BIRDS OF A FEATHER
New movie revisits the Transy Heist, and regrets and redemption
BY JOSHUA CAUDILL
“College is a fantasy. It’s the place where people sip red cups. It’s not even a real place,” Warren Lipka says. The man often described as the “ringleader” of the infamous 2004 Transy heist told us in a recent interview, “Every day, I try to hold to those ideals, because it’s way more grounding than the alternative. It’s about striving to be something different and not letting something define you. I’m in a happy place and I hope that somebody watches [American Animals] and says, ‘Hey, we’ve got a friend like Spencer, like Warren or Chas or Eric’ —or some connection where people are able to stop each other from doing something crazy.”
You can’t just drop in on the Farris Rare Book Room at Transylvania University. A librarian must accompany you; there’s a code just to access the door; and visits are by appointment only.
There’s a reason for that.
It’s home to a multi-million dollar collection that includes Audubon’s Birds of America, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and books with a provenance that dates back to kings.
But on December 17, 2004, the Rare Book Room served as the setting for its own story when it became the target of four college students trying to pull off what is now known as the “Transy Book Heist.”
Sounds like a movie, right?
“This is not based on a true story. This is a true story,” reads the opening card of the upcoming film American Animals opening in June 2018.
Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Eric Borsuk, and Charles “Chas” Allen, were college students. Three had attended Lexington Catholic together before going on to UK. Reinhard attended Tates Creek before going on to Transy. They were good kids from good families who concocted an implausible plan whose scope stretched from the Bluegrass to New York and even Amsterdam. The crime would involve rare books, multiple disguises, Reservoir Dogs aliases, an esteemed New York auction house, a minivan, and a longform profile in Vanity Fair.
“We all love a heist movie,” American Animals director Bart Layton told us in an interview shortly before the film’s national release. “I was intrigued to understand what would lead them to go through with something like this when it seemed so obvious that it could never have really ended well or that they could never seriously been convinced that they could get away with it.”
Far from a college caper, Layton saw it as a story of young lost men desperately searching for an identity. “We now live in a culture where our value in the world is connected to our notoriety. They were living the American Dream. Their parents had nice houses, they had nice cars in the driveway, lovely comfortable lives —but for them, that was mediocrity rather than success.”
The original plan was a documentary, but the final product is a feature film, augmented by interviews with the real people from the real story providing their own, sometimes conflicting Rashomon-style recollection of events, on camera.
Layton says, “I want it to be a thought-provoking film, a rollercoaster white-knuckle thriller. It’s a heist movie so I want it to deliver that experience but I also want it to leave you thinking about the pressure upon young people to live a so-called interesting ‘special’ life.”
Eric recalls,“We were approached by a lot of filmmakers who wanted to turn this into something similar to the movie 21. We turned people down. We felt like we had a story to tell, something to say, and wanted it as raw and honest as possible.”
“It’s agonizing,” Warren says. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done. I hope that somebody can see something in this because it’s a brutal exercise.” He adds, “When you’re working on that type of delusion and crazy, you’re so far gone at that point…It’s how radicals think and it’s how perspective is lost.”
Chas says, “I feel like they did a good job at not glamorizing and not glorifying what actually happened, and they just told a story in a way that also humanizes what we experienced.”
Spencer admits, “It’s not something I enjoy talking about or remembering, but it’s a story that is relatable to a lot of people and can have a positive impact on others.”
A Transy employee who was working the day the events took place told us, “One thing this has done has made me question our use of tragedy for entertainment.”
Spencer is optimistic about a better outcome. He says, “I hope people come away with the feeling that we are different people and that they see we paid heavily for what we did and that I feel remorse and regret. Hopefully, people can connect to the story and can learn from this huge mistake we made in our lives.”
Eric adds, “We felt our story had something important to say in terms of society, modern American society, post 9/11, Gen Y kids with what we were going through trying to find our identity,” Eric said. “I think everyone in their life experiences this desire to rebel and put it all behind and run away. I think people can connect with that, but at the same time, this serves as a cautionary tale.”
