The Real-life Heist Caper Behind American Animals

The cast of American Animals. Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Near semester’s end in December 2004, four Kentucky college students — and one dropout — staged perhaps the most stunningly inept art heist in the history of art heists. Inspired by a love of heist movies such as Ocean’s 11 and Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, and compelled to action less by the quest for cash than an urge to escape the suburban torpor of their privileged upbringings, the novice criminals — Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk, and Chas Allen II — hatched an elaborate scheme to steal four double-sized folios of John James Audubon’s Birds of America, some of the world’s rarest and most valuable books, from the Special Collections Library at Transylvania University.

Among the tools of their trade: old-man disguises (their reasoning: “When you’re old, you’re invisible”), a stun pen (to immobilize the librarian who served as the books’ only security), and a borrowed minivan belonging to Allen’s mother as the getaway car. For Reinhard and Lipka, copious marijuana helped facilitate the magical thinking necessary to organize and commit such a fanciful crime.

Suffice it to say, everything that could go wrong did. And now, 13 years after they pleaded guilty and were sentenced to matching seven-year prison sentences, arrives American Animals an alternately kooky and panther-tense biopic-cum-documentary about the young men’s exploits directed by Bart Layton (the BAFTA-winning British filmmaker behind 2012’s The Imposter). Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January where it received rave reviews — and where MoviePass Ventures partnered with the Orchard to buy North American distribution rights — American Animals takes a highly unusual approach to presenting its tick-tock of the heist. And in exclusive interviews with Vulture, Borsuk, Allen, Lipka, and Reinhard reflected on their past transgressions as well as how downright weird it is to now have a movie showcasing what they did.

The real Lipka and Reinhard appear in some scenes alongside the 20-something actors playing their younger selves (Barry Keoghan as Reinhard, Evan Peters as Lipka, Jared Abrahamson as Borsuk, and Blake Jenner as Allen). Sequences depicting the men’s differing memories of certain events are cut together to underscore how subjective, and even conflicting, their recollections remain this many years later. And to add an extra dose of reality, the criminals — as well as their still-aggrieved parents — also receive the talking-head interview treatment. In an era when biographical dramas have come to be singularly associated with arthouse moviegoing, those techniques serve to elevate the material’s meta-narrative quality and distinguish American Animals within the genre.

None of which serves to excuse the men’s trespasses or answer the million-dollar question that still persists around the crime — which is listed among the FBI’s most significant art-theft cases of all time. Given the men’s racial privilege and socioeconomic entitlements, and their total inexperience with criminality, why did they do it? “The things we acted on were subconscious,” Reinhard tells Vulture. “Not really knowing what the outcome was going to be. And that was sort of what we were after: this unknown. Not really knowing where the path was going to take us. We kind of latched onto this idea as a way out.”

Adds Lipka: “At some point there are elements of a radicalization that happened. I mean, not illnesses. But just ways to upend your status quo. How do you take what you know and flip it on its head? What we knew at the time? Being products of the middle-class, white existence? Yeah. It was limited.”

Prior to incarceration, all four men seemed destined for more conventional lives. Enrolled on an arts scholarship at Transylvania University (a liberal arts college in Lexington, Kentucky), Reinhard was a talented artist aiming for a career in graphic design. His childhood friend Lipka attended the University of Kentucky on a full athletic scholarship; he was a star goalkeeper on the high-school soccer team. During his first year at school, however, Lipka embarked on his first criminal enterprise: selling fake IDs with his former soccer teammate and fellow freshman Borsuk. Allen was a University of Kentucky business major with whom Borsuk had started a lawn-care company during the summer before college.

The aha moment came when Reinhard toured the Transy library’s Special Collections room where he first laid eyes on Audubon’s Birds of America, a set of life-size engravings the renowned wildlife artist/naturalist completed in 1838 — one of about 200 in existence. Informed an identical set of engravings had been sold four years earlier for $12 million, Reinhard began to ponder its theft — the books’ only security was a no-nonsense, 50-something librarian named Betty Jane Gooch.

Casually mentioning the idea to Lipka while the two smoked weed in his car, Reinhard wasn’t initially gung-ho on any plan to actually execute the heist. But over the course of the following year, the scheme gained momentum, with the pair staking out the library and elaborately mapping entry points and escape routes. Lipka, who had grown disenchanted with sports, quit the soccer team and forfeited his scholarship, and claimed to know someone in New York who could fence the stolen books. Amid clouds of joint smoke, the two friends drove to the city to meet with the man — only to be given instructions to fly to Amsterdam to meet in person with another shadowy character. He, in turn, explained to Lipka (traveling alone at this point) that they would need documentation establishing the books’ legitimacy by an auction house.

