Forget everything you think you know about the Gardner Museum art heist — the Mob, Whitey Bulger, men dressed as cops, the IRA — forget all that. A pair of local amateur detectives have developed a compelling theory suggesting that it was avant-garde filmmaker, former MIT art lecturer, and self-described sociopath, Joseph Gibbons, who robbed the Isabella Gardner Museum in 1990, as an act of performance art. And their version helps explain certain details of the crime that have never made sense in the more conventional versions: stealing a finial? spending 81 minutes roaming around? breaking into a candy machine? removing all the paintings from their frames? And no one has ever tried to leverage inside info for a get-out-of-jail card.
A few years ago writer Charles Pinning — a frequent contributor to the ProJo op-ed page and writing instructor at URI — backed into this investigation while doing research for a novel inspired by the heist. The more he and friend Pam Wall, a commercial illustrator, looked into the case, the more they were convinced that investigators had been on the wrong track all along. (Wall was born and raised in Rhode Island, attended RISD, moved to California and has since moved back. Her cousin A.T. Wall, former director of the ACI, was consulted early on and helped with a Boston connection.)
Wall and Pinning make a very convincing case for the Gibbons theory, accounting for the many details and loose ends that the FBI and countless reporters have found so confounding. The two were recently interviewed on Empty Frames, a podcast devoted to the Gardner heist. Go here to listen to The Art Liberation Front (a reference to one of Gibbons’ guerilla art groups). Visual references scroll by that aid in understanding the events and cast of characters.
The Gibbons name may sound familiar: He made the news in 2015 when he was sentenced to Rikers Island for a year for robbing a bank in New York City. (He filmed the robbery as a piece of performance art.) Consequently, the Providence Police charged him for robbing a Citizens Bank, a crime for which he served no time. (NYT 7.13.15)
The authorities in Rhode Island apparently suspect he was also involved in a robbery at a Citizens Bank in Providence in mid-November, in which a bespectacled middle-aged man in a red puffy coat demanded $3,000 in cash as a donation for his church. According to Mr. Gibbons’s lawyer, Eric Williams of Legal Aid, Mr. Gibbons has not been charged in the Rhode Island case. In a jailhouse interview this year with The New York Post, however, Mr. Gibbons spoke about how he robbed both banks.
There is so much more to this story — in fact, they will soon be returning for a second interview on Empty Frames. The hosts Lance Reenstierna and Tim Pilleri know their beans and ask all the right questions. They have been on this for a couple of years, but it is clear that they are keeping their minds open to this new material. The four of them do a good job of keeping the narrative moving along and sorted out.
One of the people Wall and Pinning contacted early on was Boston Globe reporter, Stephen Kurkjian. They worked with him for a while — even tracking down Gibbons in New York City for a face-to-face interview — but this collaboration fell apart. Kurkjian’s 2015 book, Master Thieves, posits a more conventional theory of Boston gangsters looking to leverage a boss out of prison and I guess he’s settled on that.
The research and analysis that Wall and Pinning have applied to this mystery is impressive. And it was perhaps their utter lack of criminal justice experience that allowed them to interpret the scene so differently from the outset. They discuss in the podcast how the FBI just seemed incapable of thinking outside the “organized crime” box. Performance art? Try explaining that to cops who have been living and working in South Boston their whole lives. Another problem that afflicts police departments and attorneys-general alike is getting so invested in one theory of the case, that they can’t, to use Pinning’s term, “unclench.”
The pair also seem to have made much better use of Google. Once you know someone is a movie-making sociopath, you may want to go online, because Gibbons was constantly filming himself, and for decades. Speaking of which, a Washington Post report has a clip from the Gibbons movie “Confessions of a Sociopath.” (Pinning says that a full-length version of this is apparently available on Vimeo.)
If you like true crime, and you find this particular mystery intriguing, give the podcast a listen. It’s a little over an hour and pretty damn convincing.We are still left to wonder: Where are the paintings? And did Gibbons make a film of the Gardner heist?
Complete disclosure: Pam Wall is a personal friend. I have know her most of my life. During that time I have been both a cop and an attorney, and I have never solved one single heist. If she cracks this thing wide open I’ll never hear the end of it from our friends. On the other hand, the Gardner is still offering a $10-million reward “for information leading to the recovery of the works” so I would likely get a dinner out of it.