Crime

The true story of ‘American Animals:’ Coverage of the Transylvania rare-book heist

Editor's Note: This article on the Transylvania University rare-book robbery, by reporter Sarah Vos, originally ran in the Lexington Herald-Leader on Sunday, Feb. 20, 2005. It appears here in its entirety. The robbery is now the basis of the film "American Animals," which is set for release this week.

Four days before Christmas, two young men, one wearing a red tie, the other in a yellow suit jacket, arrived at Christie's, the famed New York auction house, claiming to represent a very private collector. "Mr. Beckman," they told a woman in the manuscript division, wanted to sell some rare books.

The man in yellow brought in a red suitcase. It contained a set of pencil sketches by naturalist John James Audubon, a first-edition of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species in which he set forth his theory of evolution and two valuable manuscripts from the 15th and 16th centuries.Melanie Halloran, the Christie's specialist who dealt with them, thought there was something suspicious about the meeting, she told her boss after the men left. There was.

The manuscripts were hot.

But the men were not international book thieves.

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According to court documents, they were 20-year-olds, college students who grew up in the same upscale Lexington neighborhood, former teammates who had played youth soccer together and were named to Kentucky's all-state high school soccer team just two years earlier.

Last week, the men, Warren C. Lipka and Spencer W. Reinhard, were charged in federal court along with friends Eric J. Borsuk and Charles T. Allen II with stealing the books from the Transylvania University Library and transporting them across state lines. The men have not been indicted by a grand jury and will not enter pleas until they are formally arraigned on the charges.

Court papers allege a plot that seems more slapstick caper than high-stakes crime: Thieves who barely escaped, dropping the most valuable books as they ran, who used the same e-mail account to set up the heist and sell the goods -- giving the police an electronic trail. But the elements of the crime -- a stun gun, a tied-up librarian, stolen goods worth at least $500,000 -- mean that the four could spend up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

So far, the accused and their families have declined to speak to reporters. Court documents filed in support of their arrests reveal little about how the men concocted the plot. But friends, former teachers and other court records offer insight into why four 20-year-olds from Lexington allegedly turned from college classes to crime.

At least one of them had financial problems. Another had experience in the world of appraisals and auctions. And Borsuk, Lipka and Allen, who lived together at 613 Beaumont Avenue, had a party lifestyle that was apparently becoming more reckless.

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On Dec. 17 a man who said he was "Walter Beckman" went to view Transylvania University's special collections library. The collection sits above the first floor of the library in a glassed-in room that is always locked. It has its own stairway and is not visible from the library floor. Appointments are encouraged, and "Beckman" had made one using an e-mail from a Yahoo account.

The collection, whose contents are described on the Transylvania Web site, includes a folio edition of John James Audubon's Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America and a double-elephant folio of his Birds of America -- a book the size of a small table. Serious rare book collectors would have known the value. In 2000, a double-elephant folio was sold at auction for $8.8 million.

"Beckman" used a cell phone to call a second man into the library. The two men used a stun gun on the special collections librarian and restrained her.

They took 20 pencil sketches drawn by Audubon for the octavo edition of Birds of America, the first-edition Darwin, a two-volume natural history from the 1500s called Ortus Sanitatis or Garden of Health, an illuminated manuscript from 1425 and the two large folios. Library director Susan Brown saw the men leaving, according to affidavits, and told them to stop. They dropped the two folios, ran to a gray minivan where two other men waited and drove off.

The two men inside the library were Warren C. Lipka and Eric Borsuk, the men later told the police, according to affidavits filed in federal court. Lipka and Borsuk were long-time friends. They went to Lexington Catholic, played on the school's soccer team and lived in the same house after graduating in 2003.

In high school, Lipka had been the class clown, said Johnny Saltigerald, a Lexington Catholic teammate. "He was always having fun, always making people laugh," he said. Borsuk was quieter, he said.

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Main entrance to the Frances Carrick Thomas Library, Transylvania University, Lexington, KY, Saturday, February 19, 2005. Staff photo/Janet Worne.

By the time of their arrest, neither was attending classes at the University of Kentucky. Borsuk was taking a semester off. Lipka had stopped going because of payment issues, his attorney said last week in court.

