Boston mobster turned Memphis pastor discusses $500 million art heist

MEMPHIS — An ex-Boston mobster who secretly moved to Memphis in 2013 is opening up about his life as the boss of a Boston mafia crew and his knowledge of the largest art heist in world history.

In the 1990s, Robert Luisi, Jr. was the leader of a mob crew in a Boston. Two of the men in his crew, Robert Guarente and 80-year-old Robert Gentile, are suspected by the FBI of stealing $500 million worth of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

Luisi moved to Memphis in 2013. With guidance from the federal government, he changed his name to Alonso Esposito and started a new life.

Now, Esposito lives in a Memphis suburb with his wife, Julie Esposito, and their children.

Guarente died in 2004. Investigators have searched Gentile’s home in Philadelphia, but didn’t find the paintings. Gentile is awaiting trial for unrelated charges, and he claims he knows nothing about the missing art.

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For 26 years, the investigation has led investigators to dead ends. And even with Esposito opening up about his knowledge, the art is still nowhere to be found.

When asked if men in his crew were involved in the heist, Esposito said, “I think several of them were. Yeah, that was my crew.”

But Esposito said he didn’t connect with Gentile and Guarante until a few years after the heist.

“I was coming back to Boston from Martha’s Vineyard,” Esposito said, describing what he was doing on March 18, 1990 – the night the paintings were stolen. “That crew that they suspect actually did the robbery, I really didn’t hook up with them until about ’94.”

No one has ever been arrested for stealing the art, but leads have continually taken investigators to men related to Esposito’s former friends in Boston, Philadelphia, Connecticut and Florida.

Esposito told WHBQ that despite the fact that his crew was involved, he knew nothing about it until a conversation with Guarente in the late 1990s.

“I was sitting in the living room with Bobby Guarente, and he says, 'I know where the art is, it's buried in a cellar in Florida,’” Esposito said. “He says ‘do you have anybody that can fence it?’ I said I don't know where to get rid of the art. I'm not a fence.”

“From that point on the subject was dropped, and I never spoke to him again about it,” Esposito said.

WHBQ questioned Esposito about how a heist of that significance never came up in conversation, given his role as a leader. Esposito said it's best practice to have as little knowledge as possible about each other's crimes.

“You have to understand something about me and the way that I was raised,” Esposito said. “I grew up with the old-timers. Something's done, we talk about it and it's over with. I don't want to know everybody's information.”

“I was the boss,” Esposito continued. “I don't know what my men did everyday while they were on the street. I didn't ask them. As long as they did what I told them to do and things got done the way I wanted them to, they were pretty much on their own.”

After being convicted of drug trafficking in the early 2000s, Luisi served nearly 14 years in prison. Police nabbed in 1999 for his involvement in a cocaine trafficking ring.

He told WHBQ FBI investigators interviewed him in 2012 in Allentown, Pennsylvania where he was in prison. The clue about the house in Florida proved to be another dead end, because Esposito claims Guarente never told him the exact location of the house in Florida.

When asked if he thanks someone knows the location of the precious art, Esposito said, “Absolutely. And if they do they can get in touch with me. I’m a pastor. I can help them. I can middle man for them if that’s what they want.”

Today, Esposito is a pastor and teacher of theological studies at Faith Keepers Ministries in Raleigh. He writes books and shares his teachings through videos and media on his website, a life nearly opposite the one he lived in the 1990s.

Esposito said he was born into the mob family, and felt he had no choice but to follow in his father’s footsteps.

He told WHBQ he's ashamed now of his criminal past as a loan shark, an extortionist and a drug dealer. But things began to change for him in 1998, one year before he was arrested.

“At that point, I wanted to be with Christ - and I was praying, God how am I going to get out of this now, I'm so deep in,” Esposito said. “I can't just walk out the street, say, ‘I'm with God today, good luck everybody.’”

“They would have killed me,” Esposito said. “That wasn't going to fly. I was trying to keep that a secret and still go to church on Sunday. So I had to conceal it.”

Esposito said it was a relief when he was arrested in 1999.

“When the feds came and cuffed me and walked me to the car, I felt like a yolk break off my shoulders,” Esposito said. “Like a weight was broken off. I can't explain the feeling to you. I said in my mind it's over, it's finally over. “

The artwork was stolen on March 18, 1990. FBI officials said the heist is still under investigation. The museum is offering a $5 million reward for the return of the valued masterpieces.