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Art heist suspect may plead guilty to drug, gun charges

By Edmund H. Mahony, The Hartford Courant –

HARTFORD, Conn. — Robert Gentile, the mobster locked in a standoff with federal authorities over hundreds of millions of dollars in artworks stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, may plead guilty Monday to drug and gun charges.

The admission would put the hot-tempered Genovese crime family soldier in prison for about four years. But it was unclear late Friday whether Gentile, 75, whose relationship with authorities has been a stormy one, was prepared to concede guilt to all the charges in the deal proposed by the U.S. attorney’s office.

He was scheduled for an appearance Monday morning in U.S. District Court in Hartford. Even if Gentile decides to admit guilt to everything, the admissions are not likely to resolve the government’s interest in him.

Authorities suspect that Gentile, of Manchester, Conn., has information that could crack the $500 million Gardner case, the world’s richest and most notorious art heist.

Two men disguised as police officers talked their way into the museum at about 1:30 a.m. on March 18, 2000, and shocked the art world. They bound the museum’s two security guards, battered priceless paintings from their wall mounts and frames, stuffed the canvasses into a little red car and disappeared.

Among the stolen masterpieces are three Rembrandts — including his only known seascape, “Storm on the Sea of Galilee” — a Vermeer, a Manet and five drawings by Degas.

Gentile — white-haired, overweight and unable to walk without a cane — claims to know nothing about the Gardner job or the missing masterpieces. He accuses the FBI of exaggerating his reputation as a criminal and building minor drug and gun cases to leverage him into producing information he doesn’t have.

“Lies, lies,” Gentile hissed during an earlier appearance in court. “It’s all lies.”

Over half a century, Gentile has had a reputation in Hartford mostly as a hustler and a thief, according to a variety of law enforcement and underworld sources. But over the last decade or so, federal authorities have developed information suggesting that Gentile’s interests may have been wider than originally thought, the same sources said.

The new information suggests that, in the 1990s, Gentile began traveling regularly to Boston. He became a made, or sworn, member of a crew of the Genovese crime family operating in Boston in 1998 at age 62, according to law enforcement and other sources.

While in Boston, he also became associated with the crew of gangsters in Dorchester that included the FBI’s best suspects in the Gardner job, according to the same sources.

The Gardner investigation has focused on Gentile since about 2009. He and members of his family have repeatedly met with federal investigators or appeared before a federal grand jury since 2010.

Federal authorities won’t discuss any specific allegation against Gentile.

“The government has reason to believe that Mr. Gentile had some involvement with stolen property out of the district of Massachusetts,” Assistant U.S. Attorney John Durham said during a hearing in federal court earlier this year.

Gentile’s lawyer, A. Ryan McGuigan of Hartford, declined to discuss the case but has said in the past that Gentile knows nothing about the stolen art.

After months of denials by Gentile of any knowledge of the stolen Gardner paintings, federal authorities in February charged him with illegal possession and distribution of prescription painkillers. He is accused of selling pills in 2011 to an informant working for the FBI.

After his arrest for drug crimes, he was charged as a felon in possession of firearms and silencers when searches of his modest ranch house turned up what a federal magistrate called a “veritable arsenal” of explosives, guns, silencers, handcuffs, brass knuckles and other weapons.

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