Art of the Steal

updated 04/07/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/07/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Over the years Myles Connor has made a remarkable name for himself, though not always in the most flattering way. A Mayflower descendant and a cop's son, he grew up to become a notorious art thief. He's also an erudite Mensa member who once survived a rooftop gun battle with Boston police. But now comes Connor's latest, and greatest, claim to fame: his contention that he masterminded the biggest art heist in American history—the theft on March 18, 1990, of 13 works, presently valued at $300-$500 million, from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

As Connor, now 60, tells it, he started planning the caper in 1989 with three cohorts. "There was many a night I spent perched in the tree [outside the Gardner] when we cased out the place," he says. Before the plot could be executed, however, Connor was in Lompoc, Calif., starting a prison term for interstate trafficking in stolen antiquities and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. He was released only in June 2000. "They took my idea; obviously they got a buyer," says Connor, who denies any knowledge of the current whereabouts of the artwork. "If I did know, I would be $5 million richer," he observes, referring to the reward offered by the museum, "and they would have their paintings back."

Many law-enforcement officials have long suspected Connor's possible involvement in the daring robbery that stripped the Gardner's Venetian-style premises of still-unrecovered prizes, including Vermeer's The Concert and Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee. Those suspicions intensified in 1997 when a sometime associate of Connor's, ex-con William Youngworth III, began making noises to authorities that he might be able to broker the return of the paintings. (The talks ultimately fizzled.) "Connor had the pedigree to do it," says FBI supervisory special agent Dan Falzon, who worked on the Gardner case while posted to the bureau's Boston office. "I think this is absolutely something he could have done."

But others remain skeptical of Connor's claim, which comes on the heels of his signing a movie deal with producer Peter Guber to depict his life story—and after the statute of limitations on the principal charges has expired. Charles Prouty, head of the FBI's Boston office until Dec. 13, allows that "so far Connor hasn't been ruled out" in what he characterizes as an active and ongoing investigation. He notes, though, that several aspects of the heist appear to point away from Connor. For one thing, police found paint chips at the scene of the crime, suggesting that the stolen works had been rolled up and thus damaged—a faux pas that crooks supposedly tutored by Connor, with his considerable art smarts, would likely have avoided.

Then again, the notion of a cunning plan almost comically bungled has a certain resonance with Connor's criminal career. After all, here's a man with an IQ above 160 who ended up spending almost half his adult life behind bars. "Brilliance doesn't keep a guy out of prison," Connor observes. "It can, if he decides to go into medicine or Wall Street, but if he goes into a life of crime, it doesn't."

The path Connor chose proved quite different from the one anticipated by his doting parents, Myles, a police officer in the Boston suburb of Milton, and his homemaker wife, Lucy (a descendant of William Brewster, spiritual adviser to the Pilgrims on the Mayflower). Even as a youngster Connor was something of a Renaissance man, with keen interests in exotic animals—he kept a menagerie that included a skunk he had rescued from a garage grease pit—martial arts, Japanese swords and rock music. By the time he was in high school, the guitar player and singer had pulled together his own band, Myles and the Wild Ones, which played club dates across New England and later opened for Sha Na Na. "He was always fun and entertaining," remembers his sister Patsy Harrington, 64. "He liked being in the limelight."

Married soon after his 1961 high school graduation to classmate Victoria Gardner, Connor by 1967 was the father of two, divorced—and in prison. (Son Myles III, 40, has recently applied to the Merchant Marines; daughter Kim, 37, has worked as a salesclerk and waitress despite her cerebral palsy.) Ironically, Connor says he pulled his first heist to avenge his father, who had been falsely accused of stealing some antique guns from the local Forbes Museum. "I decided, 'Well, I've been through the Forbes Museum and that place can be robbed,' " Connor says. " 'If they want to falsely accuse my father, then I'll rob the place. They've got a few nice things I like.' "

Connor got away with that first robbery as well as the subsequent theft of Asiatic artifacts from a local children's museum. But when a February 1966 police search of his apartment uncovered other stolen property, he decided to flee. Within two months police had tracked him down, which led to his gun battle in Boston. During that incident Connor took five bullets and in turn shot one cop in the groin.

He ended up serving six years. In 1974, two years after his release, he was busted again on a variety of charges, including receiving stolen goods. Between prison terms Connor met Suzanne King, a horse trainer and groomer from South Boston, at a friend's house in 1979. Says King, 39: "He started to teach me karate, and then he went to jail for five years and I went up to visit him. We've been together ever since." While Connor was in prison, the couple began an art business together and had collected close to $750,000 worth of Japanese artifacts by his 1984 release. "I was getting catalogs while he was in prison," says King. "He'd tell me what to buy."

Once out of prison Connor was again tempted to turn to other means of acquiring the objects he coveted. "I guess it's the adrenaline in me," he once explained. "Trying to pull off a crime was such a rush, trying to outsmart the cops. But I also have a real appreciation for art." Connor certainly appreciated the Gardner, a collection of more than 3,000 pieces including many European masterpieces assembled by wealthy Boston socialite Isabella Stewart Gardner in the late 1800s. He recalls at least a dozen visits to case the museum with three pals—the now-deceased David Houghton and Bobby Donati, an ex-con he had met in jail, and a third man of whom he says he has no recollection because a 1998 heart attack impaired his memory. At that time, he says, they compiled a shopping wish list.

The men knew that the poorly secured museum had no insurance on its collection except for fire and water damage. But they also knew it had a lot of deep-pocketed patrons, says Connor, so the plan was to pull off the robbery, then "wait long enough that [museum authorities] were sure that they weren't going to get it back any other way and then volunteer to recover these things for a reward." But that wasn't the way events unfolded. Not only did Connor never ransom the Gardner's pieces as planned, but during his last stint in prison he says that his own collection of artifacts, which he values at $2 million, was looted by his erstwhile friend Youngworth, allegedly to feed a heroin habit. "What he did," says Connor, "was not very honorable."

Instead of the "quiet, opulent" retirement he once dreamed of on an island in the Sea of Japan, Connor today lives with King south of Boston in a three-bedroom ranch on land complete with a barn for their four horses. He claims to have given up crime for good and does some consulting work for security firms and private investigators. "If I ever got caught for breaking the law again, I'd go away for probably the rest of my life," Connor explains. "And if you're to believe what other people say, there's not many stand-up criminals nowadays."

Pam Lambert
Anne Driscoll in Boston and Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles

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