Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist by Murder Bucket

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Show Notes

One of the largest museum heists happened on March 18, 1990.

30 years later, the artwork has not been recovered and no one has been charged.

I share background on Isabella Gardner all about her travels, art collection, and her own personal museum.

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Welcome to true crime by Indie Drop-In each week we feature an episode from the best independent creators hit subscribe for more great, true crime content. If you would like to help Indie Drop-In support indie creators, you can buy us a coffee. Just go to or click the link in the show notes below today’s episode is from Murder Bucket. Don’t forget to check out the show notes for links to subscribe and follow us on social media. Enjoy the show. Welcome to murder bucket the podcast where I dive deep into murders, paranormal activity, abductions, kidnappings, and weird stuff.

I’m your host. Hannah. Let’s see what I’m going to pull out of the bucket this week on today’s episode, I will be talking about the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum heist. Isabella Stewart was born in New York city on April 14th, 1840. She was the daughter of wealthy linen merchant, David Stewart and Adela Stewart from age five to 15. She attended a nearby Academy for girls where she studied music, art, dance, French and Italian at 16, her family moved to Paris where she enrolled in a school for American girls.

(1m 24s):
Her classmates included members of the wealthy Gardner family from Boston at 17. She went to Italy and saw Gian Jacomo Polita Pasolini. His collection of Renaissance art arranged in rooms designed to recall historical areas. She said that if she ever inherited an significant amount of money, she wanted to have a house that was similar for people to visit and enjoy. She returned to New York in 1858 at the age of 18, after she returned former classmate, Julia Gardner invited her to Boston where she met Julia’s brother John. He was one of Boston’s most eligible bachelors.

(2m 4s):
They married in Grace Church on April 10th of 1860, and lived in a house that Isabella’s father gave them. They resided there for the rest of John’s life. John and Isabella had one son who was born on June 18th of 1863, but he died two years later from pneumonia on March 15th, 1865, not even a year later, Isabella suffered a miscarriage and fell into an extreme depression and withdrew from society. Her doctor suggested that her and John take a trip to lift her spirits. So they boarded a ship and traveled for almost a year, visiting Scandinavia and Russia, but spent most of their time in Paris.

(2m 46s):
The trip was a turning point for Isabella’s health. She began a lifelong habit of keeping scrapbooks of her travels and established her reputation as a fashionable high-spirited socialite in 1875 John’s brother Joseph died leaving three small boys, John and Isabella adopted them and raised them as their own in a biography about her life. Biographer Morris Carter wrote that in her duties to these boys, she was faithful Isabella and John began traveling across America, Europe, and Asia, very frequently to discover foreign cultures and expand their knowledge of art around the world. The earliest works in her collection were accumulated during their trips to Europe in 1891, she started to focus on European fine art after inheriting $1.75 million from her father.

(3m 38s):
One of her very first purchases was the concert five Vermeer, which was purchased at a Paris auction house in 1892. She then began collecting from other places such as Egypt, Turkey, and the far East and a late 1890s. She began collecting an earnest rapidly building a world-class collection, primarily of paintings and statues, but also had tapestries photographs, silver ceramics, manuscripts, and architectural elements, such as doors, stained, glass and mantle pieces. She traveled with a friend to collect for the Harvard Lampoon building. I fo Flemish castle and Harvard square.

(4m 18s):
She donated many pieces of art to the castle over her years of collecting. And the value is uncertain due to the secret nature of the Lampoon by 1896, Isabella and John realized that their home was no longer sufficient to house their growing collection of art. After John’s sudden death in 1898, Isabella realized their shared dream of building a museum for their treasures. She purchased land for the museum in the marshy Fenway area of Boston and hired architect, Willard Sears to build it and model after the Renaissance palace, Venice, she was involved in every aspect of the design building surrounds a glass covered garden courtyard, which was the first of its kind in the United States.

(5m 3s):
After the building was complete. Isabella spent over a year installing her collection, according to her personal aesthetic, the museum privately opened on January 1st, 1903, with a grand opening celebration that featured performances by some members of the Boston symphony orchestra. There was champagne and donut serve to all the guests. It was then open to the public. Several months later, Isabella used the fourth floor as her residence in 1919. Isabella suffered her first of many strokes and died five years later on July 17th, 1924 at the age of 84 after her death, the fourth floor of the museum served as residence for the museum’s director for over 60 years.

