to exchange the artwork for black market goods.
If David Turner was one of the thieves would he be able to keep quiet about it? Turner had a way of walking away from the crimes he committed, even when it seemed impossible. The Canton home robbery case proves that Turner would kill his associates and intimidate the witnesses to protect himself. Turner is suspected of murdering Lenny DiMuzio, who was an informant. He may have killed DiMuzio and maybe even Joe Murray (another informant whose death was suspicious) in order to prevent them from ratting him out to the police. If Turner didn’t murder them, Merlino could have ordered the killings.
If Turner was one of the thieves why didn’t he try to negotiate the return of the paintings for leniency when he was arrested in 1999? Turner wouldn’t have held onto the paintings, and they could have changed hands multiple times. Turner could have only used his information on the heist to negotiate with authorities to help return the artwork to the museum.
What would David Turner do with stolen artwork? He probably would have passed it along to his mob boss Carmello Merlino who could have exchanged it for money, drugs, or guns. Merlino had many underworld connections that he could have used to turn the artwork into something of use to him. Merlino was close with Robert Guarente. Guarente was friends with Robert Gentile who was a member of a different criminal organization. Guarente could have helped facilitate a deal where Merlino exchanged the Gardner art with Robert Gentile and the Philadelphia based Genovese crime family.
Today, the most critical question in the Gardner heist case is “where”. The statute of limitations for the theft has expired and attention should be focused on where the artwork is hiding. The FBI believes that the artwork is currently in the Connecticut of Philadelphia area. The Merlino-Guarente-Gentile connection explains how the artwork could have been traded between criminal organizations, and moved from Boston to Philadelphia.
What makes the Gardner heist so fascinating is how complicated it is. There are no clear answers. It is difficult to confirm or deny that any of the dozen plus suspects were involved in the heist. David Turner and Robert Guarente seem to be the answers to many of questions of how the artwork was stolen and where it might be today.