HARTFORD, Conn. - A 76-year-old reputed Connecticut mobster pleaded guilty from his wheelchair Wednesday in a weapons and prescription drugs case that revealed the FBI's belief that he has information about the largest art heist in history.
The 1990 theft of a half-billion dollars' worth of art from a Boston museum was never mentioned at the hearing itself as Robert Gentile, of Manchester, said "guilty" nine times in U.S. District Court in Hartford. He faces a prison sentence of around four years.
Thieves struck the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as Boston was finishing celebrating St. Patrick's Day. Authorities say the culprits disguised themselves as police officers, tied up two guards and made off with 13 pieces of art including masterworks by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas and Manet. The artworks remain missing, and the museum is still offering a $5 million reward.
After Wednesday's hearing, Gentile's lawyer, A. Ryan McGuigan, said Gentile has co-operated with federal investigators in their attempt to find the stolen art and testified before a grand jury looking into the heist. McGuigan said Gentile knows nothing about the theft but was acquainted with people federal authorities believe may have been involved.
McGuigan said most of the people thought to have been involved in the heist have died.
"Unfortunately for the art world, he is the last, best hope of retrieving the paintings," McGuigan said, referring to Gentile. "And now he's paying the price for not knowing."
The federal prosecutor in the weapons and drug case, John Durham, declined to comment Wednesday.
Nearly one hour and 40 minutes after a U.S. marshal pushed Gentile into the courtroom in a wheelchair, he pleaded guilty to illegally possessing and selling prescription drugs and illegally possessing guns, silencers and ammunition as a convicted felon.
Gentile wore a grey sweat shirt beneath his beige, short-sleeve prison uniform and held a cane. He said he was pleading guilty to spare the state and himself the expense of a trial and with the hope of getting out of prison in a few years to be with his wife.
"I'm sorry for what I did," he told Judge Robert N. Chatigny. "I don't have that many years to fight the case because I'm a very sick man. ... I don't want any more trouble."
Durham told the judge that the investigation involved a co-operating witness who obtained tape-recorded conversations of Gentile and co-defendant Anthony Parente talking about selling prescription drugs including Dilaudid, Percoset and OxyContin. Charges against Parente remain pending, and he's free on bail.
Gentile was arrested in February on the drug charges. Authorities later filed weapons charges after finding several pistols, a shotgun, silencers, ammunition, homemade dynamite and other weapons-related items at his home. Durham said Gentile wasn't allowed to possess guns because he had previous felony convictions for larceny in 1996 and possession of a sawed-off shotgun in 1963.
Gentile insisted that he had never sold drugs before pairing up with Parente, and he claimed that Parente coaxed him into it.
"I was stupid and I said, 'Yes,'" Gentile said. "That's how I got caught in that trap."
Sentencing is tentatively set for Feb. 6. Durham and McGuigan have agreed on a sentencing range of 46 to 57 months in prison.
Neither Gentile nor anyone else has been charged in the art heist.
Durham said in court this year that the FBI believed Gentile had some involvement with stolen property related to the art heist. He said FBI agents had unproductive discussions with Gentile about the theft, but he didn't elaborate. Durham also said the FBI believes Gentile is a made member of the Mafia.
After finding the weapons at Gentile's home in February, federal agents returned in May in what McGuigan called a veiled attempt to find the stolen paintings. McGuigan said at the time that the FBI got a new warrant allowing the use of ground-penetrating radar to look for buried weapons, but he believed they really were looking for the artwork.