It’s December in the college town of Lexington, Kentucky, and an elaborate heist is underway. In the Rare Book Room of Transylvania University, a librarian lies bound on the floor while two men attempt to escape with volumes worth millions of dollars. They then make a high-speed escape – but soon their plan begins to unravel.
Raised in the city’s affluent south side, Warren Lipka and Spencer Reinhard were friends from an early age. Tall and outgoing, Lipka had a reputation as a joker, while the artistic and ambitious Reinhard was considered the more reserved of the two. Nevertheless, the pair shared a love of soccer, becoming the varsity captains of their respective schools.
After graduating, Lipka landed himself an athletic scholarship at the University of Kentucky, while Reinhard enrolled at Transylvania University, a liberal arts college also based in Lexington, KY. Both young men found that life after high school wasn’t quite what they were expecting it to be, however, and they soon became disillusioned.
Within months, Lipka had abandoned his scholarship and turned to making a quick buck selling fake ID to students in the University of Kentucky dorms. And to help him in these efforts, he turned to fellow freshman Eric Borsuk, whom he knew from his days playing soccer. When Lipka and Borsuk fell out over money, though, the former enlisted Reinhard’s design skills to keep the money coming in.
One day, the newly reunited friends were smoking marijuana together when Reinhard told Lipka something interesting about Transylvania University. Apparently, despite being a relatively small institution, the college harbored an impressive collection of rare books – some of which were worth a fortune.
Apparently, Reinhard had taken a tour of the library some weeks previously and seen first-hand treasures such as John James Audubon’s Birds of America, a folio of engravings created by the famed artist during the 1830s. Apparently, the librarian told Reinhard that a similar set had sold for more than $10 million, and the young man’s interest was piqued.
When Reinhard relayed the story to his friend, Lipka asked about the security surrounding the collection – and a bold idea began to take root in their minds. Over the following weeks, the Transylvania University student scoped out the situation. Eventually, he reported back that only a female librarian stood between them and the valuable books.
Meanwhile, Lipka had mined his underworld connections and found a man in New York with alleged links to the black market arts trade. In turn, this contact passed them the email address of someone located in Amsterdam in the Netherlands – although the boys would need to travel there in person if they hoped to hash out any kind of deal.
Undaunted, Reinhard and Lipka pooled their resources and purchased a fake passport, allowing Lipka to travel to Amsterdam without leaving a paper trail. There, he met up with his contact in a local cafe. And although the man was unimpressed with the American’s youth and demeanor, he explained one key factor – that any rare books hitting the market need to have been authenticated by a reputable auction house.
By this time, Reinhard and Lipka had grown confident that they really could pull off the heist. They nonetheless knew that they would need some help. So, with a provisional fall 2004 date set for the robbery, Lipka phoned Borsuk to make amends.
Soon, Borsuk was on board with the plan. And that fall, he and Lipka moved in to a property near the University of Kentucky campus. There, they began plotting the heist – including the recruitment of a fourth member. They eventually settled on Charles Allen, known as Chas, a friend of Borsuk who part-owned the property where they were living.
By the end of October, Allen had been added to the team, and the four had settled on a plan. Disguised as old men, they would target the library on December 16, when most students would be busy attending their final exams.
Using the pseudonym Walter Beckman, Lipka scheduled a time with librarian Betty Jean Gooch to examine the targeted books. Once there, he would use a stun gun to take her down. Then, with Allen and Borsuk’s help, he’d bundle the valuable books into bed sheets, eventually escaping via a staff-only elevator into a waiting vehicle. Reinhard, more easily recognizable on campus, would remain outside and keep watch.
After an aborted first attempt, during which their disguises weren’t as convincing as they’d hoped, the group put their plan into action on December 17. And while Gooch was a little taken aback by the appearance of the young man who wished to view the college’s rare book collection, she agreed to let his friend in to take a look as well. The friend was really Borsuk, and soon the pair had Gooch subdued and tied up, with a cap covering her eyes.
Their first objective achieved, Lipka and Borsuk began piling books into a bedsheet. As well as Birds of America, they also selected several other Audubon works, a first edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and a natural history tome dating from the 15th century, among other items. However, the pair became lost while trying to make their escape and soon drew the attention of a librarian.
Panicked, Lipka and Borsuk dropped the sheet containing the valuable Audubon folios and fled the building, escaping in a getaway vehicle driven by Allen. But even though they’d left behind their main haul, they still had some $750,000 worth of books stashed about their person. And after watching news coverage of the heist, they believed that they’d gotten away with their ambitious crime.
However, things began to unravel when the four arrived in New York, where they were due to meet with an expert at Christie’s auction house. Claiming to be representatives of a Mr Beckman, Lipka and Reinhard presented the books to Melanie Halloran, who was immediately suspicious of the young men. And when nobody returned their calls, they went home to Lexington without the all-important appraisal.
Meanwhile, the authorities were closing in. During January 2005 they learned that the same email account had been used to contact both Gooch and Christie’s. In addition, Reinhard had apparently left his cell number with Halloran, and police soon zeroed in. On February 11, officers stormed the boys’ shared house, arresting both Reinhard and Lipka on the spot. Charges were subsequently brought against both Allen and Borsuk as well.
While all of the books were recovered, Reinhard, Lipka, Allen and Borsuk were each sentenced to seven years behind bars. At the time, they claimed that they’d committed the crime not for riches or glory, but as a way to escape their mundane lives. “Now we can’t ever go back there. Even if we wanted to, they won’t let us,” Lipka told Vanity Fair in 2005. “That was the point all along.”
All of the men have since been released from jail. Apparently, Lipka, Allen and Borsuk have all found success as writers, while Reinhard has developed into an accomplished artist. Meanwhile, in August 2018 the movie American Animals was released, combining fictional scenes with real footage of those involved in the events. So will the men behind the Transy Art Heist go down in history as heroes or villains? The truth remains to be seen.