Robert “The Cook” Gentile, who may have been the last living mobster with clues to the Gardner Museum art heist, dies

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Robert V. Gentile, the geriatric Hartford gangster who authorities have suspected for years of concealing clues to solving the world’s richest art heist at the Gardner Museum has died, multiple sources said Wednesday.

The 85-year-old Gentile, who died Sept. 17 in Hartford Hospital where he was treated for a possible stroke, may have been the last person alive with knowledge of what happened to $500 million in missing art —including Vermeer’s “The Concert” and Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” — that disappeared after two hoodlums disguised themselves as police officers and broke into Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in March 1990.

Gentile, with a record dating from the Eisenhower administration, acknowledged associating with gangsters thought by the FBI to have had possession of some of the art. But he stubbornly denied accounts by others that he possessed two of the pieces, at least briefly.

Investigators tried continuously over the last decade to get Gentile to talk. He refused to cooperate, even when assured he wouldn’t be charged. He said in interviews that he didn’t trust the FBI and he turned his nose at millions of dollars in reward money, saying he didn’t believe he would ever get it if he did talk. Over the last decade, he kept silent as agents arrested and imprisoned him repeatedly in the futile efforts to persuade him to open up.

Over the same period, investigators all but disassembled Gentile’s modest, ranch home in Manchester during repeated searches. They found, cash, drugs, what a judge called a virtual armory of guns, and a list of the stolen Gardner art with estimated black market values — but no art.

Gentile’s lawyer said he consistently denied having anything to do with the heist or the stolen art.

“For the past 11 years I represented Robert Gentile, allegedly the last known person to possess the stolen paintings,” defense lawyer A. Ryan McGuigan said. “I had once been told by the Government that he was a dangerous man. A bad man. And he deserved what was done to him. I never agreed. I only saw an elderly man that was being kicked while he was down. He was a friend. I am proud to have known him and proud to have defended him. Mr. Gentile’s family has requested privacy during this difficult time.”

Gentile had been in precarious health for years. While locked up on gun and drug charges over the last decade, he rolled around prison in a wheelchair, suffering from a variety of ailments. At one point during his various incarcerations, he was rushed, near death, from a Rhode Island prison to a nearby hospital and from there to a federal prison medical institution, where he lost about 40 pounds and recovered. A Gentile associate said Gentile, who considers himself a gourmet and uses the nickname “The Cook,” once vowed to “eat himself to death” if he ever found himself cornered by the FBI.

Anthony Amore, the Gardner museum security director who works closely with the FBI, expressed his sympathy to Gentile’s family and said anyone with information that could lead to recovery of the art should call the FBI or the museum. The Gardner investigators had been watching Gentile and his health since he was last released from prison in 2019 and returned to his home in Manchester. His possible involvement was featured prominently in the recent Netflix special, “This is a Robbery.”

There is hope among investigators that the death could trigger a new development that could produce new clues to the fate of the art.

For years, Gentile was known to but mostly ignored by FBI and state police mob investigators, who wrote him off as a nickel and dime hoodlum. But unknown to Connecticut authorities, he had thrown in with a mafia group in Boston, which authorities came to suspect through hidden microphones, cooperators and other evidence, had obtained possession of some of the art from the men who stole it.

Gentile’s initial contact with the Boston group was with notorious Boston gangster Robert “Unk” Guarente, a well-connected Boston bank robber and drug dealer, who he met at a used car auction in South Windsor in the 1970s. It was through Guarente that Gentile moved to the center of the Gardner investigation in 2010.

That year, Gardner investigators were in Maine, tracking Guarente, who they believed had managed to take control of at least some of the art. He was a well-connected Boston bank robber and drug dealer who was known by the nickname “Unk.” Guarente had died of cancer six years earlier, but FBI investigators were pursuing a lead that he had taken at least some of the art to his farmhouse in the woods north of Portland before his death.

A search of the farmhouse turned up empty. But the investigators got a break when they returned the keys to his widow, Elene Guarente. After first denying even being aware of the Gardner museum, she blurted out, inexplicably and entirely unexpectedly, “My Bobby had two of the paintings.”

In ensuing interviews, she said that her husband kept the paintings in Maine and, after his release from prison for the last time, he decided to pass them to an associate.

She said Guarente put the paintings in their car and they drove to Portland, where Guarente had arranged to meet another couple, Gentile and his wife, at a downtown hotel. After the couples sat down for a shore dinner, she said the men left briefly and walked outside and Gentile took possession of the two paintings.

Gentile admitted being friendly with Guarente and meeting him for lunch in Portland. But he denied taking the paintings and claimed those who said he did were “hustlers” trying to claim the multi-million dollar reward.

“Everything is lies,” he said in an interview. “They got no proof.”

Elene Guarente’s outburst put Gentile in the FBI cross hairs and he became one of the most investigated men in the country. At first, he agreed to cooperate, but federal prosecutors tore up the cooperation agreement after they caught him lying to a grand jury investigating the theft.

Gentile next submitted to a polygraph examination, during which he denied having advance knowledge of the Gardner heist, ever possessing a Gardner painting or knowing the location of any of the stolen paintings. The result showed a likelihood of greater than 99.9 percent that he was lying, according to a government filing in federal court.

The Gardner museum, an Italianate palazzo in Boston’s Fenway, was robbed early in the morning of March 18, 1990, as St. Patrick’s Day celebrations wound down across Boston. the thieves wearing police uniforms bluffed their way in, bound the guards, battered and slashed some of the world’s most recognizable art from walls and frames, and disappeared.

They took 13 pieces. The art was uninsured under the terms of the bequest that created the museum, and empty frames now hang where art was displayed.

In spite of the reward and promises of no-questions-asked immunity for anyone returning the art, the investigation has run down repeated dead ends, in many cases because promising targets are dying off among the aging circle of New England mobsters.

Gentile may have been the last.

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