Of Rich Kids and Rare Book Theft:
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.
In short, the best way to commit rare book theft is the opposite of a violent, daylight raid involving popular and recognizable books, several perpetrators, and no reliable fence. If rare book theft had a manual, committing the crime quietly, alone, and after years of training would be the entire first chapter. The epilogue — the worst way to commit the crime — would feature four college boys from Kentucky. But, of course, Danny Ocean never went to library school.
With Gooch on the ground, Lipka and Borsuk went about trying to gather the books she had set out for them. In an earlier email, Lipka had told Gooch he would like to see “the famous Audubon books, the first addition [sic] Darwin, and any of the Illuminated Manuscripts.”
There are generally two types of Special Collections patrons. The first is the expert — the scholar who knows what he or she is looking for and asks for it in particular. The second is the tourist — someone who wants to see the gems, regardless of subject matter or era, as they might in a museum. These people will often request the oldest or most valuable thing in the collection. Lipka represented himself as the former but acted like the latter. He told Gooch he had experience with books, but his requests suggested he just wanted to see the good stuff.
In fact, not only was Lipka not an expert, he was the opposite of that. Despite his representations to Gooch and the supposed months of planning that went into the crime, neither he nor Borsuk had any clue about what they were stealing. It was Reinhard who had taken the tour of the Special Collections that first set the heist in motion. Since then, neither Lipka nor Borsuk had made the effort to really understand their target books. That was a problem, because John James Audubon’s Birds of North America is not a book by any normal reckoning — it is more like a collection of wall hangings with a cover on it. Each volume is the size of a kitchen table and twice as heavy. And there are four volumes. By way of comparison, each Birds print is eight inches taller and four inches wider than the Mona Lisa.
The University of Illinois used to have a copy on display — before a rash of thefts at other places forced them to shelve it — and every week it took two librarians just to turn the page. In order to get the entire cumbersome set of books out of the Transylvania library and into their waiting van, the boys would have needed a hand truck, or several trips. Instead, they had brought a pink bed sheet. They opened it on the library floor, and began trying to organize their getaway.
They managed to get three of the four Birds volumes on the sheet — they were unable to pry the other volume from its drawer — and only then became aware of their central problem: the size of the things they were stealing. They were not the first book thieves to be defeated by what they stole. In 1969, a young man broke in at night to the Widener Library at Harvard University, smashed a glass case, lifted out two volumes of the enormous Gutenberg Bible, and tried to make his escape out a fifth floor window by means of a knotted rope. It came to grief. The books were much heavier than he had planned for and he fell to the courtyard below, where a janitor later found him. The Gutenberg was fine.
Lipka’s solution in this case was to just take two volumes, assuming they were worth roughly half of what a full set was worth, instead of what they were actually worth: nothing. No one was going to buy half a set of Audubon’s Birds of North America once word got out — as it immediately would — that half a set had been stolen. But for the Lipka, the Audubons had to be taken. For one thing, he already told Christie’s auction house that he owned the books. (In his email to them he also again mistook the term “addition” for “edition.”) For another, there was the idea, pounded into his head by repetition, that they were worth the $12 million he so desperately wanted. Without the Audubons, they were just two boys standing in a quiet room over a bound-and-gagged librarian.
With that decision made, they crammed their backpacks with the other books Gooch had set out for them. One of these, Audubon’s Quadrupeds of North America, was another item Lipka told a Christie’s representative he had. The boys grabbed two of the three-volume set. They also took a first edition On the Origin of the Species ($25,000), an illuminated manuscript from 1425 ($200,000) and several other books that helped add another half million dollars to their tally. After that, they gathered in their arms two volumes of Birds and made their escape. In their wake they left Gooch, the abandoned Audubons, and that unfolded pink bed sheet.
The plan was to take the elevator down to the main level and then head for an emergency exit, but the lift had a mind of its own, and it went instead to the basement. They couldn’t find their way out. In their struggle to get the elevator to go where they wanted it to go, they alerted Susan Brown, the director of the library, who immediately gave chase. (Gooch, for her part, had by that point managed to get out of the ski mask and to a telephone.) Criminals of even average talent would have by then found a way out of the library, but these two — again, despite their supposed months of planning — could not find a fire exit. Dropping the Audubons in their wake like so much ballast as they sprinted from the pursuing librarian, they finally made it out the back door.
The fourth member of their gang, Chas Allen, witnessed this from the vantage point of his mom’s Dodge Caravan. Layton’s movie plays up the amusing aspect of having a minivan as their escape vehicle but, true to form, does not explain why the boys were in this predicament. Borsuk was responsible for providing their “get to and away vehicle” — abbreviated as GTAV in their plan — but on the morning of the event his connection fell through, so Chas volunteered his mom’s van. The only hitch was he had to have it back home by 12:30 so she could sell it.
