FBI The Set Up (Part one)

As David Turner rode past TRC Auto Electric — a notorious Dorchester hangout of thieves, dealers, and other assorted lowlifes — he had no idea how badly things had gone wrong. All he could see was that the repair shop looked deserted. That was troubling since this was where he and his companion, Stephen Rossetti, were supposed to meet three other men this Sunday morning to pull off an expected $50 million robbery of an armored car depot.

Circling some 3,500 feet overhead, the two FBI agents watching from a surveillance plane must have chuckled as the would-be millionaires turned their red Honda Accord around and drove back the way they’d come. After all, Turner and Rossetti couldn’t be caught joyriding at 6:30 in the morning with a trunkful of semiautomatic weapons. A few minutes later, they pulled into a parking lot in Quincy, tossed the guns into Turner’s Chevy Tahoe, and drove back to Dorchester, continuing to circle aimlessly around the neighborhood of Vietnamese lunch counters and auto service centers.

By this time the FBI’s patience had worn thin. As Rossetti tells the story, he was driving down Morrissey Boulevard when two GMC Suburbans came out of nowhere and smashed the Honda to the side of the road. Agents swarmed around the vehicle, busting out all four windows with the butts of their guns and pointing pistols at the occupants, screaming at them to get out.

The FBI’s search of the Chevy Tahoe back in Quincy turned up five semiautomatic handguns and a Ruger Mini-14 semiautomatic rifle — all of them loaded. And there was more. Along with Halloween masks, police scanners, and masking tape, authorities discovered an explosive-fragmentation hand grenade. Possession of one of those by a felon is worth 30 years.

Now in prison after being convicted on six counts of conspiracy, attempted robbery, and firearms possession, David Turner awaits sentencing this month. He’d be hard-pressed to deny that he was on the way to a criminal rendezvous, or that he was present at another meeting to plan the robbery. After all, reams of surveillance reports, photos, and wiretap recordings place him at the scene of the crime. Cases don’t get shut more tightly — but that’s when this one takes a bizarre turn.

Turner insists the reason he was arrested in Dorchester that frosty February morning is that the FBI framed him — essentially recruited him to do the crime and did everything but bring the guns themselves. What’s more, an agent of the Boston office of the FBI has since admitted to lying in court and withholding evidence that could bolster Turner’s story. Not that this should surprise anyone. This is, after all, the same FBI office that turned a blind eye for years to the murderous rampages of South Boston mob lord James “Whitey” Bulger — and just last month saw a former agent accused of even helping Bulger commit murder.

That same willingness to bend the rules may explain why, when agents finally got Turner under the bright lights of an interrogation room, they didn’t just want to talk about the armored car theft. They wanted to talk about a different, unsolved crime that has haunted and embarrassed the FBI for more than a decade: the theft of 13 priceless paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

“They think that I was the person who committed the robbery, which is false,” says Turner in a letter written from Plymouth County Correctional Facility. “They thought that if I was facing serious charges, I would be motivated to help facilitate the return of the paintings. Well, they got the serious charges against me, and now I am going to die in prison.”

One lawyer familiar with Turner’s long history with police, however, sees this as nothing more than an 11th-hour tactic to avoid prison: “A lot of luck combined with a keen ability to manipulate the criminal justice system resulted in Turner having avoided prosecution far too long,” says former assistant attorney general Bob Sikellis, who unsuccessfully pursued Turner for years. “The supposed Teflon has now worn thin.”

The rainbow tie-dyed T-shirt asks it. Why are those frames empty? The guide explains that Mrs. Gardner left strict instructions in her will that nothing in the museum could be moved, or the entire collection would be sold. So when two thieves disguised as police officers broke into the museum at 2 a.m. after St. Patrick’s Day 1990 and cut several paintings out of their frames, the frames were left hanging in place. “Thankfully,” says the tour guide, “she didn’t stipulate anything about art being stolen.”

Among the pieces lifted were Vermeer’s The Concert, Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, and a later Rembrandt self-portrait. Together, the 13 works are now worth an estimated $500 million — making the heist, some say, the largest art theft in history. Any hopes of speedily recovering the artwork were dashed in a twisting investigation littered with colorful suspects. There was Myles Connor, an art thief convicted for shooting at a police officer. There was William Youngworth III, an antiques dealer and sometime car thief. Then there was Carmello Merlino, a career criminal who robbed a Brinks truck in 1968, and more recently ran a million-dollar cocaine ring out of the auto repair shop he managed in Dorchester — TRC Auto Electric.

Into this cast stumbled an oily lowlife named Anthony Romano, whose rap sheet reads like the U.S. Criminal Code. Then a 40-year-old car mechanic, he’d been convicted several times for assault and armed robbery, among other crimes. In court he freely admitted having been a heroin addict for most of his life. In short, he was a perfect FBI informant.

Romano called the feds when he was serving time in Concord, New Hampshire. He claimed to have a bead on some books stolen from the Adams Historical Museum in Quincy, and, sure enough, the tip panned out, the museum got back its books, and Romano got parole. So when in the fall of 1997 he called again with some information on the infamous Gardner Museum robbery, he earned a meeting with Neil Cronin, the FBI’s lead agent on the case. Romano explained that a fellow convict, Carmello Merlino, had talked about the paintings as if he knew where they were. He mentioned another suspect, too: a guy in Merlino’s crew by the name of David Turner.

Coincidentally, Romano had called his old friend Merlino after getting out of jail — completely on his own initiative, he says — and got a job at TRC as a mechanic. For a few hours every morning, the two worked alone, bullshitting about lottery tickets, teenage girls, and rumors of potential scores. It was then, Romano says, that Merlino asked him if he knew anyone “clean” who might be willing to get a job at an armored car drop-off.

