CRIME/A TIME INVESTIGATION

NOVEMBER 17, 1997 VOL. 150 NO. 21



THE GREAT ART CAPER

IS THE HEIST OF THE CENTURY ABOUT TO BE SOLVED? TWO CONS MAY HOLD THE ANSWER

BY STEVE LOPEZ


Brooks Kraft-- Sygma for TIME
Gallery
ONE MISSING PAINTING An empty frame, which held a Rembrandt until the theft, remains on the wall to this day


There's the former rock-'n'-roll star and art collector turned con who tells the truth about many things, including the fact that he is an art thief and a con. He says he knows who did it. There's the workaholic, by-the-book FBI agent who moved 3,000 miles from the scene of the crime and after seven years still can't get this one out of his head. There's the relentless but camera-shy investigative reporter who took a dangerous risk that won him instant respect and even quicker scorn.

And there's the defiant silence of the victims, caretakers of a musty but prestigious museum, who fear that any utterance, no matter how benign, might sabotage their highest hopes in years. The biggest and most confounding art heist in American history is 7 1/2 years old and juicier than ever. Organized crime, politics, greed, international intrigue and an execution-style hit all lie at the margins of the story. This one has everything but sex, and maybe even that--after all, the story is still unraveling. Each week brings private powwows among the players, new hopes, old frustrations and the same beating refrain: What a caper!

At 1:24 a.m. on March 18, 1990, two men dressed as Boston police officers talked their way into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, handcuffed and bound with duct tape two feeble guards, disarmed the even feebler alarm system and spent the next 81 minutes looting the place. They left with a Vermeer, three works by Rembrandt, five by Degas--altogether, pieces valued at $300 million.

Brooks Kraft-- Sygma for TIME
Conner
MYLES CONNER The master art thief is serving time in Rhode Island-- but he may be the key to breaking the case

Literally thousands of leads later, in a case that once had 30 FBI agents assigned to it, not a piece has been recovered and not a person has been arrested. Certain elements of the caper--the brutish way in which some paintings were cut from frames, the valuable pieces left behind, the code of silence that has kept a lid on the mystery--add to the intrigue.

But several sources have told TIME that there is an ongoing and secret grand jury investigation into the affairs of two incarcerated career criminals who say they can return the stolen art in return for certain favors--including the $5 million reward. And one of those two cons, New England's most notorious art thief, who in 1974 brokered the return of a stolen Rembrandt, has told TIME that he once cased the Gardner with a man who, years later, arranged the heist without him.

"I know emphatically and beyond any doubt" who stole the art, says Myles Connor, 54, a Milton, Mass., native who is in federal prison for interstate transportation of two paintings stolen in 1975 from the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College. Connor, who appears to have escaped from a Damon Runyon story, says he and a gangster named Bobby Donati, a longtime pal and partner in crime, checked out the Gardner around 1974. "Did I case it?" asks the 5-ft. 7-in., bushy-bearded Connor, who looks more like a visiting professor than a guy who has run with a crew of gangsters for 30 years. "I took a walk through the place and saw what was there." He saw enough to tell him that knocking off the place would be child's play. It looked like such an easy mark, he says, that he and Donati browsed like window shoppers, chatting about what pieces they'd grab.

Connor, whose life story beggars fiction, opened in the '60s for Sha Na Na, played guitar with Roy Orbison on several occasions and led a band called Myles and the Wild Ones. He had a pet alligator named Albert and "cried like a kid who'd lost his cocker spaniel" when Albert went off to the big swamp in the sky. He has one brother who is a cop and another who is a priest. ("I don't know where they went wrong," he says.) A self-professed martial-arts expert (who pronounces karate kah-dah-tay), he once escaped from prison by carving a bar of soap into "the most perfect-looking pistol you've ever seen," and he is described by the FBI as a master of disguises. He once proclaimed, in his faintly Continental intonation, "The thing about art theft is the Robin Hood element in it." Not your common thug.