(5m 49s):
When Ann Holly became the director, she decided to not live there. And it was more recently converted into offices in Isabella’s. Well, she created an endowment of $1 million and outlined stipulations for support of the museum, including that the permanent collection not be altered. She left sizable donations to the Massachusetts society for the prevention of cruelty to children, industrial school for crippled and deformed children, animal rescue league of Boston and Massachusetts society for the prevention of cruelty to animals. It was also requested that the Callie fathers celebrate an annual Memorial Requiem mass.

(6m 31s):
It is performed each year on her birthday, not even six months after Anne Holly became the new director, the museum was robbed. The robbery occurred on March 18th, 1990 several people leaving a party near the museum, witnessed the robbers around 1230 in the morning. They were disguised as police officers ever parked in a hatchback. The guards on duty that evening were Rick Abbott three and Randy, he stand 25. It was Randy’s first time on night shift. It was policy that one guard was patrol the galleries with a flashlight and a walkie-talkie while the other guard set at the security desk during Rick’s first patrol, the fire alarm sounded in different rooms, but he couldn’t locate any fire or smoke.

(7m 21s):
He then returned to the security room to check the panel. It indicated smoke in multiple rooms. He figured it was some sort of malfunction and shut it down. He then completed his rounds, making a stop for the side entrance, briefly opening the door and shutting it again. Randy then began his rounds at 1:00 AM, approximately at 1:20 AM. The thieves drove to the side entrance, parked their vehicle and walked up to the side door. They rang the buzzer that connected them to Rick through an Intercom and told him that they were police investigating a disturbance. He could see them on the CCTV wearing what he thought were real police uniforms.

(8m 3s):
So he let them in at 1:24 AM Rick let them into a locked foyer that separated the side door from the museum. They asked him if there was anyone else in the museum and ordered him to bring them down. Rick radioed, Randy, to return to the security desk. One of the men told Rick that he looked familiar and then they might have a warrant for his arrest. He was ordered to come out from behind the desk and prove his identification. He complied. He was then forced against the wall. Legs were spread apart and he was handcuffed. Randy then walked into the room as this was happening. And another one of the thieves handcuffed him.

(8m 43s):
Once the guards were handcuffed, the thieves revealed their true intentions to Rob the museum. The guards had duct tape wrapped around their heads and eyes without asking for directions. They forced the guards into the basement where they were handcuffed to a steam pipe and work bench. It took the thieves only 11 minutes to subdue the guards. It’s now one 35 in the morning. It is thought that they waited 13 additional minutes before starting the heist, to be sure that no police were called as the thieves approached the paintings in the Dutch room, a device that beeps when a patron is too close, started to go off. It is smashed almost immediately.

(9m 23s):
They took storm on the sea of Galilee and a lady and a gentleman in black and threw them on the marble floor, shattering the glass. They then used a blade to cut both canvases out of their stretchers. They then removed a large Rembrandt self portrait from the wall. It was left, leaning up against a cabinet. Investigators believe that it was left because it was too large. Instead, a small self portrait etched by Rembrandt was removed. They then removed landscape with and the concert from their frames. The final piece taken out of the Dutch room was an ancient Chinese geek. It is now 1:51 AM.

(10m 5s):
They moved to a narrow hallway, dub the short gallery on the second floor. They began removing screws from a frame that displayed a Napoleonic flag, but gave up halfway and instead took the exposed Eagle that was on top of the flagpole. They then took five degus sketches and Chez Tortoni. As a thieves were leaving. They decided to check on the guards. One last time they removed the tapes from the CCTV and the data printouts from the motion detecting equipment. But what they didn’t realize was the movement. Data was also captured on a hard drive. As they were moving the stolen artwork into their van. They left their frame for Chez Tortoni in the security office.

(10m 48s):
The robbery lasted a total of 81 minutes ending at 2:15 AM. As the next guard shift arrived, they realized that something was wrong. Would they could not establish contact with anyone inside to be let in. They had to call the security director and once he entered the building found no one at the desk. He called the police. When the police arrived and searched the building, they found the night shift guards still tied up in the basement. A total of 13 works were stolen that night. And those items are the concert. The storm on the sea of Galilee, a lady and gentlemen and black landscape with Chez Tortoni self portrait of Rembrandt.

