Transylvania librarian featured in American Animals speaks out about heist, movie
On Dec. 16, 2004, Betty Jean "BJ" Gooch, the special collection librarian at Transylvania University, was meeting with a colleague outside her office when they saw two young men dressed in ludicrous old man wrinkles and facial hair ascend the staircase to the rare books room. When they saw the women, the two costumed men turned around and left.
"We thought it was theater students fooling around," Gooch said recently from the rare books room where she still works.
She didn't dwell on them until the next morning, when the same two men returned, this time without costumes, tased her, tied her up and stole some of Transy's most valuable books, including two original folios of John James Audubon's "Birds of America," said to be worth $8-$12 million.
That notorious moment in Transy's history is now portrayed in a new movie "American Animals," which makes it clear how central Gooch was to the whole story — the heist, the trial, the prison time, the magazine pieces, the books, and now, finally the film. Gooch's ordeal took what would have been a simple heist into the realm of serious, violent crime.
She found herself unable to talk about it for many years, and has never before spoken to the media. The trauma came not just from being tied up and threatened, but the added violations of two sacred things, the work place she regarded as a home and the special relationship she had teaching students about so many of Transy's treasures.
But, she said, appearing in the film, which has opened in some major markets and comes to Lexington June 22, and watching it in her home with director Bart Layton has helped her heal and even reach a place of forgiveness. The much-publicized twist in the movie is that Layton interviews the four young men who pled guilty to the heist — Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Eric Borsuk and Charles Allen — now released from seven year prison sentences, and intersperses those documentary interviews amidst the fictional narrative. The men talk candidly about their boredom with their privileged Lexington lives and the need to make a mark with even the most ridiculous of plans. Layton also interviews Gooch in one brief scene at the end, in which she concludes: "It makes me wonder if they really know why they did it."
"I thought he did a wonderful job," Gooch said of Layton. "I was very nervous about watching the movie, then I changed my mind. I think he was so successful in interviewing the guys. I came away with a fuller understanding of what made the guys tick.
"It helped me close a door on it and have a more forgiving attitude. I think it was good for me to see the film, it was therapeutic."
Gooch started working at Transy in 1994, overseeing a rare books collection that punched far above its weight for a small, liberal arts college. Transy was the beneficiary of prominent book collectors, particularly a wealthy New York sportswoman named Clara Peck, who amassed a fortune in books and art on the natural world. They included the original Audubon prints, along with numerous sketches Audubon made before he started painting, and a two-volume of "Ortus Sanitatis," loosely translated as the Garden of Health, which was published around 1500 in an attempt to categorize all the plants and animals known at that time. Peck had also collected a first edition of Charles Darwin's "The Origin of Species."
The rare books collection is on the second floor of the Transy library, and Gooch still works there, almost always alone. She makes appointments with people who wish to see the books and gives numerous tours to Transy students. That's how Spencer Reinhard, a freshman from Lexington in 2004, first found out about the books and told his high school buddy, Warren Lipka, how much they were worth.
Gooch doesn't remember that tour; she does remember another tour with Reinhard, an art major at Transy, when he came to see the books alone, and unbeknownst to Gooch, case the joint.
"I remember I asked him to spell his name," she recalled. "Usually, I stay in the room, but he was a really unfriendly young man. He didn't want me to talk to him."
By December, the plan was ready. Lipka made an appointment to see the books as "Walter Beckman." They'd had to reschedule several meetings because Gooch's mother, who lived with her, was in failing health. Lipka/Beckman called Gooch to cancel the appointment after appearing on the stairs, but rescheduled for the next morning. He appeared, not in costume, Gooch said, but in a big coat and hat despite the relatively warm weather.
Once he got there, he asked if his friend could also come up. Eric Borsuk walked into the library. (Reinhard played lookout on a nearby roof and Allen was waiting in the getaway minivan outside.)
Gooch showed them the "Ortus Sanitatus" volumes, one on either side of her.
"Suddenly, I'm in mid sentence, and Lipka says to Borsuk, 'grab her hands,' and he's pushing the stun gun into my left arm," Gooch said as she stood in the same place. "I'm trying to process what's happening, I realize they're robbing us and I'm so shocked by that, and I think I even screamed once but I realized no one could hear me. I fall to the ground, they lay me on my stomach, they bound my hands and feet. they put Lipka's hat over my eyes and tried to put duct tape on my mouth.
"I was scared I was not going to be able to breathe, I was also terrified I was going to have a heart attack. I have a family history and I'd been under so much stress, I just remember thinking I have to calm myself down, I just have to get through this."
Lipka and Borsuk wrestled the two Audubons, both as big as a side table, into a blanket, and also grabbed the original drawings, the Darwin, the "Ortus Sanitatus" and a 1432 illuminated psalter, Gooch said. They dropped the Audubons on the steps outside the elevator, as library director Susan Brown caught sight of them. She chased them into the Haupt Circle on South Broadway.