Brooks Kraft-- Sygma for TIME
Gardener Museum
GARDENER MUSEUM Based on a Venetian-style palazzo

Connor devours art publications, even in jail--especially in jail--and has a scholarly manner that impresses crooks and confounds cops. And he doesn't mind saying that on his little tour of the Gardner, he didn't think much of Donati's taste. Among other things, the philistine had his eye on an eagle that topped a battle flag from Napoleon's Imperial Guard. In any event, Connor says he never acted on the urge to rob the Gardner. That's because he walked across the street in Boston's Fenway area and saw a score he liked better. At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"There's no comparison relative to one place having half a dozen of what could be called real masterpieces and the other one maybe 50 to as many as 100," Connor says. He also knew that the Gardner had no theft insurance--the last thing a thief needs; no insurance company to sell a stolen painting back to. And he "had inside information" about an insured Rembrandt hanging on loan in the Museum of Fine Arts, an institution with serious "political clout" that would send up "a huge hue and cry" and therefore was "the much, much more desirable place" to send into hysterics.

Besides, Connor loved the piece--a splendid portrait of a woman often mistaken for Rembrandt's sister. "There are Rembrandts," says Connor, who could probably run Christie's and Sotheby's from inside the can, "and there are Rembrandts." Though it was valued at $1 million at the time, "it was actually worth" much more, he says, given the inflated art market.

Sure enough, the Rembrandt he lusted after was stolen. Connor, who once took several slugs in a blazing gun battle with a Boston police officer, says, "There isn't a museum in the world that's invulnerable" to a true professional. He won't say exactly how the Fine Arts caper came off, or even admit to the theft. But he arranged the return of the Rembrandt later that year--in exchange for avoiding prison after pleading guilty to the theft of Andrew Wyeth paintings from an estate in Maine.

So we're not talking hobby here. We're talking a love of art, a contempt for law enforcement and the thrill of the score. As for the Gardner heist: "You can believe I didn't plan the thing, or The Rape of Europa would have been the first to go." The Titian work was the most valuable piece in the museum but was passed over for lesser goods, Connor says with disgust.

As Connor tells it, years after he and Donati sized up the Gardner, Donati teamed up with another old pal of Connor's, David Houghton, and the two of them arranged the heist. One of the questions that has baffled museum officials and investigators is, Why would anyone have bothered with the Napoleon eagle? A capture-the-flag statement? A political message of some type? No, not really. Bobby Donati just liked it.

Why would Connor, as wily as they come and a man with his own twisted set of ethics, give up his friends like this? Simple: they're dead. Houghton died in 1992 of natural causes, and Donati went out about a year earlier of multiple stab wounds, found hog-tied in the trunk of a car--which is relatively close to natural causes among the people he ran with. Connor says Donati would not have violated the gangster's vow of omerta. Bobby was a stand-up guy. If gangsters had been trying to find the stolen paintings, "they could have chopped his fingers off one at a time," and Donati wouldn't have given up the goods. Connor thinks it's more likely he was killed in a battle between Boston's warring mob factions than because some crime boss wanted a Rembrandt on his wall.

Sound a little too convenient to pin the Gardner heist on a couple of guys who've been planted? Sure it does, and the FBI understandably wonders if Connor is trying to take the heat off the real thieves or simply con his way to freedom. But Connor, who lives by a strict code of criminal conduct that is essentially honor among thieves, says you help comrades in distress. By telling what he knows, maybe he can help spring his buddy Billy Youngworth, the other con who says he can get his hands on the stolen paintings--if authorities will drop a stolen-vehicle rap that could keep Youngworth behind bars 15 more years. Federal agents have their ears wide open.

"It's still premature to discount anything along those lines," Dan Falzon, the only FBI agent who has been a part of the case from Day One, says of Connor's tale. But who pulled the job doesn't interest Falzon as much as where the stuff is now.

Connor says Donati, who, he assumes, hired two mugs to actually carry out the theft, initially intended to use the loot as a bargaining chip, though he won't say for what. "Then they got a tremendous offer for it," he says. Not from the Irish Republican Army, a name that has surfaced over the years, and not "from, per se, a political organization. But something a little more powerful than just a wealthy, eccentric collector." Whatever, it fell through, and the pieces were put into storage. Connor says Donati and Houghton later told him that if anything happened to them, they would leave him information about where the paintings are, but he needs to be out of jail to get that information. "And that's essentially the meat and potatoes of what I have access to."

Tom Mashberg of the Boston Herald didn't know what to make of the call on Aug. 18. Someone was asking him if he wanted to go for a ride, under cover of darkness, and see some of the stolen Gardner loot. He said yes, "but as far as I knew this was a hoax, and I expected to be shown a velvet Elvis." They met in a deserted place. There were two cars, Mashberg says, one man in each. And they took him to a warehouse.

