Metro

After 20 years in prison, Stephen Rossetti goes free — but Gardner art heist remains unsolved

In the Dutch Room at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, two empty frames hang to indicate some of the pieces of art that have never been returned after a heist in 1990. On Thursday, a career criminal tied to the theft was released from prison.
The Boston Globe
In the Dutch Room at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, two empty frames hang to indicate some of the pieces of art that have never been returned after a heist in 1990. On Thursday, a career criminal tied to the theft was released from prison.

Two decades ago, FBI agents began targeting Carmello Merlino, suspecting that the Dorchester repair shop owner with Mafia ties could lead them to masterpieces stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum during a brazen 1990 heist.

Efforts to recover the artwork were unsuccessful, but the agents foiled a plot by Merlino and his crew to rob an Easton armored car depot in 1999. They arrested two of Merlino’s accomplices on their way to the depot in a car loaded with guns and a hand grenade.

Merlino died in prison in 2005, taking any secrets he may have known about the whereabouts of the stolen paintings with him.

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But on Thursday, one of Merlino’s accomplices in the attempted armored car depot robbery was back in federal court in Boston, before the same judge who had sentenced him to nearly 52 years in prison for that crime.

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Only this time, Stephen Rossetti, now 60, walked out of court a free man.

“Mr. Rossetti, it’s been a long time,” US District Judge Richard Stearns said as he took the bench Thursday for a resentencing hearing. “Twenty years later, we’re in the same place.”

Rossetti’s initial sentence included a mandatory 30 years in prison because he was designated an armed career criminal. Combined with his sentence for the attempted robbery, that made him ineligible for release until 2044.

But, after a string of Supreme Court rulings involving federal sentencing guidelines, Stearns vacated Rossetti’s sentence last year after concluding that he no longer qualified as an armed career criminal.

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“As far as I’m concerned, Mr. Rossetti, you’ve served enough time,” Stearns said. He noted that Rossetti had already served 20 years, well beyond what current guidelines call for.

“I sincerely regret my criminal past,” Rossetti told the judge before he was sentenced, as his son and a handful of other relatives and friends looked on. “Allow me to be a good citizen.”

Assistant US Attorney David Tobin had urged Stearns to send Rossetti back to prison for 10 more years, arguing that he had led “a life of crime” before plotting to rob the armored car depot. He described Rossetti as “the armorer” who brought a hand grenade and other weapons for the attack.

“We believe he continues to pose a threat to society, it’s just that simple,” Tobin said.

Rossetti, who is from East Boston, had previously been convicted of a variety of crimes, including an armored car robbery.

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But Judith Mizner, a veteran criminal defense lawyer who represents Rossetti, said he had not been cited with a single disciplinary infraction during his years in federal prison, which she described as remarkable. Federal prisons she noted, “are not the easiest places in the world to stay out of trouble.”

She refuted the prosecutor’s claim that Rossetti posed a threat and said he had participated in more than 40 educational programs during his time in prison. His parents and wife died while he was incarcerated.

It took several hours for the Bureau of Prisons to process Rossetti’s release, but just before sunset, he strolled out of the courthouse and into a gleaming Seaport District that didn’t even exist when he went away.

Only one of Rossetti’s codefendants, David Turner, remains in prison. After his arrest, Turner claimed FBI agents told him they suspected he and Merlino were involved in the Gardner theft and offered to let him “walk” if he helped retrieve the stolen artwork. Turner said he told them he had no information about the heist.

In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, two thieves dressed as police officers talked their way into the Gardner museum, tied up the guards, and fled with $500 million worth of artwork.

In recent years, the government quietly reduced Turner’s prison term by seven years, for reasons that remain under seal, raising questions about whether he had agreed to help authorities try to recover the artwork. He is scheduled to be released in March 2025.

None of the stolen artwork has been recovered, despite a $10 million reward the museum is offering for its safe return.

Rossetti, a close associate of former Mafia boss Francis “Cadillac Frank” Salemme, was in state prison when the Gardner museum was robbed. One of his attorneys, Steven Boozang, said Rossetti would never cooperate against anybody, but would have readily turned over the stolen paintings if he knew where they were.

“He would have gladly given those up to their rightful owners and went on with his life,” Boozang said.

Shelley Murphy can be reached at shelley.murphy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.