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What Prompted Four Clean-Cut College Kids To Plan Elaborate Rare Book Heist?

From a botched initial attempt to one of the thieves throwing up in the getaway van, the brazen 2004 robbery of the Special Collections Library at Transylvania University by four college students ended up being a catastrophe.

By Jill Sederstrom
Eric Borsuk Spencer Reinhard Chas Allen Warren Lipka G

A brazen daylight robbery of some of the world’s rarest books from a university library in Kentucky was carried out by an unlikely set of suspects.

The four men weren’t seasoned criminals. Instead, they were a group of clean-cut suburban college students anxious to shed their predictable lives for drama, excitement—and the promise of a large payday.

“They were all seeking some type of transformational experience, some type of thrill,” Kelly Richmond Pope, a forensic accounting expert told “Super Heists” in a new episode airing Monday night at 10 p.m. on CNBC. 

But the heist wouldn’t go as planned and whether it was an initial botched attempt, losing a significant portion of the $12 million haul, comedically vomiting out the van window during the getaway or struggling to find a way to offload the rare, stolen merchandise, foursome soon found themselves in uncharted territory as they tried to evade investigators.

“It takes some cojones to come in there and do a robbery in broad daylight,” Retired Lexington Police Sgt. Pat Murray said of the bold heist.

Erik Borsuk, a co-mastermind of the audacious theft, had grown up amidst the amidst the strip malls, chain restaurants, and horse enthusiasts of Lexington, Kentucky,  but he found himself yearning for a different, more thrilling life.

“Just seeing that lifestyle there I think was like a big turn off for me,” he said. “I just had no sense of identity growing up. I just felt very lost.”

Borsuk had once dreamed of finding adventure by becoming an FBI agent, but by the time he reached college, he was more intrigued by a life on the other side of the law.  

He and pal Warren Lipka started a fake ID ring for thrills and quick cash—but they soon set their sights on a much bigger payday when friend Spencer W. Reinhard took note of the extensive rare book collection at Transylvania University Library.

“We are talking about some of the most valuable printed books in the world,” journalist and author Evan Ratliff told “Super Heists” of the library’s natural history collection.

The university’s collection included a first-edition printing of Darwin’s The Origin of Species valued at $25,000 and an Illuminated Manuscript from 1425 valued at $200,000. But, the most coveted item in the collection was Audubon’s Birds of America, a copy of which had recently fetched $12 million at an auction.

“There are very few books in the world that would fetch higher market prices than the Audubon’s Bird of America,” rare book expert Rebecca Romney said.

With visions of a millions dancing in their heads, Borsuk, Lipka, Reinhard and friend Chas Allen spent the better part of a year meticulously planning the heist, surveilling the library, learning about the security system and even tracking down a potential buyer on the black market.

“We thought that the money would give us the resources to do whatever we wanted with our life and I just knew that I had to like be a part of this, even though your mind should obviously say the opposite,” Borsuk said.

The plan was for the four men to don disguises as old men and gain access to the special collection through librarian and archivist BJ Gooch, who had to admit anyone into the special section of the library by punching in a special code into the security system.

Once inside, the college criminals planned to subdue Gooch, steal the books and make their way to a waiting getaway car.

But the first attempt would not go as planned. While the disguises were supposed to help the college students blend in, that wasn’t the case.

“We weren’t invisible, it was the opposite,” Borsuk said. “We were like the center of attention.”

As eyes turned toward them, the team opted to abort the mission. But the early failure didn’t deter them from their end goal.

“I think we just all felt propelled not to back out and to just continue pushing toward this outrageous thing,” Allen told “Super Heists.”

Using the fake name Water Beckman, the college friends emailed Gooch and set up another meeting to view the rare book collection on Dec. 17, 2004, the last day of the semester before winter break.

This time, they left the disguises behind and while Allen waited outside in the getaway car and Reinhard provided surveillance, Borsuk and Lipka went inside to pull of the heist.

Although the plan had initially been for Borsuk to wait downstairs until Lipka had subdued Gooch, Borsuk was surprised to find the librarian was still walking around the library when he went upstairs.

“That was just like always my thing since day one, that I am not going to help tie up the librarian. I was thinking to myself, like ‘Forget this. He lied to me,” Borsuk said.

But before he could react, Lipka hit Gooch with a stun pen, knocking her down.

“I feel this great weakness come over me and I fall to the floor,” Gooch said, adding that her heart had been beating so hard she thought she was going to have a heart attack.

The two friends started quickly loading up books, including the coveted Audubon’s Birds of America, but what they hadn’t anticipated was the book’s massive weight. It took both men to carry the book, and as they made their way down the stairs, another librarian began screaming and chasing after them.

The pair had to put the book down and leave it behind—losing the biggest piece of their expected score—and quickly made their way to the waiting getaway car. As the van pulled away, with the tires screeching, Lipka leaned out the side of the passenger window and threw up.

“It was just like this crazy chaotic scene, we’re all like freaking out,” Borsuk said.  

It may not have been seamless, but the four men made their getaway without any police on their tail.

Yet, their problems were only beginning. Without the most valuable book, the black market buyer they'd lined up backed out and they were left trying to find a way to turn their stolen stash into cash.

“Stolen assets are harder to move than just stolen money because what you have do with an asset is you have to convert it into cash,” Pope explained.

As police tried to hone in the “Walter Beckman” email setting up the heist, the group’s desperation to unload the stolen goods forced them to consider a much riskier next move.

To find out more about the brazen strategy and the critical mistake that landed all four men in prison for years, tune in to CNBC's "Super Heists" on Monday at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

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