Mashberg was working on an unrelated story this summer when a con told him that he had celled with Connor in California, and that Connor had fingered Donati and Houghton for the Gardner heist. Mashberg then saw a story about a stolen artifact, the more than 300-year-old Great Seal of Massachusetts, that turned up at Youngworth's home. Connor had already been tagged by cops as the suspected thief of the seal, which was lifted right out of the statehouse, so now he was tied to Youngworth. And before summer ran cold, Youngworth, facing serious time on the stolen-vehicle rap, was making a unique offer: drop the charges against him, give him immunity and the $5 million reward, and free his best friend, Myles Connor, from prison, and he'd return the Gardner goods.

It was a blowout story for the Boston press, but there was nothing to follow it up with. Youngworth was a small-time hood who carried no weight and drew little attention. "What's wrong?" he demanded of Mashberg when the story faded fast from the sassy, 25[cent] tabloid. The reporter told him he needed proof, or the yarn was dead. Then came the call.

In the middle of the night on Aug. 18, Mashberg was picked up in a late-model sedan and taken on a 40-minute drive. The car stopped at a warehouse, and he was led inside, where one of the men opened a padlocked room, grabbed a long poster tube and unrolled what was inside. By the glow of a flashlight, Mashberg examined a painting of a wave-tossed ship. The last thing he saw before being whisked away was a signature on the rudder: Rembrandt. Either he had just seen the Gardner's stolen Storm on the Sea of Galilee, or he'd just seen a very good reproduction. Several days later, the Herald headline read: WE'VE SEEN IT!

The Herald had photographs of other paintings and paint chips from the alleged Rembrandt, and the newspaper hired Walter C. McCrone, an art authority, to examine the chips. McCrone used microscopic analysis and studied the available research. Finally he issued his verdict. He was convinced the chips were from an actual Rembrandt.

Meanwhile, officials of the Gardner met with Youngworth (the Gardner will neither confirm nor deny the meeting). He claims they gave him $10,000 as a show of good faith and a promise of further cooperation.

But there wasn't any. In truth, neither the Gardner nor the Feds were convinced beyond all doubt that Youngworth had the actual Rembrandt or that he could get the other pieces. They also worried, considering the rolled-up Rembrandt and the pile of paint chips, whether the works had been damaged beyond repair. There would be no negotiating, the aptly named U.S. Attorney Donald Stern vowed, until more proof was offered. Such as the return of one of the pieces.

Youngworth and Connor, through heavyweight Boston attorney Martin Leppo, a gravel-voiced man who says he likes "hard cases and 20-foot putts," demanded immunity before they would show anything. But the government demanded to see more proof before they offered any immunity. A stalemate.

And then came the stinging public criticism of Tom Mashberg and the Herald. A criticism that until then had been only privately grumbled by both law enforcement and museum officials. "In helping these crooks get a ransom, they have been a facilitator of criminal conduct," says attorney Alan Dershowitz, who mercilessly flogged his targets in Boston Magazine. But he didn't stop with Mashberg and the Herald. The Federal Government and the Gardner took some lashes too, for negotiating with scoundrels. "We're not talking about kidnap victims or terrorists holding hostages. It's art. It's great art, but if you help art thieves, you help create that market. It would be outrageous if a ransom were paid for this, because it will create more incentive for people to go and steal art."

There was, in fact, another way to handle the phone call Mashberg took that day in August. What if he had immediately called the feds and said, "Guess what, I may be looking at a stolen Rembrandt later tonight. Here's where I'll be, so follow at a safe distance." WE'VE CAPTURED IT! certainly makes a better headline than WE'VE SEEN IT!

Out of the question, says Mashberg, who's grown so leery himself that he shunned a TIME photographer last week. For starters, no reporter can afford to burn his sources. Secondly, as per his sources, he didn't even inform his editors of his little adventure until it was over, and their only question was, "When can we get it into the paper?"

Responding to Dershowitz's slam, Mashberg says, "I'm a journalist. I'm not an agent of the government. The Federal Government makes deals with criminals all the time. They turn drug dealer A loose to get drug dealer B; they free mob killer A to get mob killer B. And Alan Dershowitz represents wife abusers and murderers. I don't see how he isn't guilty of the same thing he accuses me of. This case basically was nowhere after 7 1/2 years, and in the last 7 1/2 weeks, look at it."