Allen saw the two boys break out of the library like they were running for their lives. Borsuk headed straight for the van but Lipka, in a full panic, ran up a nearby hill. Then Allen saw the reason: close behind them was the librarian. Borsuk made it to the van and Allen sped off, asking first where Lipka went and second where the books were. Allen turned and went back for Lipka, at one point almost hitting Brown, and eventually coaxed the mastermind into the van.
With Lipka finally on board, and the trailing librarian in the rearview, the boys made their escape out onto the surface roads of Lexington. The mood was somber. Having jettisoned their loads running from Brown, the boys thought they had gotten away with nothing. Then they checked their packs and found out the truth: they had a lot.
Still, the second act of their little production did not end well. Lipka played out another famous scene from a heist movie, though not on purpose. Just like the hapless pretend-criminal played by Sean Bean in the 1998 Robert De Niro actioner Ronin, just after their first brush with criminal action, Lipka puked his guts out.
And then things got bad.
In the months and years after the crime there was a rush to capitalize on it; the many elements of the heist seemed made for popular consumption. There were four college buddies from good homes, there were valuable and recognizable rare books, there was millions of dollars, and there was the theft itself. In a media environment mad about true crime, this one seemed tailor made. Unfortunately, the people who told the story got it constantly wrong, settling, for whatever reason, on one or two themes: good kids gone bad, and criminal geniuses. Neither of these was true.
The fictionalization of this story began in the fall of 2006, with an episode of the television series Masterminds. In it, the crime was portrayed as the meticulously-planned work of criminal genius Warren Lipka. He was driven to the crime, the show suggested, by his father’s financial problems. Masterminds, like most of the true-crime reenactment shows, was faithful to showmanship above anything else. So while much of the story was technically accurate, the truth was stretched. For instance, the part of head librarian Susan Brown was played by 21-year-old actress whose other film credits included Bikini Spring Break and Frat Party. The role of BJ Gooch was similarly cast. And the ultimate conclusion of the show was that, despite meticulous planning, and having “pulled off the perfect heist,” the boys were undone by shortsightedness in their attempts to sell the books.
A year later, a far more in-depth piece on the subject appeared in Vanity Fair. John Falk interviewed three of the boys — Allen, the only one who ever showed a shred of intelligence, did not participate — and wrote an article that portrayed them, and their crime, in a mostly favorable light. Why the boys agreed to speak with Falk, given the fact that they were not only in prison but also in the midst of an appeal, is unclear, but it was almost certainly because of the two things that compelled their crime in the first place: money and fame. Like the rest of their decisions, they were wrong here, too — they got fame of the sort that did not help their appeal and very little money. (Lipka claimed he got $500 from the magazine, placed directly into his prison commissary account.)
Falk, like Masterminds before him, went to some length to imbue the crime with significance. He noted that the crime would one day be listed “among the FBI’s all-time most significant art-theft cases” — an entirely meaningless claim. What Falk actually did was show how ridiculous — and ultimately unrepentant — these boys were.
Driving his mom’s minivan at high speed must have focused Chas Allen’s thinking, because within a minute of leaving campus he became so paranoid that cops would be looking for three men fitting their description — something that had apparently not occurred to him at any point before he actually had the guys in the vehicle — that he suddenly stopped and kicked out a panicked Borsuk and Lipka in the predominantly African-American housing project they were going through. Allen’s one job in this caper was the escape — which Layton would have us believe he had practiced until he’d gotten down to a science — but in the event, he made a complete hash of it, compounding their problems by putting Borsuk and Lipka, not to mention the books, in immediate danger. Allen promised to return shortly in a different car.
As Falk describes it in Vanity Fair, Borsuk and Lipka were soon put to the chase by a couple of local “thugs.” It was then that the boys, weighed down by a million dollars of stolen books and scared for their safety, began trying to flag down a police cruiser. Put another way, in the first hour after the crime, as most of Lexington PD were looking for them, they were looking for anyone from Lexington PD. Neither party was successful, and Allen showed up just in time to save them from themselves.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a group of boys in possession of a bunch of stolen books must be in want of a buyer. In this case, Reinhard later told Falk, they chose Christie’s auction house using the amusing logic that “no one would go to Christie’s with stolen books.” It went about as well as anyone but those four could have predicted. The person with whom they met did not believe them nor the story they told about being the representatives for a very private rich man named Walter Beckman.
Despite having communicated via email with Christie’s before — using the Beckman alias — the two boys gave the venerable auction house a cell phone number, which, far from being answered by Walter Beckman, had a voice mail whose message said “This is Spence, leave a message.” A quick trace of the number, which the FBI did soon thereafter, showed that the phone was paid for by Reinhard’s father. After this, the closest the boys came to selling the books was when the FBI Stagehand department — the agency program that manufactures front organizations for sting operations — started talking in early February about setting a meeting to see the items.
