How 4 College Students Tried to Steal Rare Books Worth Millions From a School Library — and What Got Them Caught

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One morning in December 2004, four men embarked on a daring heist. Their target: several volumes of some of the world's rarest books, later valued at more than $5.7 million in total, located in the special collections library at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky.

To obtain the goods, they'd only need to subdue Betty Jean Gooch, a librarian in her 50s, whom they would tase with a stun gun and leave tied and bound in the library, according to court documents. But their plan was flawed — and instead, the thieves walked away with a minimal haul, leaving just enough clues to lead the police to their door.

Almost two months later, police arrested the almost-perpetrators of a multimillion-dollar art heist — not hardened criminals, it turned out, but four local college students. Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Charles Allen II were all between the ages of 19 and 20 at the time of the robbery. They all pled guilty to federal charges of robbery and transporting stolen goods, landing them prison sentences of more than seven years each.

Many young people view their college years as a time for reinvention. Likely very few can imagine the type of transformation that sends four college students from a well-heeled, suburban upbringing to an art heist so infamous that it became the subject of "American Animals," a 2018 movie starring "American Horror Story" actor Evan Peters.

Now, it's the subject of a new episode of CNBC's "Super Heists," airing Monday, Aug. 16 at 10 p.m. ET. The episode features interviews with Borsuk and Allen, who offer insight into what inspired their attempt at such a daring and ill-advised heist in broad daylight. Both admit they were, obviously, partly inspired by greed.

"What if you could make $12 million in one day?" Allen asks in the episode. "Would you do it?"

All four men were also drawn to the idea of the heist as a way of "pushing back and rebelling" against the wealthy, suburban lifestyle in which they were raised, Borsuk adds.

"This was my escape; this was my way out," he says. "We thought that the money would give us the resources to do whatever we wanted with our life, and I just knew that I had to be a part of this, even though your mind should say the opposite."

Assembling the crew

As a freshman art student at Transylvania University in 2003, Reinhard toured the school's special collections library with a group of students.

He learned about the multimillion-dollar collection of rare books, including four double-size folios of John James Audubon's "Birds of America," containing illustrations by the famed naturalist and painter. A librarian noted during Reinhard's tour that the school had sold a similar set of Audubon's work for $12 million a few years earlier, Reinhard told Vanity Fair in 2007.

After the tour, Reinhard mentioned the valuable books to Lipka, his childhood friend who had recently dropped out of the University of Kentucky. Lipka already had an illegal side gig: He and Borsuk, former high school soccer teammates and college classmates, were making thousands of dollars creating and selling fake IDs to college kids.

"A lightbulb goes off: 'We could steal those and sell them for $12 million,'" Borsuk tells CNBC. The three men spent the better part of a year sketching out heist plans. They decided they'd need a fourth person, so they recruited Allen, another high school friend, whose father was a prominent real-estate investor in Lexington. Allen, a business major at the University of Kentucky at the time, says he was initially against the idea — but the allure of millions of dollars drew him in.

Hatching the plan

The four plotters spent months researching rare books, auction houses and Swiss Bank accounts, according to court documents.

Ultimately, they decided to target several valuable books: Audubon's folios (valued by Sotheby's at $4.8 million, court documents show), three additional works by Audubon (valued at $285,000 in total), an early version of the 15th century Latin encyclopedia "Hortus Sanitatis" (valued at $450,000), a rare 1425 hand-written religious devotional calendar (valued at $200,000), and an 1859 first edition of Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection" (valued at $25,000).

The heist would be meaningless if the four friends couldn't find some way to sell those books on the black market. Lipka contacted a former criminal partner from his fake ID racket, who put him in touch with a contact in New York City, who connected the college students with black-market book buyers in Amsterdam, as Lipka and Reinhard told Vanity Fair.

According to Lipka's account, the buyers told him that the books would need to be appraised by a major auction house before any eventual sale. So, while Lipka created a fake email account for an alias ("Walter Beckman") and contacted auction houses like Christie's, Reinhard drew floor maps of the library and crafted disguises, settling on gray wigs and fake beards to make the group look like old men.