If there is anyone who loses sleep over the Gardner heist, it is Dan Falzon. The kid who followed his father into the San Francisco police department, then took a pay cut to join the FBI. Boston, in 1988, was his first permanent assignment. He was 26, made $30,000 and walked to the FBI office from "a cockroach apartment" in Beacon Hill. In his first big case, he laid the groundwork that led to the arrest of a man on charges related to drugs, an attempted jailbreak and the theft of the Mead paintings. Falzon had bagged Myles Connor.

Four months later came the Gardner heist, and Falzon got the case. "At the time, everybody thought this was something maybe Myles had orchestrated" from prison. "He was one of the first people we looked at, and that's been going on ever since."

Even though Falzon transferred to San Francisco two years ago, he calls Boston almost daily, and he pursues West Coast leads on the case. "At the start, I would walk home, grab a bite and some sleep and then go right back. I literally worked day and night. It wasn't a task; it was a passion, and it still is. You get involved in something like this. It's part of your life. It's part of you."

Literally thousands of leads came in, suggesting countless scenarios and motives. An I.R.A. operative was gunned down shortly after bragging to an ex-FBI agent that he had information on a major art theft. A former museum employee had abruptly left his job, didn't pick up his last check and flunked a lie-detector test. Falzon and other agents chased dead-end leads like those around the world, including one to Japan, where a painting, purported to be the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, turned out to be a fake.

"The impossible thing about the case," Falzon says, "is that there were so many possibilities. It was absolutely baffling." Were the perps art thieves or common thugs? Were the paintings stolen at the order of some mysterious Dr. No figure who likes to light a Cuban every night, pour a glass of cognac and repair to the cellar to admire his own private collection of hot masterpieces? Were they stolen by political factions to trade for their prisoners? Or was this just a score by local bad guys who thought they could unload the paintings to a fence, or use them as collateral in a drug deal, or trade them for reduced sentences on other crimes?

"With all the people we know in and out of prison, we've never got a quality piece of information that indicates this is it, this is who did it," Falzon says. "We've had everybody and his brother say they know who did it, and none of it has led to anyone's going to prison or any of the art going back on the walls."

Falzon, 36, loves listening to theories and opinions about the case, but they don't interest him nearly as much as facts do. That's how he manages to stay sane, he says. You get worked up about facts, not opinions. And every day, your job is to look for more--while taking the long view. "You know what? It's our firm belief that good things are going to happen. We know that Myles Connor sat on some paintings for 15 years, so this case is relatively young. We're only talking about seven years, and I'm working leads out here right now. I have ongoing leads." With each passing day, Dan Falzon is more determined to bury the ghosts.

Men loved Isabella Stewart Gardner, and women hated her. "Effervescent, exuberant, reckless, witty, she did whatever she pleased," says the museum's 116-page guidebook. "It was Mrs. Gardner's rule to select and acquire the best. If at a polo game, she would be escorted to her seat by the best player of the day...and naturally the best dancer in society was pretty regularly her Cotillion partner... Such victories the ladies could not forgive."

Her husband was a successful businessman, and her father left her an inheritance. With money to burn, Gardner began making forays to Europe in the 1880s to "acquire the best." Her haul included 290 paintings, 280 pieces of sculpture, 460 pieces of furniture and much, much more. It is fitting that the centerpiece of her collection was Rape of Europa, because Gardner had her way with the Continent in much the same way that thieves would one day have their way with her collection. With this, she built a temple of finery, personally designing a 15th century Venetian-style palace featuring a glass-ceilinged center court with garden and fountain and three floors of art. The Gardner Museum opened in 1903, Gardner died in 1924, and her will made her wishes crystal clear: nothing was ever to be replaced, moved or added.

And so the frames of the stolen work today sit eerily empty, sometimes drawing as much interest from visitors as the work that remains. In the second-floor Dutch Room, a self-portrait of Rembrandt looks across the room to the very spot where thieves took Storm. Rembrandt was a witness to the theft of his only seascape.

Today museum officials say only that they are cooperating with federal authorities, that they are not yet convinced that Youngworth or Connor can return the paintings, but that they are hopeful the work will come home. At times, this improbable three-way relationship between G-men, artophiles and cons has been tested by conflicting interests, and Youngworth, paranoid for a reason, says from jail that he believes the feds are trying to establish that his $10,000 payment from the Gardner constitutes extortion. The plan, he believes, is to pile the years in front of him, then reduce the charges in exchange for the return of the art. Museum officials refuse to comment on that or any other possible strategy.

