‘Last Seen’ podcast explores Boston history through unsolved art heist

Johannes Vermeer's 'The Concert' (1665), oil on canvas, and Rembrandt van Rijn's 'Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee' (1633), oil on canvas, two paintings stolen in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist on March 18, 1990, are pictured. Courtesy Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

“This case is like the perfect storm for someone like me — for it to ruin your life. You know, to have 13 albatrosses around your neck forever because I know that if I go to my grave unsuccessful that I’ll go to my grave an unhappy person.”

These words come from Anthony Amore, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s security director. Of course, he refers to the infamous night on March 18, 1990, when art and Boston history were changed forever. The Gardner Museum, designed and developed by Boston philanthropist Isabella Stewart Gardner, was robbed.

In an astonishingly long 81 minutes, two thieves stole 13 works of art, worth an estimated value of $500 million combined. With only two guards on duty, the robbers, masquerading as cops, immediately subdued them. In the near hour and a half that followed, no police were alerted, and the thieves got away scot-free. To this day, none of the 13 works of art have been recovered, and the two that performed the act have not been caught, despite an award of $10 million for the recovery of the lost pieces.

So, with a case that has gone unsolved for over 28 years, what else is there to say? Where else can you investigate? The podcast “Last Seen” sets out to answer that very question. A joint venture between WBUR and the Boston Globe, “Last Seen” is the result of over a year of research, accessing never-before-seen files and interviews with people surrounding the case who have never gone on record before now.

The true crime podcast is headed by Kelly Horan and Jack Rodolico of WBUR, with the Boston Globe’s Stephen Kurkjian, author of “Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist” (2015), serving as a consulting producer. In the 10-episode series, they’ve set out to tell the definitive history of the heist, as well as investigate every possible angle. There is an episode looking into the possibility of an inside job, along with multiple stories of famous criminals during the era who may have had a connection. No stone is left unturned.

With such a massive undertaking, an immediate question arises: Where does one even begin? For Horan, the investigation began with research of Isabella Stewart Gardner herself. She sought to gain an understanding of the visionary Boston art collector and what the 13 pieces meant to her, as a means of getting a background on what led to the fateful day in 1990. Subsequently Horan and her team began a close examination of the theft.

“I went back to the earliest coverage of the heist,” Horan told the Daily in an interview. “I basically read everything from March 18, 1990 forward, and I did two things. I compiled a long list of names of anyone who has ever been mentioned in relation to the Gardner [heist] on both sides of the law, and then I divided that list into categories: who’s still alive, who can talk, and who’s no longer alive — but where might we find tape of them? And I just started going through this list methodically to find out who would tell me stories.”

One such story features Rick Abath, the security guard who let the thieves in the night of the heist, and a man who has been speculated to be the robbers’ inside help. Abath had given his two-week notice around the time of the theft, brought a party from his Allston-Brighton home inside the museum after hours a few months prior and eerily opened the outside door 20 minutes before the robbers arrived — a door that was not supposed to be opened after hours.

The story of TRC Auto Electric in Dorchester, a car shop that doubled as mobster Carmello Merlino’s crime headquarters, is also featured. Multiple people associated with TRC, including David Turner, a classic kid-gone-down-the-wrong-path, and George Reissfelder, a man who became close to circles within the TRC after serving 16 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, are featured around this old shop, with several blooming leads from the headquarters.

What makes “Last Seen” compelling are these exact stories — although everyone featured obviously has some sort of connection to the heist, all of their stories are self-contained, and we learn a great deal about their lives as well as general Boston history within the episodes of the podcast.

“One of my chief goals was to get to as many voices as I could, but also to present them as human beings,” Horan said. “No one is all good or all bad. I always want to find the humanity in my subjects, so that we’re not caricaturing people, we’re not making fun of them — we’re not portraying one-dimensional people.”

The most recent episode of “Last Seen” features two people, both named Bobby, who may have had a part in transporting the stolen art, along with the FBI’s official statement on the matter in 2013.

“For the first time, we can say with a high degree of confidence we’ve determined that in the years since the theft the art was transported to Connecticut and to the Philadelphia area,” Rick Deslauriers, a special agent in FBI’s Boston division said on March 18, 2013, the 23rd anniversary of the heist. “However, we do not know where the art is currently located. And with a high degree of confidence we believe those responsible for the theft were members of a criminal organization with a base in the mid-Atlantic states and in New England.”

And as “Last Seen” continues its own investigation, it becomes clear that the FBI’s findings may not quite add up: Bobby Gentile, the man who the FBI thought of as “their guy,” is surely a person of interest, but there’s no clear evidence that he had anything to do with the heist itself. He has accepted two jail sentences for separate crimes, and neither time did he answer questions about the Gardner heist in order to receive a reduced sentence.

Halfway through the series, we’ve already heard many well-crafted stories and interesting quips about Boston history, and we’ve gotten closer to an idea of who may or may not have been involved in the heist, but the fact remains that the art hasn’t been found. And, 28 years after the fact, the works may never be found.

Horan said hope does remain, though, and there may be a precedent to follow: Sometimes, in these cases, works can still be found generations later.

“In the last couple of years, there was a major recovery of a painting that had been missing for 40 years by an artist named Norman Rockwell,” Horan said. “That was recovered because more people were hearing about it — there was a big publicity push on the part of the law enforcement. And because of this, a fellow in Philadelphia realized: ‘Oh my God, that’s hanging in my kitchen.’

“I believe that if the Gardner art is returned, it’s not going to be because a criminal had some pang of conscience and decided to do so. I think it will come back because somebody comes across it by accident.”

Horan hopes that “Last Seen” can play a part in getting the conversation going and familiarizing the public with the art for this very purpose. More than anything, though, Horan wants listeners to learn and understand the story of the museum, and more specifically, the story of Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose vision guided Boston in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“Boston looks the way it does in no small part because of what [Gardner] gave to this city,” Horan said. “She helped create the Boston that we know today. It was a time when the Boston Public Library was being built, the Boston Symphony Orchestra was being organized and a concert hall was chosen — and she was a part of that. If you love Boston, you owe a little bit of a debt of gratitude to Isabella Stewart Gardner.”

“I think that we should all know more about these women who were here. We know a lot about men, and that’s good too, but Isabella Stewart Gardner was a true visionary in this city. And her friends were the women who helped create the century. They were suffragettes, they were writers — they were thinkers. And to get to know Isabella and her circle is to truly get to know the city we inherited.”

New episodes of “Last Seen” are released every Monday on all major podcasting apps as well as the WBUR website.


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