Gardner Museum Heist

By ERIC ULIS

In the early morning hours of Sunday, March 18, 1990, the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston was robbed of 13 pieces of fine art that today are valued at approximately $600 million. Thus far none of the stolen pieces have been recovered and no arrests have been made related to the heist. This unsolved heist stands as the biggest theft in history, and the loss of one painting in particular, The Concert—valued at $300 million today—by Johannes Vermeer, stands as the single most valuable item ever stolen in the world.

The FBI has stated that they believe the heist was committed by organized crime. Moreover, they have identified two individuals—both deceased—as the two individuals who robbed the museum. However, they have never charged anyone with the crime and have no idea where the stolen art is today.

As I have investigated the heist I have come to the conclusion that the FBI is incorrect. Moreover, I believe that there is ample evidence to point to one, if not two, individuals who likely played a role in the heist.

When considering the heist it is critically important to focus on certain details and established facts. Indeed, reasonable assertions may be made which actually tell us quite a bit about the heist and have the potential to help us recover the stolen art.

At approximately 12:30 AM on the morning of Sunday, March 18, 1990 a hatchback vehicle parked on the street next to the backdoor entrance to the museum. We know this because witnesses stated that they saw the vehicle and noticed two individuals dressed as police officers in the car. Of note, St. Patrick’s Day was the evening of March 17th so the streets of Boston had quite a few revelers out that night celebrating the holiday.

Interestingly, these two “police officers” sat in their hatchback for nearly an hour before they approached the backdoor of the museum and requested to be buzzed in because they were investigating a disturbance. This occurred at 1:24 AM.

Sitting at the guard counter at that time was a 23 year-old man named Rick Abath. According to Abath, when the two individuals requested to be buzzed in through the back door he saw what appeared to be two police officers so he buzzed them in.

At the moment that Abath buzzed in the two men dressed as police officers, a second security guard on duty that night was at some other location in the museum.

Upon being let in, the two men asked Abath if there was anyone else in the museum, to which Abath responded that there was one other security guard on duty. At this point the two men requested that the other security guard be directed back to the security counter.

It was at this time that one of the men dressed as a police officer looked at Abath and stated, “Don’t I know you?” He then told Abath that he resembled someone who had an outstanding arrest warrant. At this point, Abath was directed to come from behind the security counter and display his identification.

Part of the brilliance of this move was that the only panic button in the museum was located behind the security counter. Therefore, by having Abath come from behind the counter, ostensibly to provide some identification, the thieves no longer had to concern themselves with the panic button being tripped.

Once Abath stepped from behind the security counter he was ordered to raise his hands so that he could be handcuffed. It was at this moment that the second security guard—known only as Randy—entered into the security office. Randy was then asked to raise his hands and be detained with handcuffs along with Abath.

Once both security guards were handcuffed—and still believing that the two individuals were actual police officers investigating a disturbance at the museum—they were told that what was actually taking place was a robbery. At this point, duck tape was affixed to their eyes and mouths leaving only a small slit through which they could breath.

Upon being completely detained, both guards were led downstairs into the basement—which appears to indicate that the thieves were familiar with the layout of the museum. Then Randy was tied to some equipment in one basement room and Abath was brought into a separate basement room. The thieves then proceeded to head upstairs to the museum to begin the removal of the art.

The thieves went directly to the 2nd floor of the museum and immediately to the Dutch Room which housed some of the museum’s most valuable items. Notably, the thieves did not begin their work in the Dutch Room until 1:48 AM, a full 24 minutes after they were buzzed into the museum. This is interesting because the amount of time required to subdue the security guards and bring them into the basement was only about 6 minutes. This begs the question: What were the thieves doing for the next 18 minutes before they finally made their way into the Dutch Room?

The reason we can account for the movement of the thieves that night with minute-by-minute accuracy is because the museum had motion detectors throughout the facility. As the thieves moved about they tripped these motion detectors which would send a message to the unmanned security desk noting activity in a particular room in the museum.

The thieves then proceeded to immediately remove two large Rembrandt paintings from the wall and throw them upon the ground, thereby breaking the glass covering each painting in its frame. The thieves then used a very sharp instrument to slice the paintings out of their frames along the edges.

Only a couple minutes after the thieves entered the Dutch Room, one of the thieves proceeded to the Short Gallery which was on the other side of the 2nd floor of the museum. Ultimately, six items were removed from the Short Gallery. Additionally, six items were removed from the Dutch Room.

A final piece—the 13th item—was removed from the Blue Room on the 1st floor of the museum. However, authorities are unsure exactly when this 13th item was removed from the Blue Room because for some reason no motion detectors were tripped on the 1st floor during the heist. To this day, the reason none of the 1st floor motion detectors were tripped is a mystery.

The thieves tripped their last motion detector at 2:28 AM as they left the 2nd floor of the museum and headed back down to the office areas of the museum which did not possess motion detectors. During this time they not only removed the video footage of the outside of the museum filmed by the closed-circuit camera, but they also removed the printed data related to the motion detectors which tracked their movements throughout the museum. Finally, after another 13 minutes the first of the thieves exited out to the street, later to be followed by the second thief four minutes later at 2:45 AM.

When considering the totality of the heist there are some very intriguing and telling details. First off, there is the fact that the thieves were in the museum for 81 minutes. In fact, the overwhelming majority of art heists and other robberies are executed within 5 or 10 minutes. Therefore, the sheer magnitude of time involved is very unusual. It appears to indicate that the thieves were in no rush, and they weren’t at all concerned about the police showing up.

