March 17th, 1990 in Boston, St. Patrick Day revelers party late into the night. Still, by one in the morning on March 18th, the parties have started to settle down. Police drive around trying to keep things peaceful. Even an easy job will have a little excitement that day.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was manned by two part-time security guards during the night. Most nights the job was easy. One guard would watch the desk, while the other made the rounds, and then they would switch. Some nights they would try to move through the museum without setting off motion sensors to keep themselves awake. Yet this St Patrick Day night into the early morning would have plenty of excitement.
The Art Heist
Early that night, one guard responded to a fire alarm in one room. Turned out strobe lights had set it off. Then, one young man banged on the side door, seeking asylum from a couple of men assaulting him. The guards said they would call the police but could not let him in. Instead, the man jumped into a car with the men he claimed assaulted him a drove away.
A little bit later around 1:30 am two men dressed as police officers showed up at the side door. They claimed someone had scaled the wall into the museum gardens and they needed to investigate. The guard unsure of the right response, decided to obey the officers and let them in. Once inside, they had the guard call down the guard making the rounds. Then proceeded to handcuff both guards, take them down to the basement and tape them to poles.
Then, the thieves proceeded with stealing 13 items from the museum. They spent a total of 81 minutes inside the museum, in several rooms. Not worried about interruption they took their time gathering the items they wanted. They checked on the guards once, took the recording and printout of movement before loading their car and leaving. The guards were not discovered for another six hours.
Immediately the police started looking for the thieves, even bringing in the FBI. Unfortunately, the only information they had about the heist came from the computer recording of movements, but no video. The guards tried to describe, but the thieves could have been wearing more as a disguise such as a fake mustache or glasses.
A few years passed with the FBI, police, and private investigators searching through hundreds of tips. Nothing came through. Then in 1994, they received a letter from someone who said they knew exactly where the thieves hid the art. The letter writer wanted the offered reward and immunity and indicated how they could let him know they would negotiate. After following his instructions to agree, he wrote again, this time upset with the reaction of police and FBI. The writer said he needed time to think and never contacted them again.
Theories Into Art Heist
The case so far has remained unsolved though the police have had several theories about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art heist. Unfortunately, they have had no actual proof to point them in the right direction. At this point, people must wonder if this case will ever be solved and where the art ended up.
Most recently, the police think that this heist was carried out by a criminal organization called the Merlino Crew. This group includes a couple of men known to frequent a repair shop operated by Carmello Merlino, a man with known mob ties. Even though Merlino was arrested in 1999 for another crime, he never admitted to the museum heist. At this point, the majority of the men possibly connected to the crime in this theory have died.
Also, the police thought that the art heist could have been an inside job. The thieves knew that the museum had only one button to alert the police. They also seemed to know that night with only two unprepared guards would be the best time to hit. In fact, the police think that one of the guards helped with the crime. They think he knew when the thieves would come and willingly let them in. The guard has repeatedly denied any involvement with the theft.
Thief Turned Screenwriter
Early in the search for the thieves, the police looked at a man named Brian McDevitt. In his 20s he tried to rob a museum in New York. Instead, stuck in traffic they did not succeed and the police caught them. After being caught he spent a few months in prison. At the time of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft, he lived nearby. The police questioned him and he even stood before a grand jury. Still, they did not have enough evidence to make a case against him. McDevitt moved to California and started a job screenwriting. He died in 2004.
In one last theory, the police suggest possible mafia connections. Vincent Ferrara, a mafia boss, jailed at this time received a visit from his associate Robert Donati. Donati said, according to Ferrara, that he had stolen the artwork. He planned to use the artwork to bargain for Ferrara’s release. Before anything could come to fruition, Donati died. The police found him stabbed to death in 1991.
Another person also said Donati committed the art heist. Myles Connor Jr., another art thief said that he and Donati used to case out the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. They knew about the flaws and would discuss ways they could break in, steal the work, and escape. He also said that Donati indicated that he wanted the same vase that had been stolen. Connor also said a friend, David Houghton, visited him in jail and said Donati stole the artwork and planned to use it to bargain for Connor’s release. Houghton died of a heart attack in 1991, so could not corroborate that tale.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Still Looking
Despite the over 30 years since the theft, this case has remained unsolved, the museum still remembers and continues looking. They hang blank frames on the wall to remind people of the art heist. Many in law enforcement seem to think that the thieves have died. In fact, the police and museum offer a large reward for any tip that leads to the recovery of the art pieces. The FBI has also said they will not prosecute anybody who comes forward with any information. After thirty years it seems unlikely this case will ever be solved, but maybe someday someone will come forward with the art.