Originally, Lipka had gone to UK on a partial scholarship to play soccer. But the son of UK women's soccer coach Warren M. Lipka had struggled and left the team after less than a month, said Ian Collins, the UK men's soccer coach.

Lipka was dealing with other financial issues in the months surrounding the book theft. His mother kicked him out of the family home last summer, according to an affidavit filed by his father in Fayette Circuit Court. Until November, Lipka had worked at Ramsey's on East High Street, but a hand injury had forced him to quit that job.

The day before his arrest in the book theft, Lipka was picked up at the Euclid Avenue Kroger on a shoplifting charge. According to a police report, he had taken a frozen dinner out of its cardboard package and tried to walk out of the store without paying. Lipka's parents had financial difficulties as well and are still involved in a contentious divorce.

They filed for bankruptcy last fall, in part because of horse racing gambling debts accrued by Warren M. Lipka, according to affidavits filed on behalf of his wife, Laura Lipka. In 2004, she reported, credit card records showed TVG bets and Keeneland ATM withdrawals by her husband of almost $9,500. Bankruptcy filings show that the Lipkas had accumulated more than $63,000 in credit-card and installment loan debt. Warren M. Lipka declined to comment about his divorce or the gambling allegations.

But in a phone call to the Herald-Leader last week, his son, Warren C. Lipka, said that the allegations were character assassination and asked that they not be printed. He declined to discuss the charges filed against him. (UK Athletics spokesman Scott Stricklin said that Warren M. Lipka has assured officials that he only bet on horse racing, and NCAA rules only prohibit betting on college sports.)

Charles Allen, known to his friends as "Chas" or "Chase" was the get-away driver waiting for Borsuk and Lipka outside the Transylvania Library, according to affidavits. Allen, a 2003 Lexington Catholic graduate who played baseball, was the kind of guy you expected would become a rich businessman, according to Saltigerald. "He just had that attitude toward things," he said.

Like Borsuk, Allen was taking a semester off from UK. In November, Allen was charged with DUI and pleaded guilty. Together with his parents, Allen owned the house at 613 Beaumont Avenue where Allen, Lipka and Borsuk lived. The three had moved in together right after high school, said Joe Nallia III, a Lexington Catholic classmate who moved in last fall. Nallia declined to discuss what he knew about the theft, saying that his lawyer and the police had advised him not to talk. He said that he didn't expect to be charged in the case.

Allen co-owned CTA Investments with his parents. The business owned three Lexington properties, including the Beaumont house, valued at a total of $510,000, according to court records. Allen worked for his father's real estate company as well, according to his financial affidavit. His father, Tom Allen, is a part owner of Thompson and Riley, a prominent Main Street auctioneer. In the past, Charles Allen had also done appraisals for his father, according to court papers filed in connection to his father's 2003 divorce.

The other 20-year-old implicated in the theft is Spencer Reinhard. At Tates Creek High School, Reinhard was known for his prowess on the soccer field -- he made first team for all-state soccer his senior year -- and in the art studio. He had attended Governor's School for the Arts and his work is still held up as an example, said Mike Holdren, an art teacher at Tates Creek.

"He was a real maverick," Holdren said. "He showed no fear in anything he ever did in terms of art." At Transylvania, where Reinhard went to college, he continued those pursuits. He had painted a mural on the fourth floor of Clay Hall, where he lived, and played on the school's soccer team until his arrest. Like the others, Reinhard didn't have a steady job, according to his financial affidavit. But he had recently earned $3,600 for a mural and had sold a painting for $120.

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Main entrance to the J. Douglas Gay Jr. Library, Transylvania University, Lexington, KY, Saturday, February 19, 2005. Staff photo/Janet Worne.

Four days after the Transy theft, all four were in New York City, and Lipka and Reinhard went to Christie's, according to arrest warrant affidavits. They set up their appointment by e-mail, court records say.

Lipka introduced himself as Mr. Williams and did most of the talking, according to court documents. Reinhard, who wore the yellow suit jacket, said he was Mr. Stephens. A day later, Halloran, the woman they met with, told her supervisor, Tom Leckey, a noted rare-book authority, that there was something suspicious about the two men, according to court records.

The materials alone should have gotten the auction house's attention, said Elaine Smyth, who chairs the rare book section of the American Library Association. In recent years, rare manuscripts have been commanding ever-higher prices, and libraries have been examining ways to cut down on thefts. The rarer an item is the harder it is to fence, she said.