Also, it is very apparent that the thieves were familiar with the layout of the museum including: Where the panic button was located, how to navigate the basement for the purposes of tying up the security guards, where the art they were targeting was located, and where the closed circuit video tape and motion detector data could be retrieved upon leaving the museum. Moreover, they knew which door to enter the museum and apparently felt comfortable that they would be allowed entrance into the museum after hours by dressing as police officers.

All of this indicates that they had access to inside information regarding the museum. It is simply unreasonable to assume that they merely guessed right concerning all of these things. Now let us consider the mystery regarding the 13th piece that was removed from the Blue Room on the 1st floor without a single motion detector being tripped.

As mentioned above, not a single motion detector was tripped on the 1st floor during the heist. Nonetheless, there was a single item removed from the Blue Room which is located on the 1st floor. In fact, it was determined that the last person to walk into the Blue Room was Abath—the same security guard who buzzed in the thieves—during his last round which required him to swipe a magnetic card upon entering each room which not only disabled the motion detector alarms but also recorded that he physically checked each room as part of his official security duties as prescribed by the museum.

What this tells us is that there is only one person who could have removed the 13th piece from the Blue Room, and that had to be Abath. There is no other way around it. After all, the motion detectors on the 1st floor were later proven to be functioning properly. Moreover, they were determined to be unbeatable. In other words, there was no possible way that the thieves somehow disarmed or got around the 1st floor motion detector system. Not to mention, it defies common sense because the thieves literally tripped the 2nd floor motion detectors hundreds of times with reckless abandon, and, they knew that they would be removing the data related to the motion detector alarms before they left the museum. Simply put, they figured no trace of their movements would be left for the authorities to analyze. However, the thieves were unaware of the fact that a copy of this data was recorded on a hard drive which the authorities were able to recover.

Getting back to Abath and his final round before the heist took place, he also was recorded briefly opening the secured back door 20 minutes before he buzzed in the thieves. This action was a significant breach of protocol and appeared to make no sense. When questioned about this Abath simply stated that he would do this regularly just to check the door’s alarm. However, he never notified his partner that he did this and it was not a prescribed part of his duties. Not to mention, it was dangerous.

This leads me to conclude that not only did Abath remove the 13th piece from the Blue Room during his last round. But, that he slipped it out the back door 20 minutes before he buzzed in the thieves.           Remember, at this point in time, the thieves were already parked outside the back of the museum. Therefore, it seems likely that this served as some sort of signal to the thieves who commenced their operation 20 minutes later.

The next thing that must be discussed relates to whether organized crime was involved with the heist. As noted above, the FBI tends to believe that was the case. However, I vehemently disagree.

To begin, when one looks at other criminal activities on the part of organized crime, in particular, plans to heist an armored truck, it is apparent that such undertakings by these organizations are well-planned and utilize many different people to execute the plans. Considering the Gardner Heist, and the sheer magnitude of the crime, it strikes me as highly improbable that they would organize this heist utilizing only two people. Moreover, that they would organize a heist that called for being on the premises for 81 minutes. In other words, this heist strikes me as being somewhat sloppy although it was quite well thought out and successful.

Also, the fact of the matter is that Whitey Bulger—whose gang controlled the territory that the museum is located within—was not involved with the heist and was unable to determine who was. The heist was of particular interest to Bulger because he expected to be paid a tribute from whoever it was that pulled it off.

Additionally, the authorities decided early on that they were more interested in getting the art back then throwing someone in jail, and they let this be known. In fact, believing that organized crime was involved with the heist, the authorities deftly boxed-in and charged several organized crime figures for the purposes of applying pressure and getting someone to leverage the return of the art for a “get out of jail free card.” Much to their dismay, not one single organized crime figure ever provided any information as to the location of any of the art or the responsible party. The reasons for this are obvious: none of them had any information to leverage. Simply put, they didn’t know.

In my mind, after 30 years, this is simply not tenable. It is beyond believable that someone wouldn’t have talked, especially considering that the statute of limitations has expired and that there is a $10 million reward for the return of the art. If organized crime was involved in any manner, someone would have talked by now.

This leads to the obvious question: Who was involved?

As I’ve researched this and reviewed some of the prime suspects, one in particular, stands out as a real possibility. That is a person named Brian Michael McDevitt.

Without getting into great detail concerning McDevitt I’ll point out a few things. He was not associated with organized crime. He was a very bold, and successful, conman. He was busted for a very audacious, and strikingly similar, art heist in 1982 for which he served time. He later fled to Central America. Lastly, he died in 2004 as a result of AIDS and was buried in Columbia. These facts have all been confirmed.

I consider it likely that McDevitt, along with one other associate, served as the two thieves that pulled off the Gardner Heist. I think it is likely that Abath was in on the heist and probably received a modest sum for his help. Considering the items taken that night, it appears that there are three items that were odd takes. Specifically, a Bronze Eagle Finial, a Shang Dynasty Gu, and the aforementioned Manet painting removed from the Blue Room. These three items strike me as personal takes—in other words, one item each for the three individuals involved that night.

As to where the missing art is now, I really don’t know. Nonetheless, it seems likely that most of, if not all, of the stolen art was eventually sold off. Perhaps there was a buyer—or buyers—set up in advance. Perhaps the buyer(s) were merely interested in the art to be included in a private collection. Regardless, it seems all but certain that all of this art is still out there somewhere, just waiting to be discovered and returned to the Gardner Museum.