Reporter Stephen Kurkjian

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Robbery Gets Netflix Treatment

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BOSTON — It is not often one gets to talk to the star of a Netflix series, but Stephen Kurkjian is not  a typical star. The veteran reporter is responsible for keeping alive the story of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum robbery in 1990 through his book, Master Thieves, which came out in 2015. Now, the story of the single largest art robbery in the world is told in the four-part Netflix series, “This Is a Robbery.”

Very late on the night of March 18, 1990, two men, dressed as Boston Police officers, knocked on the door of the museum, where a night watchman, against protocol, opened the door. One of the thieves entered and said, “Gentlemen, this is a robbery,” putting into motion a crime that has yet to be solved.

The thieves tied up the two guards on duty and walked out with 13 items. Especially hard hit was the Dutch Masters’ section, including “The Concert” by Jan Vermeer and Rembrandt’s only seascape, “Storm on the Sea of Galilee.” Also stolen were five sketches by Edgar Degas and an Eduard Manet portrait.

The stolen works are priceless and precisely because of their fame, unsellable on the market. Thus, it was hoped at the time, that the crime would be solved. Yet, 31 years later, the authorities are no closer to solving the case, and the frames remain empty on the walls of the Gardner.

Police on the scene of the robbery in 1990

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

The Gardner is a venerable Boston institution and the second largest privately-owned museum in the country. The building is a replica of a Venetian palazzo, almost matching in beauty the art it contains, collected by the museum’s namesake, one of the city’s original grandees. Gardner opened the museum at the turn of the last century in order to house her vast and eclectic collection of art so that everyone could enjoy them.

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The filmmakers, brothers Colin and Nick Barnicle, sons of Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle, hope that by reminding a greater viewing public that the crime is still unsolved, as well as dangling before them the $10-million reward offered by the museum, some memories might be jogged or some tongues be loosened.

A collage of the stolen art (Boston Magazine photo)

Like Kurkjian’s book, the series compares and contrasts the rarified art world in Boston with mobsters and drug dealers eying the paintings as so much collateral.

“There is a heck of a story here; it is a terrific story about the clash of Boston, the haves and the have-nots, the haves being those people who not only run, operate, founded the museum, but those who visit. Then there was the have-nots who had their eye on the museum for criminal profiteering. As I continued to work the story, I saw that clash, being a clash I knew very well having grown up in Boston, in a city that was very tribal, where you had to know someone to get something. Whose friend are you, can you be trusted?”

He added, “While it was a story of the streets, it wasn’t the story of my family or the larger Armenian community.”

Again, it is the connections, both big and small, and the identity of the city, especially in the last decades of the previous century, that have drawn Kurkjian to the story. What led to the crime, he has found, might have led to it not being solved.

Kurkjian continued, “I thought if I could tell the story in the detail of the investigation and in the broader way, beyond the theft, beyond the $10-million reward, beyond the majesty of the paintings, if I could say why this story is at the core of who or what Boston is, I would have achieved my purpose. I kept trying to do that but the investigation kept dragging me in,” Kurkjian said. “I tried to capture the higher issues of this theft and that is that Boston or the people who run the museum and the FBI had held on to this case far too fiercely, as if it is their investigation.”

One of the canvases of the stolen works of art

Netflix Calling

The story of the Gardner robbery features a colorful cast of characters, including the nightwatchman, Rick Abath, who often was stoned out of his mind, opens the door. Then there is the museum board chief who against all advice, fails to install state-of-the-art security at the Gardner.

Kurkjian’s book, Master Thieves, served as a starting point for the Netflix series and Kurkjian served as a production consultant.

“They [the Barnacle brothers] did a terrific job on it. They had aspirations and didn’t have many numbers and connections. That’s what their dad, Mike Barnacle, asked me to help them with,” said Kurkjian, a multiple Pulitzer Prize winning retired reporter for the Boston Globe.

“My major advice to them was not to try to solve it, that if they tried to solve it, it would be too frustrating for them. I told them I had tried since 1997 and I still know nothing about who did it, why they did it and most importantly, where the paintings had been stashed,” he said. “But I said it there is a terrific story therein about how frustrating the motivations are and the characters in the story.”

Police sketch of the robbers

During his tenure at the Globe, he had done stories on the robbery, but after retirement, he decided to dedicate more time to it, even thinking at one point he could solve it.

Yet, he realized, “It’s impossible, I’m not the FBI. I can’t force people to talk to me” he said.