There was a sense in Masterminds, the Vanity Fair article — which quotes a local police detective saying as much — and now American Animals that, absent the mistake of using Christie’s, the boys would have gotten away with it. This is wrong. Police already had a great deal of evidence, including surveillance photographs of the boys at the library and the knowledge that the emails sent to Gooch had come from a UK computer lab. A little shoe leather would have done the trick. Anyway, taking the books to an auction house wasn’t a bad choice — it was their only choice. No reputable dealer was going to buy them, and they hadn’t managed to find any disreputable ones.
Early on the morning of February 11, 2005, a host of gun-toting representatives of local, federal, and Transylvania University law enforcement knocked on the door at a couple Lexington locations. This included Lipka’s apartment, where much of the planning had been done, and, because Lipka is no Danny Ocean, much of the evidence of the crime still remained. This included one black wig, four stun guns — they had finally arrived in the mail — one collapsible baton, one handwritten note and five printed-out pages of a website detailing Audubon books, the two-page plan for the library theft, other random notes on the robbery, and six rare books in a black gym bag.
There was no trial. The boys were guilty — and guilty clients rarely slip the grasp of federal prosecutors. Their only choice was to plead out and work hard to keep their sentence low. What they did not know was that their sentence would be different from nearly every prior one for a similar crime. A couple of years earlier the Federal Sentencing Guidelines — the scheme under which they would be sentenced — had added a piece especially to punish people who steal cultural heritage items of the sort the boys had stolen.
Federal sentencing is basically a numbers game. The boys would start at a level eight (instead of a level six, thanks to this new guideline) and the prosecution would try to add levels based on certain aggravating factors. The defense would either limit those additions, or even subtract numbers based on mitigating factors. In the end, there was broad agreement between the two sides at the plea, and Judge Jennifer Coffman of United States District Court for the Central District of Kentucky basically had only two arguments to rule upon before imposing her sentence. Still, the outcome of those arguments could sway the sentence several years in either direction.
The first was whether the stun pen the boys used on Gooch should be considered a “dangerous weapon.” If Judge Coffman ruled that it was, it would add roughly a year in prison to the boys’ sentence. The stun pen, fearsomely named “Black Cobra 150,000 Volt Stun Gun Pen” despite being little more than a toy, had been useless in subduing Gooch. But the prosecution argued that, even if this thing did not — or could not — cause physical harm, prior rulings suggested it should be considered a dangerous weapon if the victim believed it could cause harm. The perception of the victim, then, given the totality of the situation, was all that mattered. A toy gun, or even a plastic cooler masquerading as a bomb, could serve as a dangerous weapon. The defense felt this was preposterous, arguing that not only could it not harm anyone, it definitely did not harm Gooch.
Judge Coffman sided with the prosecution, ruling that according to her interpretation of prior case law, the actual power of the stun pen is immaterial. “The ultimate inquiry,” she said, “was whether a reasonable individual would believe the object is a dangerous weapon under the circumstances.” That is, the only effective use of this stun pen, which Lipka had gone to great lengths to buy on the morning of the crime, was as a government tool to get the boys another year in prison.
The second, more interesting, point was the value of the items stolen — and it focused on the definition of a single word. The prosecution argued that the guidelines demanded a sentence for all items “taken, damaged, or destroyed.” Included in their definition of “taken” were the two Audubon books the boys dropped on their way out of the library. The boys’ intent was to take them, and they should not be rewarded for being bad at the job. The prosecution cited an earlier case where a bank robber dropped $8,000 just outside the bank; it was immediately recovered and brought back in, but the total was still properly added to the amount he had taken.
The defense argued that, because the library had not been deprived of any of the books dropped by the boys as they fled the librarian, they had not really been “taken” by any reasonable definition of that word. (The librarians, apparently not familiar with basic crime-scene preservation, had immediately returned the dropped books to Special Collections.) Judge Coffman sided with the defense on this, and the valuation of the books the boys actually got to the van is what was used in the guidelines, saving the boys several years in prison. Still, they were sentenced to a shade more than seven years — a federal sentence that could not be lessened by parole.
The boys immediately appealed Judge Coffman’s sentence under the assumption that the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals would have a more enlightened view of the harmless nature of a stun pen. But like most everything else, this was a sad — and expensive — failure. The appeals court dismissed it perfunctorily, without analysis. And then things got worse.
The prosecution had been happy with the sentence at the trial level and had no plans to appeal their one loss — Judge Coffman’s ruling on the lesser valuation of the books. But when the defense appealed, and the prosecution was going to have to file a sentencing brief anyway, it decided to appeal this part of Judge Coffman’s ruling.