“It’s mentally hard to go back to this,” Eric says, “but for whatever reason, I rationalized it. I think throughout the whole planning phase that I rationalized it by going, ‘As long as I don’t have to be in the room when it’s happening, I can somehow keep pushing this fantasy along further.’ That’s originally what it was—a fantasy…No one thought it was actually going to happen. Something will eventually stop us.”
Channeling the distant memories, Eric recalls the surrealism of being in the Rare Book Room at Transy, loading up the books and being faced with the reality of the self-destructive fantasy.
“I felt like at that point, when that happened, my life just switched train tracks,” Eric said. “There was a life before that moment and a life after that moment.”
“When I watch the movie [American Animals], it’s revolting in a sense,” Eric says. “I’m such a different person that the thought of being in a crime where a woman was tied up, is something I can’t even imagine. But we wouldn’t be the people that we are now if hadn’t gone through that. Prison changed us in that way.”
When he thinks back on the 20-year old version of himself, he sees a kid who felt like he had his back against the wall and was terrified of being stuck in a life that he had come to loathe.
For Warren, 87 months was a good amount of time to say he’s sorry and he knows with American Animals hitting theaters that people will form opinions of him. He’s fine with it because the movie had an unanticipated consequence none of them could have foreseen.
During the Sundance Film Festival’s post premiere Q and A, director Bart Layton told the audience that Transy Librarian B.J. Gooch had glimpsed a more empathetic view of how lost the boys were through the movie footage the filmmakers had shown her.
Warren says, “She was able to get some peace and get some closure from it and hearing that, man…hearing that was the most rewarding thing…that’s the stuff right there.”
Once the four were arrested, there was no trial to determine guilt or innocence. Everyone pleaded guilty. Spencer’s attorneys were very straightforward with the family, “‘you’re going to get 5-10 years.’” After being arrested in February of 2005, Spencer wasn’t sentenced until December that same year, and wouldn’t begin his sentence until January 2006.
Spencer was “discovered” as an artist in kindergarten, when he drew a near perfect representation of a stuffed owl on the teacher’s desk for an art assignment.
Nearly 20 years later, Spencer would find himself completing art projects inside the confines of his prison cell. He immediately got involved in the prison painting program. He was transferred from Kentucky to a New Jersey prison in 2008. The painting program was better there. He had more time and room to work on larger projects. Eventually he became the instructor for the class.
At the end of American Animals, the film says that Spencer now “specializes in bird art,” (some of which appears throughout the film).
It seems like an apparent nod to the Audubon paintings he and his friends tried to steal, but he says, “The bird art happened naturally. I started to get into bird watching a little bit in prison because that was kind of the only exposure to nature that we had.”
His interest in bird watching peaked after he was released in 2012. He went on to join the Central Kentucky Audubon Society, and would lead tours and go birding. Those interests naturally crossed over into his artwork.
One of the glaring questions that Spencer still gets asked to this day is “Why?” Why would a talented artist and a college soccer player find himself spending the majority of his 20s behind bars? It was never about money. The theory the film raises is the need for a life altering moment.
“Rather than [life] going down this easy, winding path, all of a sudden, you’re falling off a cliff, so I was kind of blind to the consequences and the selfishness in ignoring how it was going to affect other people,” adding, “It’s been a number of years since I got out and I’ve put a lot of dedication into trying to make up for that.”
Would life have worked out the way it has for him — successful artist and husband, proud father — if he hadn’t gone to prison?
“It’s a complicated issue,” he says. “I’m very happy now. I have a happy family and a beautiful daughter and wife and a lot to be thankful for so it’s hard to regret something that has led me to this place but at the same time, I regret that I could have been capable of something like that and hurting innocent people, and hurting my family. [But] I wouldn’t be the person that I am now if I hadn’t gone through that experience.”
Steve and Anita Reinhard were hurt, anguished even.
At a time when most parents were packing their kids up for their next college semester, Steve and Anita spent Christmas of 2005 consumed by the prospect of dropping their son off at the prison in Ashland, Kentucky where he would begin to serve his seven-and-a-half-year sentence.
