Copious Notes

Transy book robber on ‘Today’: ‘We weren’t criminally bad people. We were just dopes.’

Spencer Reinhard, Eric Borsuk, Warren Lipka and Chas Allen (L-R) were interviewed by Megyn Kelly Monday morning on NBC's "Megyn Kelly Today."
Spencer Reinhard, Eric Borsuk, Warren Lipka and Chas Allen (L-R) were interviewed by Megyn Kelly Monday morning on NBC's "Megyn Kelly Today." NBC News’ Megyn Kelly TODAY

The four men convicted in the 2004 Transylvania University book robbery, now portrayed in the movie "American Animals," appeared together on "Megyn Kelly Today" Monday morning to discuss the crime and the movie.

In December 2004 Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Charles "Chas" Allen executed a plan to rob several books worth millions of dollars from the Transylvania University special collection library. They were arrested early in 2005 after they attempted to sell the books and served seven-year prison sentences. While they were in prison, they were contacted by filmmaker Bart Layton, who wanted to make a movie about the robbery that included documentary elements such as on-screen interviews with the four men.

The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was picked up for distribution by The Orchard and MoviePass Ventures. It opened to largely positive reviews in some major markets June 1, and expanded nationwide on Friday, playing on 339 screens across the country, according to the film-business website Box Office Mojo. Thus far, "American Animals" has earned $1,461,639.

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The perpetrators of the crime have participated in publicity for the movie, including the sit-down chat with Kelly, in front of a studio audience in New York.

(SPOILER ALERT: We do get into details of the movie in the following paragraphs.)

The film is not a flattering portrait of the perpetrators of the crime, and Kelly asked about some of their more comically inept actions, such as dressing up as old men to be inconspicuous ... in a college library.

"We weren't criminally bad people, we were just dopes," Lipka said, reminded that they went to see the heist movie "Oceans 12" together between the robbery and their arrests, and FBI agents were sitting right behind them.

Kelly queried how the men thought they could pull off a multimillion-dollar heist.

"A group mind sort of evolved, and I don't think any of us ever thought it was actually going to happen," Borsuk said. "We kept pushing the fantasy along a little further, a little further, until suddenly, you're at the door and you're doing it."

But they didn't do it on the first attempt, as Kelly noted, when complications arose, and Reinhard initially decided to bail out of the plot.

"It was definitely a huge relief when that first attempt didn't happen, because I never felt comfortable that I was going to be involved in actually going into the library and committing this crime," Reinhard said. "So when it didn't work out, it was my belief that it wasn't going to happen was true."

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Kelly also queried about the attack on librarian Betty Jean Gooch and the robbers' desire not to be involved in an assault.

"None of us wanted to do anything like that," Borsuk said. "None of us are violent, mean people. We had just become so disillusioned in this state that we thought somehow we had to do this. This would somehow save us. ... When I watch it on film, it's really hard to watch."

Kelly read quotes from Gooch in a Herald-Leader story about her perspective on the crime where she said the movie helped her understand what happened, and asked what the men would say to her.

"I hope that over the years that she's been able to find healing, and hopefully within her heart forgiveness for what was done," said Allen, who drove the getaway car, and was not directly involved in the attack on Gooch.

Lipka, who was one of her attackers, said, "That's right on. Out of this situation, having a film, the idea that she can gain understanding out of something that she didn't deserve or want is very powerful."

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The film portrays Lipka as the driving force behind the plot, and Kelly called him the "ring leader."

"Ring leader ... I hesitate, but fine," Lipka said. "We were focusing on the wrong things to make a impact. That drive to make a difference was just completely misdirected."

It was one of several times the men addressed what they say, and the movie asserts, was the reason for the robbery: that the men, who all came from middle to upper-middle class homes, were disillusioned with their ordinary lives and wanted to find a way to be special and make a mark.

"What the film does well is it humanizes and shows that really, anyone is capable of doing this kind of stuff, especially when you're young, particularly male, and searching for something in life that you can't find," Borsuk said.

Ultimately they all did time in prison, which they reflected on with Kelly.

"I learned my lesson that first night in county jail, when those solitary confinement doors slammed shut and locked," Allen said. "That was the moment I had to take a hard look at what I had done and face the consequences, and accept responsibility. In doing that, I found that I hit rock bottom, and it gave me an opportunity for healing and to move forward with my life, or at least start that very, very long process."

Reinhard said, "Going to prison, I was able to turn to my art and kind of find salvation in that and not be ... kind of find a freedom in prison to spend my time painting and drawing without the pressures of normal society. It was definitely an enlightening experience, in that regard."

Special collections librarian BJ Gooch recounts the story of two thieves attacking her to steal parts of the special collections at Transylvania University's library. The story was the feature of the film American Animals, directed by Bart Layton.