Realizing they needed accomplices to pull off the heist, Reinhard and Lipka brought in Borsuk and Allen — the latter despite substantial misgivings. “I was always on the periphery and I was kind of mocking the plan: ‘No, this is a stupid idea. No, you’re going to get caught,’” says Allen, who is set to publish a book about his part in the ordeal, Evolution: Becoming a Criminal. So what changed his tune? “To be very transparent, I had a lot of things going on in my personal life. I just didn’t care what happened. I didn’t care if we actually got away with it. I didn’t care if we got caught. I just knew I wanted things to be different.”

In American Animals, the four are shown arriving at the Transy U library in full old-man drag, looking at once ridiculous, almost Beastie Boys–esque, and totally out of their depth. They carried with them zip ties, a cheap stun pen with which to zap Betty Jane Gooch, and bedsheets in which to wrap the manuscripts. But finding the library unexpectedly crowded, the four aborted their plan, returning the following day. This time, only Lipka and Borsuk entered the library, dressed in conservative suits — as a student, Reinhard was deemed too recognizable and served as a lookout on a nearby roof, while Allen was the getaway driver.

And from there, a literal comedy of errors ensued: The stun pen failed to effectively stun Gooch, who wailed and thrashed about on the floor, the two couldn’t find the key to the display case in which the books were kept, the books proved to be much heavier than expected and the crooks struggled to carry them, an elevator took them to the basement where there was no exit. And in the end, they had to drop the Audubon books in a stairwell and hotfoot it out the front entrance of the library, creating a commotion among the students. “It’s not something we look back on with fondness to any degree,” says Borsuk.

Although they dropped the most valuable Audubon engravings, the criminals didn’t leave empty-handed. On his way out of the library, Lipka hastily shoved into his backpack an 1859 first edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, a two-volume set of the horticultural masterpiece Hortus Sanitatis, and 20 original Audubon pencil drawings — nearly $750,000 worth of books and manuscripts in all. Then they went back to school. “Yeah, the day of the heist a couple of us had exams to take,” says Borsuk. “It was a surreal experience to go from a crime scene back to a classroom.”

After replacing its license plates, Allen returned the minivan to his mom, who sold the vehicle to someone from out of state later that afternoon.

In the end, the four’s amateurish attempt to have the books and manuscripts authenticated proved to be their undoing. The men traveled to New York again for a meeting at Christie’s, where Reinhard and Lipka were to meet one of the auction house’s rare book specialists. Posing as emissaries for a “very private individual” from Boston, they presented their wares from a rolling suitcase wrapped in bedsheets. Professional rare book dealers, the specialist concluded, these were certainly not.

In the following weeks, the FBI connected a Yahoo email address they had used to broker both the Christie’s meeting and the library appointment back to the boys. And after being put under surveillance, bureau agents even followed the heisters to a movie theater where they caught a screening of another heist film: Ocean’s 12. “I don’t remember talking loudly about the crime we committed but, yeah, we did go see that,” Borsuk says.

“Whether or not there were agents behind us, we’ll never know, but they claim they were there,” Allen continues.

Arrested in dramatic predawn raids of their suburban homes and dorms in 2005, all four pleaded guilty to charges including theft of cultural artifacts from a public museum and transportation of stolen property (they were not prosecuted for inflicting physical harm on Gooch thanks to the stun pen not being deemed a “dangerous weapon”). And although a federal prosecutor deemed Lipka the group’s organizer, leader, and recruiter — a charge he personally refutes in the movie — all four were sentenced to the same seven years of prison time.

Borsuk, Allen, Lipka, and Reinhard all describe the process of having a film made of their exploits — and appearing in scenes for it — as a surreal experience. While incarcerated, a number of film producers and documentarians approached the men about adapting their story for the big screen. “I did take a lot of meetings about turning it into a film, but I really got an exploitative feeling from a lot of the filmmakers I spoke with,” Allen says.

“We were really careful,” adds Borsuk. “We just didn’t want it to end up being a movie where everyone looked slick and over-glamorized. We really wanted to find someone willing to tell a different kind of story. To try something new — something raw and brutal and honest.”

But the four had begun corresponding with Layton around 2008 and came to appreciate the subtlety of his approach compared to the other movie projects they were being offered. The initial idea was to film a straight-ahead documentary, and they all voice a certain relief the filmmaker didn’t distort their experiences with gratuitous comedy. “He is asking some poignant questions about our time,” Lipka says. “Entitlement. Class issues. Identity. Instead of turning away and just being like, ‘Ah, these kids are fucking dum-dums.’”

Ultimately, the humor in the fact that a heist initially inspired by heist movies now has its own heist film isn’t lost on Allen. “When we were kids, we watched movies like Ocean’s 11 and The Italian Job and Scarface — these iconic criminals, essentially,” he says. “And now, we obviously blurred the lines between fantasy, fiction, and reality.”

The Real-life Heist Caper Behind American Animals