(11m 34s):
Deb passag, Cortez ox, environs deaf Florence program for an artistic soiree one program for an artistic soiree, two, three mounted jockeys, an ancient Chinese geek and a French Imperial Eagle. At the time, the highest, the value was estimated at $200 million. And by the year 2000, it was estimated at $500 million. It was considered the largest museum heist in terms of value until the Dresden green fought Burghley where Royal jewelry was stolen in 2019, because Isabella stated in her will that the collection should not be moved.

(12m 20s):
The empty frames from the stolen paintings remain hanging in their prospective locations. The museum had a lack of insurance and funds. So the director solicited help from Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction house to post a $1 million reward. This was increased to $5 million in 1997. And in 2017, the reward was doubled to $10 million with an expiration date. It was extended following an outpouring of tips from the public. This is considered the largest bounty ever offered by a private institution. Unfortunately, the statute of limitations expired in 1995, so that thieves and anyone participating in the heist cannot be prosecuted.

(13m 8s):
Obedient control of the case was taken over by the FBI on the grounds that the artwork might have crossed state lines. There was little to no evidence left at the scene. So investigators called it a unique case. The guards and witnesses in the street described one of them as being about five foot nine and in his late thirties with a medium build and the other being about six feet tall and in his early thirties with a little bit of a heavier build, Rick arbuth was one of the first to be investigated because of his suspicious behavior. Some believe that when he opened the side door and then immediately shut, it was a signal to the thieves parked outside.

(13m 49s):
He told the authorities that he did this routinely just to make sure that the door was locked. Many colleagues, state that if he had done this routinely, it would have shown up on the computer printouts and his supervisors would have put a stop to it. The motion detectors also never went off during the entire 81 minute heist. It only detected Rick’s footsteps. Jury has patrol a security consult, inspected the equipment several weeks after the incident and determined that they were working properly. Rick continues to maintain his innocence. In 2015, a security video was released by the FBI showing Rick buzzing in an unidentified man and talking to him at the security desk.

(14m 34s):
He States that he doesn’t recall the incident or even recognized the man in question, but several of his colleagues have come forward and said, the man was Rick’s boss. The deputy security chief Whitey Bulger was one of the most powerful crime bosses in Boston and claims he not organize the heist. He States that he sent his agents out in an attempt to figure out who did it because it happened on his turf and he wanted his fair share of the profits. FBI agent Thomas McShane, determined that Widy strong ties with Boston police department could explain how the thieves got legitimate uniforms. Why he also had relations with the Irish Republican army and agent MacShane believed that the bogus fire alarm trigger was a calling card of the IRA.

(15m 23s):
His investigation did not produce any evidence to tie YT or the IRA to the heist. I retired art and antiques investigator for Scotland yard believes wide. He gave some of the artwork to the IRA and that they are most likely in Ireland. Brian McDevitt was a con man from Boston who failed to Rob the Hyde collection in Glen falls, New York in 1981. He dressed as a FedEx driver, had handcuffs duct tape and was trying to steal a Rembrandt. The parallels to this case, fascinated the FBI so much that they decided to interview him in 1990. He also denied any involvement and refuse to polygraph.

(16m 7s):
His fingerprints were run, but they did not match any from the crime scene. He later moved to California and conned his way into television and film writing in 1994 museum director and Holly received an anonymous letter from someone who claimed to be attempting to negotiate a return of the artwork. They explained that they were only a third party and did not know the identity of the thieves. They requested immunity for themselves and everyone involved as well as $2.6 million. The letter said if the museum was interested, they should print a coded message in the Boston globe and contacted the FBI who then contacted the globe and had the coded message printed in the may.

(16m 52s):
First, 1994 edition. A second letter was received just a few days later in which the writer acknowledged the museum’s interest in negotiating. The writer explained that they needed time to evaluate their options, but no other letters were ever sent to the museum. The FBI announced in March of 2013, that they had made significant progress in their investigation. They stated that they had high competence, that they had identified that thieves and believed that they remembers of a criminal organization based in the mid Atlantic and new England. It is also believed that there was an attempted sale of the stolen artwork in Philadelphia.