Borsuk and Allen staked out the library, counting how many people entered and exited the building at different times of the day, and monitoring campus security. "I would turn every doorknob in the [library], see where it went, check fire escapes to see if alarms went off. All of those kinds of things," Borsuk tells CNBC on the episode of "Super Heists."

"It was exciting and we felt like we were alive, I think, probably for the first time in our lives," he says.

'The biggest slip-up in the world'

Once the plan went into action, even the months of careful planning couldn't prevent it from quickly unraveling.

In mid-December 2004, during one of the most empty seasons on campus, the four men rolled up to the library. They were undisguised — the wigs and beards had drawn too much attention. Lipka used a small stun gun to tase Gooch. He and Borsuk tied her up while Reinhard looked out for security, and Allen waited in a getaway van. In an interview with CNBC for the show, Gooch calls the experience "harrowing," saying she still suffers psychological trauma from the robbery.

As Lipka and Borsuk lugged the heavy valuables down an emergency stairwell — each of the four Audubon folios alone reportedly weighs nearly 50 pounds — they encountered an assistant librarian, who chased them out of the building. The men dropped the multimillion-dollar folios, leaving them only with the other, less valuable books.

The gang sped away from the library, evading capture that day. But, hearing about the loss of the Audubon folios, their Amsterdam buyer backed out of the deal. So the four men made an appointment with Christie's auction house in New York City, hoping to get the books they did steal — still estimated to be worth several hundred thousands of dollars — appraised without arousing any suspicions.

It was a fatal mistake.

First, Lipka contacted Christie's using the same fake "Walter Beckman" email address that he'd used to set up appointments with Gooch at the library, allowing police in Lexington to connect the thieves to the auction house. "I was really floored that they were using the same email account," Pat Murray, a retired Lexington Police Department detective who worked on the case, tells CNBC in the "Super Heists" episode. "I started thinking, 'These guys aren't as sharp as they think they are.'" 

Then, when Lipka and Reinhard met with Christie's to get the stolen books appraised, Reinhard gave the auction house his personal phone number. "We'd spent all of this time, doing all of this stuff, just to give them our real phone number," Borsuk tells CNBC on "Super Heists." "This is, like the biggest slip-up in the world."

Police tracked the phone number back to Reinhard, quickly identifying him as a Transylvania University student. Then, they reviewed security camera footage of Reinhard and Lipka visiting Christie's for their meeting. Murray showed the footage to his son, who was around the same age as the suspects.

The son immediately recognized Lipka from high school.

The fallout

The four friends were arrested in February 2005, in FBI raids of Reinhard's dorm room and the Lexington home where Lipka, Borkus and Allen lived. Each pled guilty to multiple counts, including conspiracy to commit robbery, aiding and abetting the theft of objects of cultural heritage, and aiding and abetting transportation of stolen goods, according to court documents.

Police found the stolen books, undamaged by the four men, in a duffel bag.

In December 2005, a year after the heist, the four men were each sentenced to identical 87-month prison sentences. They were all released in 2012. Reinhard is now a working artist, who painted a movie poster for "American Animals," in which both he and Lipka appeared in as themselves. Lipka graduated from Temple University in 2018 with a master's degree in film studies; his LinkedIn bio describes him as a "writer, storyteller, [and] prison reform advocate."

Allen, who describes himself as an author, screenwriter and "transformation coach" on Twitter, has penned multiple autobiographical books about his role in the heist and his time in prison. Borsuk, also an author, wrote the 2018 book "American Animals: A True Crime Memoir."

In "Super Heists," Borsuk notes that he "had seven years in prison to reflect on" what he calls "a horrible experience that just changed my life completely."

Still, he says, he isn't sure he'd change the past — even if he could.

"It's a weird question to answer," he says in the episode. "Because at the end of the day, it's made me who I am [and] it's made me a better person."

Watch the Transy Book Heist episode of CNBC's "Super Heists," airing Monday, Aug. 16 at 10 p.m. ET.

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that the students were undisguised during the robbery.

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