"She keyed their van," Gooch said. "It's a miracle she wasn't run over."
Gooch had partially freed herself when Brown found her, and they called the police. The men got away, and even made it to the Christie's auction house in New York to sell the books, but their demeanor aroused suspicion, and they called the police. Thanks to Gooch saving the email from Walter Beckman, police soon realized the same email had been used to contact Christie's.
The men eventually pled guilty and were sentenced in federal court to seven years in prison.
The day after the robbery, Gooch had to enroll her mother in hospice. But slowly her mother got better, and even more slowly, so did Gooch. The books were returned; in fact, she said, police took Brown and Gooch to Lipka's basement apartment, where he had left the books swaddled in a blanket amidst the marijuana plants he grew.
"I think if I hadn't been so emotionally vulnerable when it happened, I might have gotten over it more easily," she said. "Most of my injuries were psychological and sometimes that's harder to get over."
She remembers writing the victim's statement for the sentencing, shaking and crying over her computer. Nearly as bad, Gooch recalls, the sentencing itself, where she had to testify and be cross-examined in turn by each of the four boys' lawyers.
She went back to work almost immediately, and it wasn't until March that she realized she needed a leave of absence.
"Because I'm here alone so much, I've made it into a second home, so when these guys attacked me, it was like someone coming into my home and attacking me," she said. "I felt very violated." Also, she'd always loved working directly with students. "So when I was atacked by students and looked at like like I didn't exist, it was shocking to me."
She did return to Transy, and she got counseling but her trust in people "hit rock bottom." She recalled being in the library months after the attack, making copies for someone. "And I was just standing there, making copies and planning my escape routes."
Gooch did file a civil lawsuit against all four men that was eventually settled out of court.
"Forgiveness is a work in progress, I have good days and bad days," she said. "The bottom line is I don't bear them any ill will. I really don't anymore. The bottom line is how can you get on with your life if you wake up every morning with this huge grudge, filled with hate and all this?"
Crossing a line
Gooch's mother was still alive last November when Layton came to her house to watch the film. Just after that, her health declined again, and she died Feb. 13.
"Now I'm dealing with the real death of my mom and all the movie stuff about the robbery," she said. "There's sort of this weird symmetry to life, I guess."
It took two years for Layton to persuade Gooch to be interviewed for the documentary part of the movie, and she decided this was her chance to tell her side of the story and close the door. In a very brief scene, the real-life Gooch makes the point clearly that Layton has tried to do more obliquely.
"They were wanting a transformative experience, but they refused to work for it," she said. "They wanted to get it the easy way."
In the movie, Layton hones in on Gooch's trauma, not from her perspective so much as the thieves, who suffer anxiety and flashbacks both before and after the event. At one point in the movie, Lipka has set up a model of special collections and carefully places a figurine into the middle of it. "The librarian is the single biggest risk in this entire operation," says Evan Peters, who plays Lipka. "She needs to become a non-factor in this. As soon as possible."
Despite such dialogue, Gooch has recommended the film to friends and family. It turns out that BJ Gooch, guardian of history, is also a pop culture junkie, who already knew of the young actors, Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan, who play Lipka and Reinhard. She's also a huge fan of the actress who played her, Ann Dowd, most recently in "A Handmaid's Tale," who has appeared in countless other movies. The movie was filmed in North Carolina, with Davidson College standing in for Transy, so she did not meet Dowd.
Transy has increased the security in the special collections, but still allows people to see the famous books, including the Audubon. (In yet another meta twist of life and art, on June 14, Christie's Auction House, which blew the whistle on the men after they tried to sell the books to them in New York, will auction off another copy of Birds of America. They had the cast and crew from "American Animals" into the auction house for extra publicity.)
Time, and the movie, have given Gooch the space to consider forgiveness, or at least a better understanding of why four young men of privilege were willing to hurt her.
"What came across was a very human desire to leave a mark on the world, but these young men, they went about it all the wrong way," she said. "They came from good families, they wanted excitement, they wanted to be known for something big. Spencer makes the remark that artists need to suffer, it's a very human desire to want to be considered unique.
"It's difficult to feel sympathy, but I'm working on it."
If you go
What: Drama about the 2004 Transylvania University rare book heist directed by Bart Layton, starring Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahams and Ann Dowd.
Runtime: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Where:Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main St. (weekend showtimes 12:30 p.m., 2:50 p.m., 5:10 p.m., 7:30 p.m., 9:45 p.m.); Regal Hamburg Pavilion, 1949 Star Shoot Parkway (11:10 a.m., 2:10 p.m., 5:05 p.m., 7:55 p.m., 10:50 p.m.).