Appropriately, the only reason the issue was at all complicated was because the boys were so hapless. The issue of how much is stolen in a robbery is usually straightforward: the criminal takes what he takes. But here what was “taken” required near Solomonic levels of parsing. The boys had made it to the van with more than $500,000 worth of books. But in their panicked flight they had left a breadcrumb trail of abandoned books from the exit door to a pink sheet in the middle of Special Collections. They’d even left one book wedged in a drawer. The prosecution argued on appeal, as it had at the District Court, that the books they’d gotten out of Special Collections, but dropped in fear of a pursuing librarian, should count against them.
Judge Alice Batchelder, writing for the unanimous Sixth Circuit, spent the bulk of this terrific opinion analyzing the suddenly philosophical question of when something is “taken.” Is it what a person gets away with? What he almost gets away with? What he intends to get away with?
In this case, Judge Batchelder saw four possible choices as to what value to assign to the stolen books. The first and lowest was the things the boys actually made it to the van with — what Judge Coffman had counted in her sentence. The second was the things they got out of Special Collections, but not out of the library — which is what the prosecution wanted. The third choice Judge Batchelder saw included those things left behind on the sheet in Special Collections and the fourth included the Audubon book wedged into its drawer.
This part of Judge Batchelder’s opinion is great reading, as it rigorously teased out the jurisprudential philosophy behind this sort of theft. The court decided, finally, that anything the boys had exercised “dominion and control” over should properly be considered stolen. That is, their lack of preparedness, flight from pursuit, and general ineptitude should not shield them from their just desserts. Nor should the arbitrary threshold of the library, as Judge Coffman ruled, control what is considered “taken.” So the Sixth Circuit opinion overruled Judge Coffman on this point, agreeing that the prosecution valuation should be used in the sentencing calculation. Better still, Judge Batchelder indicated that the court would have been willing to go even further, adding to the total those books the boys found too cumbersome and left behind in the Special Collections, and even the one wedged in the drawer. But the Government did not ask for this and so the Court could not grant it.
In any event, the boys’ appeal had not only not won them a better sentence, it set them up for a worse one. Or, at least it should have. The case was remanded back to the Judge Coffman for re-sentencing, in light of the Sixth Circuit’s opinion. But in a fit of pique rarely seen in federal sentencing, she refused to change her opinion. The boys remained in prison, but only for their original sentence.
For reasons I cannot fully grasp, this particular rare book theft has resonated with the public. Upon retirement from the bench a few years ago, Judge Coffman said that this was the crime she was asked about most — and it wasn’t even close. Every time I picture these boys running through the library looking for a fire exit I hear Yakety Sax playing in the background. But most others have seen something different, and better.
Maybe bumbling is forgivable — even adorable — in ones so young. Or maybe there is something enticing about the idea of a bunch of regular guys daring to commit a crime like this, as if their chief sin was overzealousness. And where I see one easily avoidable mistake after another, others see something that would have gone off without a hitch if only this thing or that thing had gone differently. How the people who wink and nod at this crime — after all, it’s only library books they stole — reconcile the attack on BJ Gooch, I do not know. Layton does it by showing us that the boys are really sorry. But I cannot get past it. As a human it irritates me. As a special collections librarian it terrifies me. But as a person who studies rare book crime it disappoints me; it’s just such a bad way to steal books.
It would be easy enough to blame the popularity of this crime on race. It goes without saying than an ensemble of black kids with the same biographies as these boys would not be labelled as good kids — or, as one adult calls the group in American Animals, “darn good kids” — and get this treatment from the media. But race has nothing to do with this — everyone who gets caught stealing rare books is white, and none of the others have gotten anything like this flattering coverage. It is the way it was committed that entices. Most rare book theft stories involve a lone man toiling in a library for long periods of time to quietly steal dusty tomes — an elevator pitch that does not exactly quicken the pulse, this author is in a position to know. This Kentucky theft was a proper heist — and that’s something fans of true crime enjoy. At least that’s the only thing that makes sense to me.
Whatever the case, there is no question they paid for their crime. Their sentence was stiffer than any other in history for a similar crime, and they did the full bid. They were also successfully sued by BJ Gooch — a suit that coincided with their unsuccessful appeal. Grinding years of attorneys’ fees and court costs take a toll, even without prison. Worse yet, they never even had an opportunity to enjoy the fruits of their labor. They never got any money, and they were in real trouble from the moment they left Christie’s, which they knew. In fact, between the day of the crime and the day they were arrested, their lives were basically just a slightly worse version of what they had been before. They took tests, they got high, they hung around, and they went to see Ocean’s Twelve.