April 13, 2018

Four teenagers stole rare books from a university library in 2004, and now their heist is being made into a movie


I wouldn’t know personally, but smoking weed sometimes gives people great bad ideas.

In the case of four college freshmen in Kentucky, the idea was to steal upwards of $11 million dollars in rare folios of John James Audubon’s classic bird illustrations and writing.

Thanks to reporting—and interviews with the now-incarcerated dumbass quartet—from John Falk at Vanity Fair, we know the whole story. Disenchanted with college life, and fresh off starting a fake ID business, Warren Lipka and Spencer Reinhard noticed that the Transylvania University [sic] library had almost no security. The only people that stood between them and millions of dollars worth of books were librarians. (Incidentally, librarians are badasses; underestimate themat your own peril.)

In a story right out of Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch, Lipka sought out ways to sell stolen art, contacting appraisers in New York City under an alias and even meeting in Amsterdam with black market dealers. His research convinced him that the heist would come off without a hitch.

Recruiting two more henchmen to help carry the 200-plus pounds of books, he made an appointment to see the rare books. Once in the room, the teenagers tased the overseeing librarian, then gagged and restrained her. The folios proved much too heavy and unwieldy to get away with, so they grabbed hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of other books, including a first edition of The Origin of Species. The escape didn’t go according to plan, though: they were quickly spotted by another librarian, who chased them out. They jumped into a van, tires squealed, and the hunt was on.

It wasn’t long before the FBI tracked them down. The four were tailed secretly for weeks (including, amusingly, at a screening of Ocean’s Twelve).

The entire story is ripe with comedy, hubris, and ignominious defeat. In other words, perfect for a Hollywood action-comedy.

As Michael Waters at the Hollywood Reporter reports this week, award-winning director Bart Layton’s American Animals “follows the heist as it splinters — and the ragtag group of criminals race to salvage the oddball plan.”

The trailer shows the young actors donning old-man disguises (an accurate detail from a failed first attempt at the heist) and figuring out how to carry out the crime. Personally, I hope most of the movie focuses on the FBI trailing these nincompoops, their days of glory so shortlived.

All four pled guilty to the theft. At sentencing, the judge noted that many librarians had written to oppose any leniency, since a librarian was assaulted during the crime. They got seven years each.


Theatrical release June 1.

Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.