“What are you looking at, anyways?” Romano asked. “The joint in Easton,” answered Merlino. Romano knew the spot. The Loomis, Fargo depot in Easton seemed the perfect score. It was in a quiet, rural area mostly ignored by police, and was rumored to hold up to $50 million. Or so Romano told David Nadolski, of the FBI’s Bank Robbery Task Force, who he says he promptly called to report Merlino’s plan. For the next year, Romano continued working double shifts as a mechanic for TRC and as an informant for the FBI. At the same time, the FBI was negotiating with Merlino for return of the paintings. Agent Cronin visited him three times, twice with Nadolski in tow, but was unsuccessful in securing the booty. Then, in the fall of 1998, Nadolski asked his informant, Romano, a question: Would he wear a wire to secretly tape conversations with Merlino about the Loomis robbery?

The day after Thanksgiving that year, Romano told Merlino that a “gambling fucking degenerate” he knew had gotten a job as a guard at the depot and would let them past the door. Over the next few weeks, Romano insisted the robbery would be a breeze. The vault was always open, he told Merlino, and there were few alarms. As the plan came together, Merlino said he’d recruit his nephew Billy as the getaway driver, and they would all split the cash. Romano didn’t think that would be enough manpower. “You gotta have five or six guys,” hesaid. “You’re gonna have to have a fuckin’ donkey chain lugging them fuckin’ bags.” It’s unclear who first raised David Turner’s name — that conversation occurred off tape — but once Turner’s name had surfaced, Romano asked Merlino several times about his attempts to reach him. Merlino complained that Turner wasn’t answering his pages until, finally, in early January, he said angrily: “I’ll call him once more today, and that will be the end of it.” The next day, Merlino had good news: Turner had called back.

David Turner grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Braintree and worked side-by-side with his father to fix up a tired house on Sagamore Street. Then one day when he was 13, he found his father lying on the floor, dead of a heart attack. “David was devastated for months,” says Joan Moran, a former neighbor. “He became very shy and very withdrawn.”

It wasn’t until high school that he blossomed. He was nicknamed “crackerjack” because he seemed to excel at everything. “Whatever he did, he was the best at it,” says Chris Ruggiero, a longtime friend of Turner. Voted “most unique” in the high school yearbook, Turner was a star on the football and basketball teams, and well liked by teachers, coaches, and girls.

He also attracted some less savory admirers. At night in the park near his home, he hung out with Charles Pappas, a neighborhood kid who had also recently lost his father — a drug dealer, shot dead in Chinatown in 1981. When Turner and Pappas ventured into Kenmore Square, Pappas would tap his connections to get them into the clubs. Turner’s friends say that’s where their mischief stopped. But police say Pappas introduced Turner to Carmello Merlino and the two became “right-hand men” in his drug empire, selling cocaine at area motels.

Try as they might, however, police couldn’t get the goods on Turner. In 1985, Pappas and Turner were charged, but acquitted, of murdering a gay New Bedford social worker who allegedly offered them a ride from Provincetown. Six years later, Turner was charged with a daring robbery of nearly $50,000 from two safes at Boston’s Bull & Finch Pub, better known as the inspiration for the Cheers TV show — but again a jury found him innocent.

Even more chilling, in 1990 two hoodlums burst into a Canton home, handcuffed a woman to the stairway with a gun to her head, and stole $130,000 in cash and jewelry. The woman, Andrea Freedman, identified Turner as the man who held the gun and agreed to testify. Pappas, too, agreed to testify against Turner. But Charlie Pappas died in a hail of bullets in Braintree a few weeks before the trial. Turner’s alleged accomplice turned up dead in the trunk of a car in East Boston, at which point Freedman and her boyfriend changed their minds about testifying. Turner walked.

Friends say rumors of Turner’s exploits are nothing more than guilt by association. “When Charlie started hanging out with us, that’s when all these bad accusations came to be,” says his friend Ruggiero. He confirms that Pappas introduced them to Merlino and his crew, but says they were merely casual acquaintances. “We used to stop there on a summer day,” he says, “and listen to the old-timers and their stories. That would be the extent of it.”

A 1996 Boston Globe story offered a different opinion, calling Turner “the Teflon gangster of the South Shore” for his ability to squirm out of convictions. With Merlino scheduled to be released from jail the following year, the article went on to say: “Police have a hunch the two men might revive their working relationship.” None of the diners at the Bickford’s underneath the Southeast Expressway in Dorchester on January 28, 1999, were aware of the conspiracy in their midst. Silverware clinked as families and elderly couples finished off southwestern scrambles and fisherman’s platters, paying little attention to the four men hunched over coffee at a green Formica tabletop.

Merlino was worried about the guards. “Just supposing whatever fuckin’ freaky thing happened that these two motherfuckers or one of them can get up,” he blustered. Romano shifted in his seat, conscious of the FBI wire hidden underneath his denim jacket and jeans.

“He’s not gonna get up,” said a shifty-looking guy in a dark shirt and tan vest. “I’ll make sure these guys are secured.” This was Stephen Rossetti, a wiseguy who had robbed an armored car in Revere in 1982. The guards, Rossetti explained, could be tied with nooses that would tighten if they moved. That was enough to ensnare Rossetti in the conspiracy. Wearing a red jacket, David Turner sat quietly, listening to Merlino and Rossetti brag about their scores. He added only a few words, saying that the cops would know something was up if he and Merlino were seen together, and that during robberies “a half-hour feels like three hours.”