(17m 34s):
In 2002, in 2015, BI made a statement that both thieves were deceased, although they were never publicly identified sources say that they were associated with a gang in Dorchester. The gang was loyal to the mafia, boss, Frank salami, and ran their operations out of an auto shop that was run by Carmello Merlino. It is believed that Merlino’s associates gain knowledge of the museum’s weaknesses. After another gangster Lewis Royce cased it in 1981. Some believed that while Royce was in prison, his associate Steven Rossetti may have the robbery.

(18m 15s):
Other associates of Merlino’s were Robert Guarente and Robert Gentile in 2004, rubber Guarente died from cancer and his widow Ellen contacted the FBI and claimed that her husband owned some of the stolen artwork. She went on further stating that when her husband got sick, he gave them to Gentile for safekeeping, of course, Gentile denied all of it and claims he knows nothing about their whereabouts. Gentile was indicted on drug charges in 2012 and while taking a polygraph test, it indicated that he was lying. When he was asked, if he had any knowledge of the heist or the location of the artwork during a retest.

(18m 57s):
He told FBI investigators that Ellen showed him the missing Rembrandt self portrait. The polygraph indicated that he was telling the truth. A few days after the polygraph retest the FBI stormed his home in Manchester with a search warrant. They found a secret ditch under a false floor in the shed, but it was empty. His son told investigators that the ditch flooded a few years ago and that his dad was upset about what was stored in there in the basement. They found a copy of the Boston Herald from March, 1990, that reported the highest along with what each piece might sell for on the black market. Nothing else was found in his home indicating he ever had the paintings.

(19m 39s):
He never opted to share any information regarding the locations of them. Either once out of prison, he spoke with an investigative reporter and claimed that he was framed by the FBI. He explained how being in prison negatively impacted his finances and his personal life. David Turner was another associate of Merlino. In 1992, the FBI began investigating him when they were told that he had access to the paintings. That same year Merlino was arrested for cocaine trafficking and told authorities that he could return the paintings for a reduced prison sentence. He asked Turner to track down the paintings, but was unsuccessful.

(20m 21s):
Despite Turner’s claims of innocence, the FBI believed he was one of the thieves. They had evidence that indicated he traveled to Florida to pick up a cocaine order just days before the heist, his credit card information showed. He stayed there through the night of the robbery, but the FBI believes that he was just an alibi in 1999, nine, the FBI arrested Turner Merlino and Steven in a sting operation. The day they plan to Rob a Lomas Fargo vault, the FBI told Turner that they had information that he participated in the museum heist. And if he returned the paintings, they would let him go.

(21m 2s):
He continued to claim his innocence and that he did not know the whereabouts of the stolen artwork. The jury found him guilty on all charges for the attempted Lomas Fargo vault heist, and he was sent to prison in 2001. Merlino died in prison in 2005. Steven Rosati was freed in October of 2019. And Turner was freed in November of 2019. Another person that was suspected to be involved with the museum heist was Bobby Donati, who was murdered in 1991 in a gang war with an influential crime family, notorious art thief, Myles Connor was in jail at the time of the heist, but he believed that Bobby and a guy named David Horton were the masterminds behind everything.

(21m 51s):
So that’s why he spoke with authorities. He had worked with Bobby in the past and knew the skills that he had. He further claimed that David Houghton visited him in jail after the heist and told him all about their plan to return the art for a reduced sentence. This was exactly what miles had done in the past. He believes they hired low level gangsters to carry out the robbery. Unfortunately, David Houghton died two years after the highest miles did tell investigators that he could assist in returning the artwork in exchange for the reward that was posted. And his freedom investigators denied his demands based on lack of evidence that he knew where the stolen artwork was fictional accounts of the robbery.

(22m 36s):
And what occurred to the paintings were explored on the following television shows blind spot, the blacklist, the venture bros, and the Simpsons. There have also been novels written about the fictional accounts and they are the art forger by BA Shaprio artful deception by James J McGovern, the hidden things by Jamie Mason and the mobs zoned by Joseph DiMatteo as of December, 2020, there have been no new leads or updates in the museum. Heist. A random fact, the museum’s reward has only been exceeded by the U S government’s $25 million bounty for Osama bin Laden.

(23m 21s):
And that is the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum heist. Thank you for listening to murder bucket, and I hope you enjoyed tonight’s episode. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at the murder bucket on Facebook at bucket Merde and on Instagram at Merde bucket. Again for listening to true crime by Indie Drop-In if you would like your show featured, reach out to us at indie drop-in on all social media or go to indie drop-in dot com. See you next time.