The two remember that February morning in 2005 well. Steve, a field service engineer for General Electric, was in the basement when the doorbell rang at 7:30 in the morning. It was the FBI.
“They’re saying that they’re here to inspect his car,” Steve remembers.
“The FBI agents had this warrant to inspect the car because they wanted to find evidence of them taking this trip to New York and Christie’s.” Steve said. “I asked, ‘What’s going on?’ They wouldn’t say. About 10:30 a.m., Spencer calls up and says, ‘Dad, remember that robbery at Transy a few months ago?’ Yeah, I kind of vaguely remember.’ He says, ‘Well, I was a part of that robbery but I’m not in too much trouble’ because in his mind, being the lookout and up in a building, he didn’t feel like he was a big part of that. But of course, being naïve of the law, it was a conspiracy —so if one is guilty, they’re all guilty — of the same crime.”
According to Spencer, his parents were amazing through the whole thing. They were in shock, but they didn’t want to make the situation harder. They knew it wouldn’t make a difference.
“It wasn’t up to us to punish him,” Anita said. “As parents, you always try to fix things and it was something that we weren’t going to be able to fix.”
Spencer was grateful for the approach.
“My parents were always willing to forgive mistakes even on this scale and I had a pretty clean record through my youth up until this point,” Spencer said. “So, it was like I was saving all of my mistakes for one big one.”
For the Reinhards, the holidays were somber that year. This would be the last Easter, the last Thanksgiving, and the last Christmas before Spencer was to go away. What do you give your son for Christmas when he can’t take anything with him?
Every two weeks, they made the two-hour trip to Ashland with a ziploc bag filled with change, which they’d use for the vending machines. Over the course of a visitation, Spencer and his parents would just sit and talk and share vending machine food.
Later, when other parents might have been imagining their college-age kids transferring to another school, Spencer was instead transferred to a New Jersey prison (nearly 11 hours away, but with the advantage of a better art program). The visits dwindled from a few times a month to a few times a year.
He concentrated on his art and completing his sentence. Like a son checking in for curfew, Spencer called his parents every Sunday night and every Thursday night.
While locked away, he missed his sister’s high school graduation, college graduation, and every holiday. Anita told his siblings, “You can’t get married until he’s out.” She smiles slightly at the joke, but notes the fact that neither sibling married until Spencer was released.
Today, going from room to room in the Reinhards’ home in a comfortable suburb on Lexington’s southside, the walls are a shrine to their son’s artwork. Near the couch where the couple sat for their interview in American Animals, is the portrait Spencer did of his grandparents. Steve and Anita take them off the walls to provide a closer look and tell the backstory behind each piece.
“What was so amazing about his stay in prison is that he didn’t waste his time,” Steve said.
With the movie set for release, they plan to watch the film in theaters (Steve can’t wait to see it), and revisit the beginning of their son’s transformation into the man he is now. They hope that the audience, and Lexington, especially, will have some understanding.
“I hope that they see that even if a kid makes a mistake, he served his debt to society and now he’s moved on, he’s a good citizen, husband and a dad,” Anita said. “He didn’t let it ruin his life.”
None of the Borsuks saw it coming. No one did. Eric recalls his sister crying at the jail when his family arrived.
Before the arrest, Eric would seek solitude in the in a hidden room in the basement of the bungalow on Beaumont where they had stashed the stolen books. He found some solace as he leafed through the pages of the old manuscripts. He’d read Darwin’s section about these creatures in Kentucky who reverted back into the caves and without the need for vision, evolved with empty eye sockets. Darwin referred to them as, “American Animals.”
He began sleeping in a hoodie, sweats and shoes, ready to bolt at a moment’s notice. “Every night, I was kind of living in this paranoid sleepless state, going to bed fully-dressed, waiting for them to kick the door in,” Eric said. “You never know if it’s real or not, so it really messes with your head. One night, it just happens.”
