Evan Peters’ new crime drama American Animals is a heist film unlike any other, focusing on a very unique caper. This movie follows the story of four friends who set out to steal rare books from Transylvania University’s archives, and while it might sound a bit too unbelievable to be true, American Animals is actually based on a true story.
In 2003, teenagers Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Eric Borsuk, and Charles Allen II decided to start a fake ID business. Reinhard and Lipka had grown up together, forming a bond through their experience playing soccer. They were accepted into different colleges; Lipka was set to attend University of Kentucky, while Reinhard was accepted to Transylvania University. Each of them were dealing with personal hardships. After finding that their freshman year of college was a lot more difficult than expected, the pair decided to create a fake ID business as a way to make quick cash. Eric Borsuk then joined them.
In an in-depth interview with Vanity Fair back in 2007, the foursome detailed how they came up with the plan. It started out with Reinhard suggesting the heist. Reinhard recalled that during his freshman orientation tour, he was told about the library’s collection of rare books. “The woman there says, ‘We had a set just like this that we sold four years ago for like $12 million.’ It could have been eight. I’m not sure, but it was a lot. It immediately had kind of sparked my imagination, like a fantasy,” explained Reinhard to Vanity Fair.
What started out as a casual conversation with the group quickly turned into a concrete plan. Reinhard noticed that the library lacked security, so it’d be fairly easy for them to go inside and steal the books. Once that plan was set, the next step was to figure out how they would end up selling the books. Reinhard decided to use his connections to arrange a meeting with a man in New York who’d be willing to help them out in exchange for $500. The man, who went by the name “Barry,” gave them an email address and instructions to use the name “Terry.”
With that contact, the group was able to send an email disclosing that they were in possession of the rare books. However, they encountered a new obstacle when they were told that they could only sell the books in person in Amsterdam. The group decided to acquire a fake passport for Lipka, who was the only one able to make the trek overseas. At that point, they hadn't even come up with a concrete plan for the heist. In fact, they didn’t have any proof to provide the mysterious men in Amsterdam with the books. Naturally, the men quickly grew suspicious, so the foursome's next step was to get the books and have them appraised by an auction house in order for the men to go ahead with the deal.
During the summer break, the group began to plan how they’d steal the books. At that point, Borsuk had started a small lawn-mowing business with Allen. After realizing they needed a fourth person helping out in the heist, the original trio enlisted Allen to join them. On the big day, their plan almost didn’t work, though, due to a few unexpected challenges along the way such as needing Allen to borrow his mom’s car, not having the stun guns they ordered arriving on time, and not being able to find parking near the library that could provide a smooth getaway.
So the group decided to give it another go the next morning instead. The next day, they quickly took their plan to action, zip-tying, tasing, and gagging the librarian they were scheduled to meet. They began to carry out books in a bedsheet and in their backpacks, successfully getting away with millions worth of books despite another librarian spotting them.
As far as how they were able to get caught by the FBI, you’ll have to watch American Animals to find that part out. Instead of trying to make the already wild story into a more Hollywood-esque salacious one, filmmaker Bart Layton combined the narrative film with real, present-day interviews featuring the group. For a story this unbelievable, it's truly fitting that the movie about it would be a documentary-style take where the people actually involved get to tell their versions of what happened.