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Lead in long-unsolved art heist? FBI scours reputed mobster's property

Connecticut police and the FBI are searching the homes and grounds of a reputed mobster for paintings from a 1990 art heist. NBC's Pete Williams has the details.

Law enforcers in Connecticut are searching the yard of a reputed mobster, apparently in search of master paintings stolen in a massive 1990 museum heist,  NBC reported Thursday.

More than 20 agents, some wearing haz-mat gear, using ground-penetrating radar and bloodhounds descended on the Manchester home of Robert Gentile, 75, in connection the theft, which included three works by Rembrandt, a painting by Dutch painter Vermeer, a Manet painting and five drawings by Degas, the Hartford Courant reported. 

See the paintings that were stolen in this slideshow from the Boston Globe.

The heist -- believed to be the biggest art theft in history -- involved two men dressed as policemen who entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston 22 years ago, bound the guards with duct tape while they took 13 pieces of art, and drove off in a red car. The FBI website says the irreplaceable works now are worth about $500 million. 

No one has ever been charged in the case, and none of the paintings have ever been recovered despite years of investigation, and despite a $5 million reward offered by the museum.

Gentile was arrested on federal drug charges in February after allegedly selling prescription painkillers to an FBI informant, The Associated Press reported.

Gentile, as a convicted felon, also faces charges for weapons possession after a subsequent search of his property turned up an arsenal that included three pistols, shotguns, ammunition, silencers, brass knuckles and a sap, according to the Courant.

Gentile’s attorney, A. Ryan McGuigan, told AP that he believed the FBI search warrant allowed the agents to use ground-penetrating radar to look for buried weapons, but he believed they were really looking for stolen paintings. His client has denied any knowledge of the whereabouts of the missing artwork.

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"This is nonsense," McGuigan told AP. "This is the FBI. Are you trying to tell me they missed something the first time? They're trying to find $500 million of stolen artwork. ...  All they're going to find is night crawlers."

One or more police uniforms were found with the drugs, weapons and cash hidden in the ranch-style home, federal prosecutors said at one of his previous court appearances, according to the Courant.

At a bond hearing on the case in April, a prosecutor said federal agents have had "unproductive discussions" about the art theft with Gentile but that the FBI believes "he had some involvement in connection with stolen property" related to the heist.

After the hearing his McGuigan, the attorney, told the Washington Post that Gentile "doesn't know anything about art. He's never been to an art gallery in lis life and couldn't tell a Rembrandt from an Elvis painting."

Federal officials say they have been instructed by the local US attorney's office to say nothing about the search.

Gentile has been a player in the Connecticut rackets for years, and he has an arrest record dating to the 1950s, the report said. In 1996, according the AP, Gentile was convicted of larceny.

NBC News correspondent Pete Williams and Jon Dienst contributed to this report.

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