When he heard the boom from the SWAT team entering the house, he froze, trying to process everything. He looked around the room to see what he should gather —phone, wallet —he pauses, he knows he doesn’t need these anymore. He listens as law enforcement roams the house snatching everyone up. “Drop the gun!” he hears someone yell at Chas, expecting the sound of gunfire to follow. For a panic-stricken moment, Eric considers jumping out the window and escaping through a hole in the fence, but decides to open the door with his hands up and accept fate.
After a week in county jail, the judge mandated that they all get jobs while they awaited sentencing. It gave Eric time to say his goodbyes.
The former Lexington Catholic soccer standout who had dreams of majoring in accounting and later joining the FBI, found himself in a prison alongside his two best friends, Warren and Spencer, just four days before his 21st birthday.
According to Eric, they were finding themselves and seeing a side of life they never would have known before. They immersed themselves in the experience, and would even set up classes for themselves.
Warren says, “I remember sitting in Lexington Green and going to Joseph Beth Bookstore and Eric and I would make lists of all of the literary giants and everything we wanted to read and when we were in — we took [those] lists with us and we chipped away at them… We’d sit and discuss almost like a book club but much more intimate. The only thing to do was to work out and read. It was a very constructive first few years.”
“We found ourselves in this enlightened reality where we completely accepted our roles in the crime, pled guilty and felt like we did everything we were supposed to do,” Eric said. “For the first time, we felt a real relief when we got into federal prison.”
Two years into the sentence, Eric was at the commissary. He had just slipped his list of items underneath the bulletproof window featuring coffee, chips, anything to get through the week.
He was told to immediately go to the Lieutenant’s office, the prison equivalent of the principal’s office. He knew it was something bad.
“They told me I was being put in “The Shoe,” a special housing unit,” Eric said. “They wouldn’t tell me anything except, ‘You have to come with us and we’re taking you to ‘the hole.’ They told me at some point that I was being separated from Warren and Spencer.”
Confused and in shock, it would be a week before the three discovered why they were being punished. The Assistant U.S. Attorney had read the three’s interview with John Falk in Vanity Fair and misinterpreted a quote by Warren as evidence of a potential conspiracy for future crimes.
“The AUSA contacted the warden and claimed we were a threat to society by being together because of this [Vanity Fair] article,” Eric said. “We were blown away. It’s clearly your right to talk to the press and we felt like we had done the right thing.”
Spencer and Warren were shipped out to different prisons but Eric was allowed to remain in Ashland. “I guess they liked me the best,” he says ruefully.
Eric contacted the journalist pleading for help. Falk essentially wrote a signed affidavit saying they had taken his words out of context. But it was too late. Once you’re shipped out, you don’t come back.
Eric’s entire prison existence to that point had been served with his two friends. Now he would be on his own.
“I eventually came to see it as a positive,” Eric said. “Because we all had our own individual prison experiences and we all made different friends, different stories afterward.”
On his own, Eric soon resumed his childhood passion—writing. He’d always loved it, but when he was at Lexington Catholic, soccer was his top priority.
In prison, those two priorities were reversed. His daily routine was broken up into three phases: writing until lunch, exercising and then reading for the rest of the day. While prisoners were only permitted to have five books in their cell at a time, Eric estimates he had 50 at any given time.
After years of feeling misrepresented or misunderstood by his hometown Lexington media, Eric is now working as a writer in California with a memoir on the way and plans for a prison novel. He’s anxious for the film to tell the real story — so their families can know what happened, for others to understand and get something positive out of it.
Surrounded by “convicts and gangbangers” at a prison in Elkton, Ohio, Warren screamed at the TV as his younger brother Josh, a University of Louisville soccer player, played in the national championship.
The optics weren’t lost on the former collegiate soccer player — the son of a college soccer coach — now reduced to watching his brother on ESPN from behind bars. But Warren had grown accustomed to missing out on special things—birthdays, Christmases, weddings, and even funerals.
Warren, a charismatic character, was often dubbed the “ringleader” of the Transy Book Heist. The gifted actor, Evan Peters, plays Warren in the movie’s starring role. Warren sees himself more like “the ridiculous face of the operation.”
