REGRETS AND REDEMPTION
New movie revisits the Transy Heist
By Joshua Caudill
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. Upon entering, all guests are required to sign the visitors’ log.
There’s a reason for that.
It’s home to a multi-million dollar collection that includes original works of Audubon’s Birds of America, a first edition of 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.”
Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Eric Borsuk, and Charles “Chas” Allen, were college students (one at Transy student, three at UK). They were good kids from good families who concocted a plan whose scope stretched from the Bluegrass to New York and even Amsterdam.
The scheme went on to include rare books, multiple disguises, Reservoir Dogs aliases, an esteemed New York auction house, a craigslist minivan, and a longform profile in Vanity Fair.
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.
“We all love a heist movie,” American Animals director Bart Layton told us in a recent interview. “I read about the story and thought it sounded like a great yarn and I wasn’t convinced that it was more than that. I guess I was intrigued initially by what I learned about the perpetrators of it and how they seemed to be reasonably well-educated young men from good homes and good families.”
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.”
Eric recalls their first meeting in our recent interview. “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, something that we thought people could connect with. At times, we knew it wouldn’t look good for us but we thought it being a cautionary tale was more important.”
“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, but it’s also reflective of how powerful Bart is as a filmmaker.”
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 and what we went through.”
Spencer admits the movie wouldn’t be his choice for repeat Sunday afternoon viewings. “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 who find themselves feeling a similar way at that stage of their lives.”
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.”
Of the inevitable detractors, Spencer told us, “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.”
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. His mother characterized his talent as God-given.
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.”
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 someone who was such a talented artist and a college soccer player find themselves 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 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.
Coincidentally, Spencer had been in a rainy accident on Tates Creek Road the night before, and had parked the car on the street outside his parents’ home.
“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. They were looking for receipts and all of that kind of stuff,” 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.”
Spencer has expressed regret to his father a number of times over the past decade and a half.
Steve remembers, “He’d say, ‘You know, Dad. I’m so sorry that this happened.’ I said, ‘C’mon, I cannot judge you. When I was 19, I was out there too and…when you’re that age, you’re not a mature young man at the time…He was at Transy, on his own, and it just got out of control, obviously. I was so surprised when it happened. Because he had never been one to get in trouble.”
There would be no trial to determine guilt or innocence. Everyone pleaded guilty. His 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.
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?
When most parents were dropping their kids off for their next college semester, Steve and Anita were 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.
Every two weeks, they made the two-hour trip to Ashland. They couldn’t bring anything but a plastic bag of 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.
“I don’t think about those years when Spencer was in prison much at all anymore…Now, he is so happy and is living into his family and talent so well. It shows how good God is and that we can see his hand in all of it.”
Today, going from room to room in the Reinhards’ home, it’s 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 go 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’m hoping that they don’t judge them,” Steve said.
“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.”
This article also appears on page 10 of the June 2018 print edition of Hamburg Journal.
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