True story behind American Animals – real-life tale of how four friends bungled $12m heist
American Animals tells the story of four friends who after a visit to Transylvania University, in Kentucky, came up with the idea to steal the rarest and most valuable books from the school’s library
The thieves left no fingerprints behind and there were almost no witnesses, but the four robbers who tried to steal $5million in rare books from a university library were not master criminals.
In fact the four friends who wore almost comic disguises of fake moustaches, beards and wigs were amateur criminals and this was their first heist.
And they almost got away with it.
New film American Animals tells the story of one of the most audacious heists in U.S. history when three well off friends Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen decided to try and steal some rare books from a college library.
Is American Animals a true story?
Based on the story, the film includes interviews with the foursome who attempted the bizarre heist it stars Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson and Ann Dowd.
Spencer Reinhard and Warren Lipka were best friends from the age of eight – the former a talented painter and his friend a popular athletic scholarship student.
But once at college they drifted apart and Lipka ultimately dropped out and moved into a lucrative sideline selling fake IDs along with former football team mate Borsuk.
But the pair fell out over money and without his friend’s computer knowhow he recruited his old pal artist high-flier Reinhard to help.
Several weeks before Reinhard was approached by Lipka about the fake-ID business, he had been on a freshman-orientation tour of Transy, including the library and its exceptional collection of rare books and manuscripts.
“They take you in the Special Collections and show you these books,” he would later tell Vanity Fair , including Transylvania University’s prized Birds of America, by John James Audubon, a four-volume set of life-size engravings the pioneer wildlife artist completed in London in 1838.
The set was one of fewer than 200 produced. “I’d heard about them before, but I didn’t know anything about them. And the woman there says, ‘We had a set just like this that we sold four years ago for like $12 million.’ It could have been eight. I’m not sure, but it was a lot. It immediately had kind of sparked my imagination, like a fantasy.”
Slowly a germ of an idea began to form.
One day Reinhard and Lipka were sat in a car smoking weed when they started to discuss the idea of stealing the books.
What followed was an extraordinary tale of amateur criminals.
In between studying for exams Reinhard scoped out the library for security and found just a solitary librarian who required visitors to sign in and out.
Meanwhile Lipka worked on the problem of what to do with the books once they got them.
Eventually tracking down a “underworld contact” called Barry who gave them an email address in return for $500.
The two friends created an email account and sent a message claiming to have unspecified books in their possession.
“You need to come to Amsterdam”, came the reply.
Travelling on a fake passport – again supplied by their underworld fixer – he met four men who although put off by his youth and angry he did not have the books with him told him crucial step of selling rare books: appraisal by a legitimate auction house.
After researching auction houses online, they singled out Christie’s in New York – “because no one would go to Christie’s with stolen books to get them appraised.”
Who was in the crew?
Back in the US it was apparent that they were going to need help so they racked their brains over who they could trust.
Lipka’s old fake ID pal Borsuk was soon co-opted over pitchers of beer and pizza.
Then over the 2004 summer break from college they met Chas Allen – the fourth member of the gang – who was cutting lawns with Borsuk as a part time job.
In the autumn Lipka, skint after dropping out of college and closing down his fake ID business, moved into an unfurnished basement and focused full-time on the heist plan.
After initially laughing at the plan Allen apparently decided to join them.
In between football practice, classes, painting, and studying, Reinhard drew detailed sketches of the inside of the Special Collections Library and the adjacent Rare Book Room, making several appointments with the Special Collections librarian, Betty Jean Gooch, to scout the premises.
The others spent time in the library, too, taking notes on staff routines and movements and escape routes.
The men climbed onto dorm roofs and staked out the library for hours at a time, marking down the comings and goings of teachers, students, and security personnel.
They also searched the Internet, using such key terms as “auction house appraisals,” “stun guns,” and “Swiss bank accounts.”
For inspiration, they watched heist films like Ocean’s 11 and Snatch.
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