He says, “With all of the state’s evidence included, my correspondence and field pictures and super dumb shit that made me look like the ringleader, the reality was no one made that claim other than the government because it’s a tool to get people more time.”
He suffered unique consequences because of the Vanity Fair article where he told the interviewer, “We will be stronger, better, wiser for going through this together, the three of us. Before, in college, growing up, we were being funneled into this mundane, nickel-and-dime existence. Now we can’t ever go back there. Even if we wanted to, they won’t let us. That was the point all along. See, we have no choice now but to create something new, someplace else. Believe me, you haven’t heard the last of us yet.”
Instead of interpreting his statement in the way he says he intended — as the three of them moving on from this as better people who would make something of their lives — the AUSA considered his comments a threat for another heist. As a result, Warren was put in isolation for months, and was transferred to other prisons in an experience he characterizes as “Con Air.”
He says, “You’ve got to divorce yourself from the idea that justice and punishment have anything to do with incarceration because at this point, what they did from what we said in an article in a magazine, was wholly unjustified,” adding, “I definitely bristle at the idea of the word ‘privilege’ because I didn’t feel privileged when I was sitting in the hole for four months.”
He ended up in FCI Elkton, describing the brutality he saw there as “gladiator school.”
After keeping his head down for two years in Elkton, he discovered a religion program called Life Connections Program that allowed him to transfer to Petersburg, VA “which as far as institutions go, was much more relaxed and not nearly as violent,”
There were moments of comic relief within the veritable comedy of errors that surrounded actually getting caught. Each guy understood they were going to jail at different points, adding to the constant paranoia.
Spencer had received a phone call from the FBI pretending to be an auction house in Philadelphia. Eric’s moment came when the mail lady knocked on the door and wanted an updated list of everyone living in the house. It sounded reasonable but he was suspicious. Had the feds gotten to the mail lady?
In one instant, at the house on Beaumont, it all changed for Warren. In a story that strains credulity, he says he was sitting inside, smoking, when a cop in a trench coat and fedora walks up to the house, cups his hands to shield his eyes from the outside light to look into the house.
“We’re all sitting there like, ‘Who the hell is this?’ He gets startled and he turns and briskly walks around the corner and we’re in our boxers and we walk out, turn the corner and watch him get in a white unmarked van and peel off,” Warren said. “We were like, ‘We’re going to jail.’”
The anxiety was enormous but Warren and the guys had been looking for relief ever since things fell through at Christie’s. As Warren tells it, there was something about coming back to Lexington having failed that provided a short-lived peace.
“It was like, ‘Maybe we can come back to the real world and start being real people again,’” Warren said. “We didn’t have to meet with anybody in shady dealings; I can just go to class tomorrow. It was nice to re-pretend we were normal students when we knew we did these terrible things.”
When Warren was finally arrested, it felt as if a weight was lifted because it was bringing them one step closer to being normal people again. Maybe it was over.
Inside, he had plenty of time to think about who he wanted to be and who he didn’t want to be. At a certain point, he devoted himself to the idea of how he wanted to re-enter society when go out.
He had family in Philadelphia who encouraged him to go back to school post-release. When he got out, the first thing he remembers was eating at Cracker Barrel (in a weird coincidence, that was also Chas’s first meal post-release) and worked while he attended Temple University, where he got his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree and is now pursuing filmmaking.
“I served my time. I started to pay attention to the people around me. Every day, I try to make myself better and achieve something that people would be proud of,” Warren said. “I can’t stress enough, the impact of sitting and talking with people who will never leave prison, who will be there until they die,” adding, “If you think there’s just bad people in prison, you don’t know a thing about prison.”
He says, “I think it changed me for the better.”
The movie opens in June. Is it tragedy? Is it entertainment? Critics and audiences will find some of both. Ultimately, the Transy Book Heist crew found salvation through self destruction.
Going into prison as boys, they came out redeemed men with a new chance and a new perspective. By discussing this existential journey they set out on nearly 15 years ago for an audience, they’re making their peace with their own kind of graduation day.
American Animals opens in theaters in June 2018.
This story also appears in the June 1 print edition of Ace.
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