"We don't know where every copy of Darwin's Origin of the Species is, but you would wonder where this copy has been all this time," Smyth said. Rare books disappear from libraries, usually because someone walks out with them or manages to get in after hours, Smyth said. "It's pretty unusual for actual violence to be used," she said.

To prevent stolen items from being resold, the American Library Association maintains lists of stolen items. "We try to keep each other apprised so that we don't end up buying someone else's books," Smyth said.

The two men left Christie's without selling the books. But they gave the auction house a contact number for a cell phone.

Back in Lexington, the police had traced the e-mail used to set up "Walter Beckman's" appointment at Transylvania to a public computer in UK's W.T. Young Library, according to a search warrant filed in Fayette District Court. Within 10 days of the theft, the police had seized the computer.

While police were searching -- and as news of the book theft spread -- Lipka and Borsuk apparently weren't worried about being seen in public. On Jan. 4, the two were arrested after a UK police officer saw a Ford Explorer running red lights on South Mill Street. The SUV drew the officer's attention, in part, because a man was hanging from the luggage rack.

According to a police report, Borsuk was the driver, and Lipka was the passenger outside the car. Borsuk cursed and spit on a police officer, according to court documents. He was charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and driving under the influence. Lipka was charged with alcohol intoxication. The two pleaded not guilty, and the case is pending.

By Feb. 1, police had learned that whoever set up the Transy appointment had used the same Yahoo e-mail account to contact Christie's, according to another search warrant. It was the misstep that would lead to the men's arrest. Christie's still had the cell phone number left by "Mr. Williams" and "Mr. Stephens" and gave it to the police when asked.

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Eric Joseph Borsuk, 20, left, Charles Thomas Allen II, and Spencer Wilson Reinhard, right, three of four 20-year-olds involved in the Transylvania University book theft, were transported from federal arraignment in Lexington, Ky., on Feb. 11, 2015.

Over the next week, investigators traced the number back to Reinhard's cell phone and identified Reinhard and Lipka from a security-camera video taken at Christie's, court documents say.

Around 6 a.m. on Feb. 11, police officers and FBI agents swarmed the yellow-brick house on Beaumont Avenue and Reinhard's dorm room at Transylvania. One of the men -- it's unclear who -- pointed a gun at police as they entered the Beaumont house, police said. But he dropped the weapon when officers told him to.

Reinhard and Lipka were arrested. Allen and Borsuk, who were at the Beaumont house, agreed to go to the police station for questioning. They were later charged. Three of the four confessed, according to an arrest warrant affidavit. Only Borsuk, who asked for his attorney, remained silent.

That same morning, investigators searched the house and dorm room and found the stolen sketches and books, still in good condition. On Tuesday, Lipka, Borsuk, Reinhard and Allen appeared before federal Magistrate Judge J. Gregory Wehrman. Their families filled the benches in the federal courthouse.

Borsuk's father flew home from a business trip to make it to the hearing, said Borsuk's attorney, Fred Peters. Wehrman agreed to let them go without bail, on the condition that they live with their parents while they wait for the charges to be resolved. Lipka is to be monitored more strictly and was told to find a job or enroll in school. Wehrman talked sternly and once interrupted himself to reprimand one of the four for not listening. He set their next hearing for March 3.

Until the charges are resolved, the slightest violation of their release -- alcohol or drug use, leaving the district of Eastern Kentucky -- would result in their return to jail, Wehrman said. "This is federal court," he warned them. "This is not a DUI."

WHAT WAS STOLEN

Items stolen from Transylvania University's library:

  • On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, a first edition of Charles Darwin's famous work in which he set forth his theory of evolution. Published in 1859.

  • A collection of 20 sketches, or pencil drawings, by naturalist John James Audubon, done in about 1855 in preparation for his 1856-1857 edition of Birds of America. * Ortus Sanitatis (translated as Garden of Health), a two-volume natural history, described by Transylvania as "exceedingly rare," published in the 1500s, with handpainted, gold-illuminated woodcuts.

  • A manuscript written in 1425 in Winchester, England, for the Knolles family. It is handpainted in color with intricate lettering and floral decoration.
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