13 years ago, four privileged teenagers with bright futures and everything to lose went through with a half-baked scheme to steal millions of dollars worth of rare books from a local college. The story behind the brazen and bizarre heist, which has gone down as one of the most famous in history, is now coming to theaters in American Animals, out Friday.
“Lots of people make bad decisions when they’re young and nothing comes of those mistakes,” Spencer Reinhard, one of the group’s two original organizers, tells PEOPLE. “In our instance, we picked something a little more extreme and we’ve had to deal with the consequences of that.”
American Animals, directed by Bart Layton, tells the story behind the so-called “Transy Book Heist” mostly through reenactments. Sprinkled throughout are interviews with the real-life robbers and their families.
Reliving the heist on camera was “taxing,” says Warren Lipka, another original member of the gang. “I wouldn’t necessarily call it enjoyable, but it’s a weird phenomenon,” he adds.
Finding the Target
The origins of the “Transy Book Heist” remain somewhat murky. To deal with that, the movie tells scenes from different viewpoints, depending on whose memory is dictating the narrative. What we do know is that Reinhard (played by Barry Keoghan), an introspective artist, and his class-clown friend Lipka (played by Evan Peters) planted the first seeds.
As a freshman at Kentucky’s Transylvania University, Reinhard was introduced to the college’s Special Collections Library on a tour. The small liberal arts school exhibits some of the most valuable books in the country, including Birds of America by John James Audubon — a set of life-sized engravings by the wildlife pioneer valued at around $12 million. The library’s security was also low-key at the time, consisting mainly of a plexiglass box and a middle-aged librarian named Betty Jean Gooch (played in the film by Ann Dowd).
The next time Reinhard met up with Lipka, who attended a nearby college on a soccer scholarship, he mentioned the poorly guarded goldmine sitting on campus. “The curiosity of it got the better of me,” Reinhard admits.
Assembling the Team
The planning started small. With no prior art heist experience, they began by watching movies like Ocean’s 11 and Reservoir Dogs as a would-be guides. They staked out the library in between classes, and Reinhard, a talented artist (see the poster he designed for the film below), even drew a mock blueprint of the Rare Book Room, where the heist would take place. Realizing they would need more help, Reinhard and Lipka recruited two even unlikelier coconspirators: Charles “Chas” Allen II, a straight-laced jock and already successful entrepreneur, and Eric Borsuk, who had dreams of joining the F.B.I..
After their preparatory work, they decided the best way to rob the library would be to pose as visitors and steal the books in broad daylight. If they could remove Gooch from the equation, they figured they would able to sneak the goods out of the building through a rear exit in the basement. After running out of ideas for a nonviolent way to quietly restrain her, it was eventually decided Gooch would be neutralized with a Taser. As for selling the merchandise, Lipka, through some shady connections, assured the group he had a buyer lined up in Europe. Reinhard even gave Lipka thousands of dollars for a trip to the Netherlands, where he supposedly met with mysterious black market art dealers. (Some group members, including Reinhard, have expressed doubt Lipka ever actually took the trip).
Using codenames based off the ill-fated characters from Reservoir Dogs, they worked out their responsibilities for the big day. Mr. Green (Reinhard) would play lookout, because as a Transylvania student, he might be recognized in the library. Mr. Yellow (Lipka) reluctantly agreed to restrain Gooch and Mr. Black (Borsuk) would help him carry the deceivingly heavy books. Mr. Pink (Allen, who really hated his code name) would drive getaway.
Unsurprisingly, nothing went as planned. They bailed completely on their first attempt, which included the entire group disguising themselves as old men, after they became paranoid about a librarians’ meeting in the Rare Book Room. When they returned the next day, without disguises, Gooch was alone — but the Taser failed to knock her unconscious. Instead, she started screaming in pain and begging for help before Lipka was ultimately able to bind and gag her.
After wasting an eternity fumbling for the key to the Audubon’s case, they carried the 250 pound book to the back elevator and took it to the basement, which, to their horror, was pitch black. Unable to navigate to the exit, they had no choice but to take the elevator to the first floor, where in sight of the entire library, they shuffled through a set of doors into a back stairwell. When they saw a librarian following after them, they dropped the books and ran.
Back inside Allen’s van, both were initially convinced that they had come away with nothing. But after checking their bags, they discovered nearly $750,000 worth of rare books and manuscripts, including an 1859 first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection valued at $25,000, according to Vanity Fair, which profiled the heist in 2004.
Amazingly, the four amateur criminals would go on to evade capture for weeks. After the heist, which they had planned to coincide with their finals, they drove to New York City and attempted to have the books appraised at Christie’s, one the biggest auction houses in the world. The blackmarket buyers, Lipka says, would not accept the merchandise without a certificate of appraisal from a major auction house. Despite dressing in their best suits and presenting themselves as emissaries of a reclusive, art collecting relative, they failed to find a receptive audience at Christie’s.
A detective later told Vanity Fair that if they hadn’t used the same email address at Christie’s that they used to make their appointment with the library — or if Reinhard hadn’t left his home number with the auction — they probably would have gotten away with it.
But with round the clock F.B.I. surveillance, including an undercover detective posing as a Transy student, it didn’t take long for investigators to connect the dots. And when Reinhard finally realized he had used the same email twice, he and his accomplices knew it was only a matter of time too.
On Feb. 11 2005, a SWAT team broke down the front door of a bungalow where Lipka and Allen were staying with a battering ram. A 20-man task force of Lexington police and F.B.I. agents hauled them away, along with the stolen books, written plans for the heist, wigs, costumes and stun guns. The rest were apprehended in near-simultaneous raids.
While Lipka was painted as the group’s ringleader for a time by prosecutors, the crew refused to testify against one another and each were given identical sentences, ultimately serving over seven years in prison.
As for why these four bright, promising students carried out such a crime, the movie, and the perpetrators themselves, do not have a single, satisfying answer. In an interview at the end of the film, Gooch wonders aloud whether the boys even knew why they did it, adding that in her opinion, plain selfishness was mostly to blame.
“You can go all over the place with the reasons: Youth, hubris, rebelling against your own upbringing,” Lipka, who was dealing with his parent’s difficult divorce at the time, offers. “There is no straight answer. It was a confluence of pretty crazy moves that spiraled out of control.”
The entire group hopes their mistakes will serve as a cautionary tale. “I wanted some type of experience that was going to drastically change my life, and I think there are lots of healthy ways to do that” without committing an art heist, Reinhard says.
“I’d encourage people to find ways to get out of their comfort zones and to learn about what other people’s lives are like,” he adds. “I didn’t know to fully appreciate my privilege, because I was operating under this idea that it was somehow earned.”
Lipka now lives in Philadelphia, where he recently earned his master’s degree in Media Arts and Cinema Technology. While he would never recommend prison, he found his time there was actually “a good thing” for him, explaining, “There’s not a meal or a hug that I don’t enjoy; it’s a real second lease on life.”
Reinhard, who still keeps in touch with Lipka and is proud of his old friend’s success, is currently living in Columbia with his wife and daughter.
American Animals hits theaters June 1.