Of Rich Kids and Rare Book Theft
July 5, 2018
American Animals and the Various “Nonfictions” of a True Crime
American Animals is an excellent movie. It is also a load of hooey — beginning with writer/director Bart Layton’s assurance that his film is not based on a true story but rather is a true story. In fact, it is a creative, thoughtful, mostly accurate, and interesting film that suffers the same glaring flaws as all previous efforts at accounting for the crime at its center — and it leaves out the best part of the whole episode, to boot.
From nearly the moment four college boys were found to be responsible for the violent and haphazard theft of rare books from a small Kentucky college, the media has spooned-out the easily digestible story that these were good kids gone wrong — a local adult is quoted saying they had one bad moment — and the ringleader was a mastermind tripped up by sour luck. But the fact is these were not good kids — they were white kids and they were affluent kids, but there was little about them that was good. And the idea than any of them — much less their ringleader, Warren Lipka — was a criminal mastermind is absurd. They were the stupidest thieves in the history of rare book crime.
December 17, 2004, was not a cold day, even by the standards of Kentucky, so when a man calling himself Walter Beckman walked into the lobby of the Transylvania University library wearing gloves, hat, and a heavy coat, he looked out of place. Betty Jean “BJ” Gooch, the Special Collections librarian, noticed it right away. She also noticed that Beckman did not look like a man at all, but rather like a college kid. That was strange, because in his emails, he told her he was a businessman. It would be several weeks before she found out he was not even Walter Beckman, but rather Warren Lipka — a son of local privilege, one-time scholarship soccer player at the University of Kentucky, and, just then, a young thug about to prove the rule that ineptitude is no bar to criminal success as long as you pick the right victim.
Gooch escorted Lipka into the Special Collections area on the second floor of the library and the two made small talk along the way. Chit-chat is a standard librarian tool for drawing out the needs of the patron, but in this case, Gooch was genuinely curious. Lipka had missed their first scheduled meeting because, he later told her, he was called out of town on business. But as they were talking, Lipka contradicted himself, admitting he was not a businessman but rather a student at UK, up late the night before studying.
In fact, Lipka had come to the earlier meeting — but he was dressed in heavy makeup applied by his accomplice Spencer Reinhard to make him look like an old man. Convincingly aging a younger man to look old is the sort of thing that takes years of training, and, at the very least, several hours in a makeup chair. These two slapped together their disguise in less than an hour and, predictably, were basically laughed out of the library by the first people who saw them.
The old-man makeup might seem like a small point, but American Animals spends an inordinate amount of time on it. Bart Layton opens the film with it, then later lingers as the four boys, on the first date of the crime, get ready for their close-ups. In his version of events, the makeup is not ludicrous or poorly applied — far from being laughed out of the library, the boys that day come close to their goal only to be foiled by a circumstance outside their control. Layton is sympathetic to them, probably because no one wants to watch — much less make — a film about four inept but privileged boys assaulting a librarian and stealing books. But there is no getting around what the old man disguises signify — ridiculous boys who’d seen too many movies playing at being real criminals.
A few months earlier, Gooch’s mother had fallen gravely ill and so she had been spending a lot of time between work and the hospital. It was something she mentioned to Lipka in an earlier communication, so he would know that her schedule was spotty, and might change in an instant. It was also why she was willing to meet him even after he stood her up.
Heading into Special Collections, she pressed the overdressed young man for details, and he did not disappoint, revealing an enormous amount about himself. In the months and years following this crime there would be much made about the amount of time and effort the four boys had put into the theft of rare books — and Lipka himself would be, more than once, referred to as a “mastermind.” But the clear truth about the planning and execution of this crime was that the only thing worse than Lipka’s scheme was his ability to improvise. Other than pretending his name was Walter Beckman — an homage to the soccer player David Beckham — Lipka had not created a believable fiction for who he was or why he wanted to see the books, much less rehearsed answers to predictable questions. So he answered Gooch not as “Beckman” but as himself. If the walk with Gooch had been any longer, he probably would have copped to his real name, and announced that his father was the coach of the UK women’s soccer team. Instead, they arrived at their destination and Lipka asked Gooch if he could have a friend join them. Gooch was surprised, but said it was okay.
Lipka phoned Eric Borsuk, the third leg of this rickety stool of a gang. Lipka and Borsuk had earlier been partners in a lucrative criminal enterprise that made and sold fake IDs but had had a falling out over the disappearance of $2,000. (Lipka was something of a serial thief, stealing from friends, strangers, and local stores alike.) They had only come together again over the matter of a supposed $12 million in easily obtainable rare books. Borsuk was waiting in the lobby.
Several miles away in a college-kid apartment that smelled of spilled beer and marijuana smoke, there was a handwritten document sitting next to an ashtray. According to that piece of paper, Borsuk’s arrival signaled the beginning of Phase Two.
