By Daniel Golden and Ric Kahn Boston Globe September 23, 1997

When he was alive, nobody ever considered David Houghton a mastermind of anything -- except, possibly, car repair and questionable disability claims. His Malden neighbors would see the scruffy, 300-pound mechanic limping around his yard in jeans and a leather vest, tinkering with his 1988 Oldsmobile Delta and shooting the occasional raccoon out of a tree.

Now that Houghton has been dead for five years, his former hero, Myles J. Connor Jr., appears to be casting him -- quite conveniently -- as the evil genius behind one of history's largest and most perplexing art thefts.

But few who knew Houghton believe that he played more than a bit part, if any, in the 1990 robbery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, in which 13 priceless masterpieces were taken. During the current furor over the possible return of the paintings, the bandying about of Houghton's name raises questions of whether Connor really knows who took the paintings and where they are -- or whether he's willing to tell.

"It's very easy to lay this crime off on a dead man," said a personal injury lawyer who had represented Houghton and remained friends with him. "But I don't think David could find his way to the Gardner museum."

In recent months, two of Connor's associates, William P. Youngworth III and Edward "Rocco" Ellis, have alleged in news interviews that Houghton planned the Gardner theft, which happened at a time when both Connor and Youngworth were imprisoned. But lately, Connor and Youngworth have said they would trade their help in recovering the art work for $5 million in museum reward money and leniency from the criminal justice system.

Youngworth and Ellis say that Houghton, who had a criminal record decades earlier for larceny and armed robbery, visited Connor in jail and outlined the heist in advance. (Authorities at the Sangamon County Jail in Springfield, Ill., where Connor was held in 1990, cannot say who came to see him there because the visitor lists are destroyed every five years.) After the theft, according to Ellis, Houghton stored the paintings in a steamer trunk.

While the people closest to Houghton -- his fiancee, ex-wife, and two children -- have declined comment, many friends and associates strongly dispute the Youngworth-Ellis scenario. They admit it's possible that Houghton, who ran a variety of errands for Connor over the years, could have served as a conduit of information to or from the infamous rocker-turned-robber. But they say that Houghton had scant education, knew little about precious art, and was intellectually incapable of conceiving such an audacious and efficient crime.

Instead, they suspect that Connor may be using his longtime go-fer one last time -- as a fall guy. By spreading Houghton's name, Connor may be shifting suspicion from the actual culprits, whoever they may be, onto someone who can't answer. At the same time, he's giving his longtime loyal flunky 15 minutes of posthumous fame.

"It's laughable to me that Dave Houghton is being made a key figure," said a source who knew both Houghton and Connor well. "This is too sophisticated a piece of work. He could have been on the fringes, he could have had some contact with it, but I can't believe he ever pulled the job."

There are other reasons to doubt the Youngworth-Ellis account. Ellis says that Houghton had his own business as an art appraiser and auctioneer. But state records show that Houghton was never licensed as an auctioneer. And other sources say that even if Houghton dabbled in those fields, he was mainly helping Connor buy and sell Japanese swords and other collectible items.

According to Ellis, Houghton paid $25,000 to each of the two thieves who donned police uniforms and tied up the Gardner's security guards. But Houghton was chronically pressed for cash, and left only $28,000 in assets when he died of a heart attack in 1992 at the age of 52, according to probate records.

"The way he dressed, the way he kept himself, it didn't seem like he had a dime to his name," said a neighbor, Jay Adelman.

Youngworth and Ellis have identified another corpse with a criminal record as one of the Gardner thieves: Robert Donati of Revere, who was found stabbed to death in an automobile trunk in 1991. But, according to sources, Houghton and Donati did not move in the same orbit. Donati was connected to organized crime hoods; Houghton spent his time toiling under car hoods.

The FBI says it has no evidence linking either Houghton or Donati to the crime.If Houghton and Donati knew each other at all, it was through their mutual friend: Connor.

Houghton got to know Connor in the early 1960s, friends say, as a follower of Connor's band, "Myles and the Wild Ones." Houghton attended shows and bought drinks for band members, who often played the Revere Beach bars frequented by Donati and other wise guys.

Generous and loyal to friends, Houghton had a wild side himself. Born of working-class parents in Malden, he drifted into delinquency as a teenager. In 1956, he pleaded guilty to two armed robberies in Quincy, and was placed in the custody of the Youth Services Board. Charges of larceny and carrying a firearm without a permit were filed. He received suspended sentences in 1959 for a Malden assault and battery, and in 1964 for larceny by check.

Even his hobbies were explosive. Houghton enjoyed setting off firecrackers in a parking lot near his home. Despite being denied a Malden gun permit in 1968, he belonged to the Massachusetts Rifle Association, and often went hunting in New Hampshire. At his death, he left a collection of 24 guns -- the most valuable asset in his estate.

Houghton tried to settle down after his marriage in 1961. He and his wife, Ann, moved into the second floor of his parents' house near downtown Malden, and started a family. They had a son in 1962, and a daughter the next year. The Houghtons separated in 1978, and were divorced in 1990.

Often unemployed, Houghton eked out a meager income from occasional jobs at service stations and repair shops and from worker's compensation claims. Not only would Houghton frequently seek compensation for work-related injuries, lawyers say, but he would encourage his girlfriends to do the same.

Houghton's biggest windfall stemmed from a 1985 injury at Ralph's Auto Service in Malden. He had been working there only two weeks, according to his case file, when he fell in a hole and twisted his back. Although there were no witnesses to the accident, and Houghton worked the rest of the afternoon without apparent ill effects, he received a $30,000 settlement in 1987. Medical testing was hampered, one source recalls, because Houghton was too wide to fit into a Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI, machine.

Between jobs, Houghton had plenty of time to perform services for Connor as the erstwhile boy-wonder singer began to get top billing in murder trials and stolen art swaps. Friends say that Houghton used to take Connor's mother out shopping and to see her son in prison. He also briefly dated Connor's sister.

Once, when authorities sought to interview him about Connor, Houghton refused to talk. On another occasion, he borrowed a jacket and tie and appeared in court ready to testify for Connor, although it could not be determined whether he actually took the witness stand.

"David seemed to be very favorably impressed by Connor," said Maurice Cunningham, another lawyer who represented Houghton. "He did seem proud of knowing him."

A few months before his death, Houghton sold his Malden home and moved in with a fiancee in Auburn. The buyers completely renovated Houghton's house. But they did not turn up any valuable art -- only tattered furniture, cockroaches, and mice.

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Gardner Museum Heist