He added, “It’s not going to be solved that way. The only way to solve it is to call on the people of Boston to help them in the investigation and convince them that they, the people of Boston, the art lovers and those who have children and grandchildren to have them be committed to solve this case. That’s why the paintings were placed in this museum. The owner of the museum, the woman who built it, wanted to inspire everyone, the haves and the have nots.”

And that is why, he added, “Taking the paintings from this museum was so tragic.”

Kurkjian added, “Boston has had this secret code that you don’t talk, you don’t bother anyone else’s deal or conspiracy, because then you are snitching.”

“That may have been the code in Boston back in the day when I grew up. But Boston has, right before our eyes, in the last 40 years, has changed and become a world class city. For whatever reason we are much more generous, much more open and much more accepting. I think that needs to be emphasized in the outreach,” he noted.

Since the book came out, Kurkjian has done hundreds of talks at venues big and small about Master Thieves.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

The Usual Suspects

Throughout the 1970s-1990s, Boston and New England in general, were in the grips of a war between crime families, both Italian and Irish. Within the Italian mob, many families and groups were jostling for power and position.

One central character in that war was Robert Gentile, a low-level mob associate in Hartford, Conn., whom Kurkjian interviewed in 2014.

“He was terrific and gave me access,” he said. “He denied, denied, denied” any involvement

“He had a floor [in his shed] and when you ripped up the floor, it had been re-laid down and you saw a ditch and your saw a Rubbermaid bin. The Feds absolutely believe that two of the masterpieces rested in that bin for who knows how long,” Kurkjian said. He added that the authorities surmise that those paintings had been ruined during a flood and thrown out.

Much attention focuses on the guards, including Abath, on the night of the robbery. He had opened the museum’s door not only to the robbers but before that, for no apparent reason. Also, the motion detector in the museum showed that only one person had gone into the room from which the Manet had been stolen, and that had been during Abath’s route during the nightly check.

“The guards that they hired were kids and all they had to do was show up and put their uniform on,” Kurkjian explained. “He [Abath] was absolutely uncommitted to guarding.”

“This one fellow, Rick, who was a rock and roller, always on the edge as far as drugs and alcohol. When I first interviewed him, he didn’t apologize,” he recalled.

“I told him, ‘Rick, you better get some contrition in,’” Kurkjian recalled.

He added, “We’re not responsible for putting the handcuffs on anybody. Our job is just to reveal the depths of a person’s negligence or criminality,” he said. “I have thought upon, reported on or looked into where Rick could have intersected with the criminal world. … He did take drugs and he told me late in the interviews that he took cocaine, which raised my suspicion.

“When you’re doing cocaine in the 1980s or 1990s, you are into the criminal element. And he said he did owe his network money but not to any great thousands of dollars. Because he had this rock and roll band, he visited bars in nefarious neighborhoods. There is one bar I have specific interest in, The Channel, in South Boston. They brought in pretty good rock and roll bands. It did have criminal element ownership. Rick thinks he did go there. If you put Rick at a bar, snorting cocaine, he is going to be rubbing elbows with the criminal element,” he explained.

He may have inadvertently given the bad guys an idea for an easy yet lucrative score.

“Rick said he was very vocal. He would say ‘it’s terrible.’ He would always complain about security,” he said.

“They cock their ear so quickly. They can get out of him the information they need to pull off this. Rick being responsible does not have to be willfully responsible. His negligence could have been the reason this went down,” he said.

Not only were the guards incompetent, but the directors and trustees of the museum were careless, even  “lackadaisical.” The arrival of Anne Hawley, the museum director hired in 1989, had started changing attitudes, but not in time to prevent the robbery.

“That’s what things were like throughout the 1980s. Art began to rise in value in order of magnitude in the 1980s. It became a rich person’s possession,” he said. “Therefore the place you held the masterpieces became far more important.”

“This case rang the alarm for all the museums,” he added.

The museum didn’t even have a climate control system and only after the insistence of the security specialist, the first ever hired at the museum, put in an alarm system, for which he himself raised $50,000, from corporate sponsors.

“With that alarm system came the motion detector system that was the one security system that they had in place which helped the investigation immensely,” helping the cops find out “where the bad guys were moment by moment.”

The museum did not have insurance, thinking “it was too costly.”

Boston Police and the FBI

The Boston police and the FBI don’t escape criticism in the series. Among the many mysteries shown is why a couple walking by the museum in shortly before the robbery, who saw uniformed officers sitting in a civilian car across from the museum, were not interviewed.