Layton gets many things right in American Animals, but none more so than this: the boys spent a lot of time smoking pot and watching heist movies. But what Layton does not seem to understand is that getting high and watching heist movies was not so much a hobby as it was the bulk of the planning for the robbery. Lipka was so heavily influenced by Ocean’s Eleven, in particular, that it might be said to be his Catcher in the Rye. Lipka wanted to be Danny Ocean, a wish that manifested itself not only in his quoting of the movie, but in his actual planning. And if it wasn’t bad enough that he took his criminal lessons from Hollywood movies, he for some reason took the wrong lessons from them.
For instance, in Ocean’s Eleven the title role is played by George Clooney. In one influential scene, he informs Brad Pitt’s exhausted character that their group of ten thieves “need one more.” In reality, what Lipka and Reinhard needed was not one more, but one less. Rare book theft is best committed by a single thief. But that’s not the way it was done on the big screen. If Danny Ocean got one more, Warren Lipka would, too. In the movie that one more was an expert pick-pocket played by Matt Damon; in Lexington, Kentucky, it was Borsuk.
At a later point — when the boys had added yet another accomplice, Chas Allen — there was a scene lifted directly from another heist movie, this one Reservoir Dogs. Lipka derisively named Allen “Mr. Pink,” an occurrence that led to an argument in real life just as it had in the movie. Which is to say, this supposed criminal mastermind not only added another accomplice that he did not need or like (or, in the end, use for the one role he intended him for: to carry books) but from the start began to alienate him by giving him a code name that the boys neither needed nor used.
Allen, for his part, later explained that he came to terms with the name Mr. Pink because he was the lone character in Reservoir Dogs who got away with a suitcase full of stolen diamonds. Which is, true to form, wrong. Mr. Pink did not get away at the end of that movie, just as Allen does not get away at the end of this one.
American Animals, in its attempt to rehabilitate the boys, portrays them as reluctant to assault Gooch. It’s a narrative technique meant to soften a brutal encounter, and to reaffirm the otherwise likable image we have of them up to that point. But the truth is less sympathetic. The seven steps of Phase Two, written out beforehand, mention the librarian nine times, noting menacingly that Lipka “brings Gooch down hard and fast” and that “Gooch [is] a non-factor throughout the operation.” The phrase “once Gooch is secure” appeared twice. The petite, 50-something librarian, exhausted and preoccupied by the poor health of her mother, was treated by the boys not as a human being but as one more obstacle to be dispatched.
Like Phase One before it, Phase Two went wrong from the start: the plan called for Lipka to attack Gooch before Borsuk arrived — but when the latter got there the librarian was still upright and chatting about books. Lipka introduced his friend, who did not know quite what to do — he had to invent a name, for one — and then shut the door behind him. Only then did they fully commit. With courage supplied by his companion’s arrival, Lipka pulled from his pocket a device called a Black Cobra 150,000 Volt Stun Gun Pen and began jabbing Gooch in the arm with it.
This fearsome-sounding tool was, in fact, more toy than weapon — a small, pen-like device charged by AAA batteries. The boys knew it could not stun an adult into submission because they had practiced on each other. They had wanted a more powerful stun gun that could incapacitate an adult — further giving the lie to their later representations about their reluctance to assault Gooch — but neither that weapon, nor the collapsible baton they ordered along with it, had arrived. (Layton’s movie leaves this part out altogether.) They bought this little thing on short notice because someone had at some point written a stun gun into the plan, and that was that. Like everything else with this crime, the stun pen was a disaster — not only was it useless in the short term but in the aftermath it would cause them no end of trouble.
The physical act of poking Gooch did more damage than the electric jolt, which made an annoying crackling sound but offered no real punch. So Lipka simply tackled her to the floor. Then he zip-tied her hands and feet, attempted to gag her, and pulled a stocking cap over her head — threatening her all the time with more pain if she resisted. Gooch was terrified, and told the boys as much. Still, they kept on, telling her that if she resisted they would hurt her again. As she lay there on the floor writhing in pain and terror, she wondered if she would ever see her husband again, and who would take care of her mother if she was killed.
This nearly fool-proof act — the subduing of a smaller, older, surprised woman by two college boys — represented the only thing in the heist that went even remotely according to plan.
Physical violence, as it happens, has no place in successful rare book theft. There is only one sure way to steal enormous amounts of rare and antiquarian books without getting caught. Here it is: First, graduate from college. Second, take an advanced degree in History, Art History, Classics, German, or English. Third, get a Master of Library Science degree while working as a graduate assistant in a university Special Collections. You will then be in a pretty good position to get hired at a place where you will have access to all the old books and manuscripts you could ever steal. You will also know what books to take that no one will miss, how to cover your tracks, and who in the field might be interested in buying them.