BOSTON (CBS) – Twenty three years ago this month, Richard Abath was thrust into the spotlight after the biggest art heist in history at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In his first television interview, he told CNN what happened that night as he worked security at the museum. “The cops rang the doorbell and they said Boston Police. We got a report of a disturbance on the premises so I buzzed them in,” he said.
After the two men were inside, Abath said one of the thieves lured him from his security desk and the nearby panic button that would’ve alerted police. “The cop that was dealing with me said, don’t I know you? Don’t I recognize you? I think there is a warrant out for your arrest,” Abath recalled. “Can you step out from behind the desk?”
“He finished cuffing me and my partner and said very dramatically, gentlemen this is a robbery,” Abath told CNN. There are pictures of Abath duct-taped to a boiler in the basement. The thieves made off with 13 items worth an estimated half a billion dollars, including paintings by Degas, Vermeer and Rembrandt.
We took Abath’s interview to Professor Joe Tecce at Boston College. He’s a neuropsychologist who watched Abath’s body language. “He seems to be moving his head a good bit indicating that he is somewhat nervous,” Tecce said. “I see this guy as probably being well rehearsed. His blink rate is low.”
Abath told CNN he knew he’d be a suspect. “You know once I sat down with the FBI the first thing I said was, what you want to know?” he said. “I knew I was like well, I’m the guy who opened up the door. They’re obviously looking at me,” he said.
Dr. Tecce believes Abath wanted to portray himself as a victim, and that based on what we’ve seen so far, appears truthful. “No, I don’t see any evidence of lying. I see evidence of his being evasive,” said Tecce, referring to Abath staying on message and reiterating that he let the thieves in the door and that was it. “His message is one of I’m a victim. His message is one of I’m not a criminal and therefore his decision to talk on TV will project the appearance of somebody who was taken advantage of and his appearance on TV will set the stage for a book.”
Abath is reportedly working on a book, and told our partners at the Boston Globe he passed two lie detector tests right after the crime.
On the anniversary of the crime, March 18th, the FBI revealed it knew who the thieves were and that the art had been tracked from Boston to Connecticut to Philadelphia. There is a new push to find the thieves with a public service announcement, a podcast and billboards. Those responsible, according to the bureau, were members of a criminal organization and there was an attempt to sell some pieces in the Philadelphia area 10 years ago. The U.S. Attorney’s office also says there is the opportunity for immunity. To read more on the renewed effort to solve the Gardner heist, check out www.fbi.gov/gardner.
You can see more of Abath’s exclusive interview on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 Friday night on CNN.