“The police report says that the men who came in had on their shirt lapel pins. And the police had pins back in the day noting professional points, marksman, Boston Policeman Patrolman’s pin, and they would put it on their lapels,” he recalled.

The close circuit TV system, and the tape were stolen. “The thieves knew about it. They hit the stop button and took the tape. I would love to see that tape because it would show them coming and going and would show them some places inside,” Kurkjian recalled.

“The bad guys did not know it fed back into a computer. All they had to do was hit the print button” to indicate the moments of the criminals.

“The FBI took this investigation over from the first day. The Boston Police went through the museum, found the two night watchmen tied up, freed them, put them in separate rooms, but when the questioning began, it was done by the FBI. Boston Police and the Massachusetts State Police were far too accommodating to the FBI in letting them have control of the investigation. They should have said we need representation in this investigation,” Kurkjian said.

“They assigned one agent to it full time. There have been 3 over the years. They’ve all been younger men who have one superior. There is an art crime unit within the FBI. It’s been called in when needed but they are not in charge of the investigation,” he said. It is the local Boston station that is in charge of this investigation.

“The FBI Boston office, we learned later, had inside of it a conspiracy. They were doing business with James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, a criminal mastermind in Boston. Is that a facet in the investigation? I cannot answer that. It is wrong for me to imply the investigation was compromised in any way but that is the reality.”

To this day, an FBI agent still runs down every lead. Yet, he added, “They need new eyes.”

Robert Fischer, the former US Attorney, who is one of the officials interviewed on “This Is A Robbery,” says they ought to release everything.

The Mob

Still, all signs point to the Mob.

Some really interesting characters with mob association are interviewed in the series, including Myles Connor, an inveterate art thief who had topped the list of suspects but been dismissed for one important reason: he was in jail during the robbery.

“I think that is the most likely scenario. The mob believe they could get a break on some law enforcement issues if they had the masterpieces in their possession. And it’s a score. If we don’t have it, we can’t make any money. Let’s try it,” he said.

But why haven’t they used the paintings as leverage?

“My sense is that the bad guys who did it and had their own reason to do it to be a larger bad guy out of jail, that he said to the low-level associate, that I am not cooperating. I am here in jail on racketeering charges. They’re not going to let me out because you’ve stolen a painting or two.’ He thought he could still get these paintings either for profit but he was killed. That is Robert Donati.”

He is the one who did the investigating into the score and figured out how best to pull it off, Kurkjian said.

“Donati was a low-level crime figure. His mob boss, Vinny Ferrara, was just put in jail for racketeering three months before the theft. In my book I have a back and forth conversation between Donati and Ferrara says do not involve me,” Kurkjian noted.

“More and more we think that Bob Gentile, the old timer, once he dies, in his will there [will be] a provision that if anything shows up after his death, it will be administered by his attorney,” Ryan McGuigan, Kurkjian noted.

“The interesting part of the scenario is that very good friends who knew about the vulnerability of the museum was Bobby Donati of the Vinny Ferrara gang and Bobby Guarente who was associate of the Frank Salemme gang.

“They knew the value of artwork and they represented each of the gangs that were at war with each other,” he said.

And what of Whitey Bulger, the most famous of the Irish mob leaders?

“It is hard to imagine that a crime of this immensity would have taken place three miles away from Whitey’s headquarters in South Boston without Whitely either pulling it off with his crew or having access to knowing about it,” Kurkjian said.

“At some point, I realized that there was something disturbing that needed to be explored more. I think the light went on in my mind when they said we won’t prosecute you for the theft or the possession of the stolen paintings. When that offer was made in 2005, it remains a public pledge by the police. There is something different about this case that I haven’t been able to explain or understand yet. When you’re in a plane that is coming to Logan and it’s foggy, you look out and you ask where am I? Then all of a sudden you see where you are. I want to make sure when the Eureka happens and when we find out who did and why they did it and where they had held it that I was somewhere near the big reveal. They could show us in a criminal underworld’s secreta cave and I never would have known.

The one possible that turns to probable is the organized crime avenue, because the two gangs that were at war in the late 1980s in Boston, I know on the record, that both gangs knew of the museum’s vulnerability for theft and both knew that stealing art could, they believed, get any of their bad guys out of jail,” Kurkjian said.

“I hope somebody just gets the sense, buys into the charitable belief that the paintings belong to us. And I can bring my grandchildren,’ he said.

Kurkjian hoped that tips would come in with the program. As for the producers, he said, “They are hoping for season 2 because of the success of the program.”

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