When single paintings began selling for $40 million and more in the '80s, many museum directors grew nervous about both security and their ability to pay insurance premiums. Hanging a painting, Falzon says, "is like hanging money on the walls." Bob Bazin, a retired FBI man who specialized in stolen art for 15 years, says that art ranks behind only drugs and munitions in illicit international trade. And Constance Lowenthal, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research in New York City, says there are currently about 100,000 works of stolen art floating around somewhere in the world.

In the '80s, Lowenthal says, with inflation raging, many people sought protection by sinking money into art. The auction houses fed this acquisition craze by selling on credit. Japanese buyers poured money into the market, prices soared, and big sales became fodder for the 11 o'clock news. It all "made it clear to every thief that in addition to stealing the family silver, he might as well take what's on the walls."

It begins, Myles Connor says, with his father, a Milton cop. Connor says he has never encountered a single law-enforcement officer who comes close to his late father's standards of honesty, discipline and integrity. Somehow that seems to have left Connor motivated by a desire to beat the badges at a game of cops and robbers. Boston in the '70s and '80s had its share of rogue cops, both local and federal, and they took up his challenge. The result, Connor claims, was that he kept getting framed, which only sharpened his resentment of authority. There is no greater hypocrisy, in his book, than to be a crooked cop.

In 1981 Connor was acquitted on a rap of murdering a Boston cop only after what he calls a miracle. An honest cop admitted that Myles had nothing to do with it. While doing time in the early '70s, Connor served as chief negotiator during a prison riot and standoff. Years later, he was convicted of the 1975 murder of two teenagers, served five years and was acquitted on retrial.

Connor says that while he served a prison term in the '60s, the Donati clan kept watch on his mother, and to return the favor, he tried to help them unload some Wyeth paintings stolen from the Woolworth estate in Monmouth, Me. With that, a career was born. Connor's father had been an antique-weapon collector; his mother painted and wrote poetry; and Connor, who already had a cherished collection of Japanese swords, had truly found his niche. But he kept slipping up. In July 1990 a federal judge who doubled the requested sentence called Connor "rotten to the core" and a "menace" and told him, "We don't need you, and we are society."

Connor, who can seem utterly benign as he weaves one story onto the tail of another, and another, and another, changes instantly when the names of certain cops, or that judge, are uttered. His eyes bug out, his neck tenses, and another Myles, a chilling character, crawls out of his skin. He breathes fire when he calls the judge "a vapid windbag and a pathetic martinet."

On a recent afternoon in Rhode Island, Connor was asked how such a smart guy could be so stupid as to be sitting behind bars, yet again, in a pair of mustard-dumb prison-issue duds? Connor didn't have much of an answer. But 40 minutes to the north, at the Norfolk County Jail in Dedham, Mass., Billy Youngworth did. Youngworth, 38, who as a boy took martial-arts lessons from Myles and has had a parasitic relationship with him ever since, said Myles, a member of Mensa, is endlessly interesting and charming, "but he attracts mutts." Billy being Exhibit A.

"Myles is woefully ignorant about people and kind to a fault, and fails to see that guys can be maggots," says Billy, who wears a constant woe-is-me grin that says low-grade grifter; watch your wallet. But while he is no genius, he was smart enough to realize that bringing Myles into this mess gives him a credibility the feds can't ignore.

Last week negotiations were still open on whether Youngworth would be given immunity for returning a small part of the booty as a show of proof that he could deliver the rest. That, in itself, makes it look like the feds believe Tom Mashberg actually saw the real thing that day. If they thought it was a fake, wouldn't Youngworth and Connor have been sent back into their holes by now?

But from the beginning, the U.S. Attorney's Office has entertained no thoughts of letting two career criminals waltz away with $5 million in spending money in return for the art. The office is willing to deal--but on its own terms. For his part, Myles Connor last week told TIME he would forfeit any reward or reduction of the 2 1/2 years left on his sentence, provided Billy be freed and three other unnamed inmates have their cases reconsidered. The three mugs got bum raps, says the rogue crusader.

In San Francisco, Dan Falzon said his policy is never to get too high or too low. "The key is just to keep working every day with the same vigor that you had on Day One." Hanging over his desk, to keep the vigor up, is his going-away present from the guys in Boston: a poster of Vermeer's The Concert, the most valuable piece in the biggest, most confounding art heist in American history.

--With reporting by Charlotte Faltermayer /New York