As we have often lamented, real news in the Isabella Stewart Gardner heist has been rare, with coverage far more often manufactured around anniversary dates. Last week was an exception at least from the public’s standpoint when the FBI released video footage from the museum the day before the robbery in an effort to solicit the public’s assistance. The FBI posited that the men seen in the video may have been engaged in a trial run for the eventual theft, in which the thieves pretended to be police officers to gain entry to the museum after hours. Most of the recent efforts by law enforcement have focused on Robert Gentile, whom authorities have accused of having information concerning the paintings’ whereabouts. Gentile has consistently denied knowing anything, and has spent time in prison that might have been avoided had he revealed information. Gentile most recently accused the FBI of entrapment, and no progress on that front seems particularly likely, but this approach is a notable shift.
Helpfully, the release of a video last week refocuses attention on the known details of the robbery itself. The video (visible on YouTube) is surveillance footage from the museum’s security system. It is hard to follow and skips quite a bit, but the keys are twofold: first, an older-looking man with glasses and suspenders is shown lingering near the security desk. A second, outdoor feed shows a sedan from which a man emerges pulling up to the curb near the museum, which apparently matches the description of the vehicle used in the theft. The man goes to the reception area, waits for the security guard to buzz him into security (which he seems to do), but then returns to the car and drives away.
On their own, particularly since law enforcement has had the video and the description of the actual thieves for 25 years, it might not mean much. And, it runs the risk that whoever that man is, if he is publicly identified as a result of this disclosure we could have a Richard Jewell moment on our hands from which a conceivably innocent person could have a very hard time extracting himself.
So there is no way to know anything about him and nothing here should be read to suggest anything about him. But I found the presence of the car, and the idea of a dry run, much more intriguing because of something I learned from Steven Kurkjian’s outstanding book published earlier this year: Master Thieves—the Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist. Kurkjian described a chilling sequence at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston on January 15, 1990, just two months before the Gardner theft. For those outside of Boston, the MFA and the Gardner are at most half a mile apart, and are connected by the Frederick Law Olmstead Emerald Necklace (which has several different parkway names along its length). The Emerald Necklace is beautiful, but very winding, poorly lit, and at least back then, not a place where people would tend to linger after dark. And all of this was just across Huntington Avenue from the Mission Hill neighborhood that was just a few months removed from the Charles Stuart fiasco (not a good year around here). As Kurkjian wrote at p. 30 of Master Thieves:
The winding streets around the Museum of Fine Arts were quiet, empty, and, with the Boston police force having just wrapped up its safety detail for the first official Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday commemoration, lightly patrolled. Suddenly two men dressed in Boston police uniforms showed up at the rear entrance of the MFA and rang the buzzer.
“Boston police-open up. We’re looking for someone.”
When the night watchman looked out and saw what looked like policemen but advised them that he was not permitted to let anyone in, the men outside repeated their demand impatiently. The night watchman went to get his supervisor, but when they returned the men outside were gone.
That passage sent a chill down my spine when I first read it. It offers the prospect that perhaps the MFA was the first target, but that the thieves changed their plan when they encountered resistance. It was for that reason that the video’s suggestion of a dry run leapt out at me as intriguing.
There have been no official updates since the video was released, but it certainly seems like a more fruitful investigative approach than pressuring Gentile. Hopefully it will be.