By Richard Weizel
MILFORD, Conn. (Reuters) - A Connecticut man who prosecutors believe has ties to the biggest art heist in U.S. history pleaded not guilty in federal court on Tuesday to gun charges he was arrested on last month.
U.S. prosecutors in April said that Robert Gentile, 79, told an undercover FBI agent that he had access to paintings stolen from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum a quarter-century ago.
Gentile, who has a criminal record dating to the 1950s, on Tuesday pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in New Haven to charges of illegally selling a firearm to an undercover agent, according to one of his attorneys, Joseph Burns.
Another of Gentile's attorneys, Ryan McGuigan, has contended that Gentile's arrest was intended to pressure him into revealing details of the long-unsolved $500 million art heist, of which McGuigan said Gentile denies any knowledge.
The Gardner heist took place on the rainy night of March 18, 1990, when two men posing as police officers arrived at the museum's front door. The guards on duty let them in and the pair allegedly overpowered them.
The next morning the guards were found duct-taped to chairs in the basement and 13 artworks including Rembrandt's "Storm on the Sea of Galilee" and Vermeer's "The Concert" were missing. Due to a quirk in the museum founder's will, the empty frames that once held those paintings remain on the walls, an ever-present reminder of one of Boston longest-unsolved crimes.
FBI investigators have long said they believed organized crime groups were behind the heist.
Gentile in 2012 submitted to a lie detector test that showed a high likelihood that he had lied when he investigators asked if he had any knowledge of the heist, according to court testimony.
A 2012 FBI search of Gentile's home turned up a handwritten list of the stolen art pieces, their estimated value on the black market, and police uniforms, court documents showed."
(Reporting by Richard Weizel; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)