Rare Book Monthly

Articles - March - 2008 Issue

Transy Book Thieves Appeal; Receive Higher Sentence

Case

The Appeals Court renders a verdict unfavorable to the Transy book thieves.


By Michael Stillman

Be careful what you wish for. Leave well enough alone. Any number of clichés could apply to the hapless Transy book thieves, who somehow managed to make a bad situation worse. These are the four students who stole several valuable books from the rare book room at Kentucky's Transylvania University, in a theft even more comical than their disastrous appeal. A few more appeals and they'll spend the rest of their lives in jail.

This bizarrely foolish rare book heist took place in December of 2004, after almost a year of what is ludicrously described as "planning." Having decided which books to target, they sent an email to Christie's in New York under a false name, claiming they wished to sell some books "worth millions." This was followed up with an email stating, "I have a first addition [yes, these scholars really wrote first "addition"] Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin, manuscripts that date back to the 1500s, and a collection of John James Audubon's QQuadrupeds [sic] and Birds of America. I know that these are worth a lot..."

Next they set up a meeting at the library, pretending to be a collector, to view the books. They dressed up as older men, costumes that apparently looked more like party gags. The librarians ignored them, believing they were students participating in some sort of college prank. They may even have been recognized by a fellow student who asked what they were doing in such costumes. The four hightailed it back home and rescheduled their appointment to the following day, when they returned sans disguises.

On December 17, two of the "perps" entered the library, while two remained on guard and with the getaway car outside. Once in the Special Collections Library, they subdued the librarian and began zapping her with an apparently low voltage stunning device. It reportedly did not cause much pain, but scared the librarian and left a small bruise. With that, they tied her up, and began loading the books she had laid out for them into a sheet.

While the presence of the sheet indicated they were aware that the books would be heavy, they evidently did not bank on just how heavy. So, in a move that showed just how little they knew about rare books, they took two of four volumes of Audubon's elephant folio Birds of America, and two of three volumes of his Quadrupeds. Any real collector would have told them to take one complete set, not parts of two, and only a complete idiot would leave a couple elephant folio volumes of Birds behind to take a couple of volumes of Quadrupeds. But, as we shall see, even this was not the stupidest thing these young men were about do.

With those books they could carry in tow, the thieves headed for the exit. However, they were spotted by another librarian on the way out, which caused them to proceed in even greater haste. The result was that they dropped the heavy Audubon books in the stairwell, and ran out without stopping to retrieve them. They hurried to the waiting getaway van and returned to the home of one of the conspirators. They stashed the books in his secured basement, secured because he grew marijuana plants down there.

While this was not exactly the perfectly executed crime, they probably believed they had pulled it off at least modestly well. They were wrong. The reality was that this theft was doomed before the thieves ever set foot in the library. Of course the concept that Christie's would unquestioningly accept books worth millions of dollars from a group of scraggly young men, supposedly representing a secretive collector, defies imagination, but they committed an even greater blunder. It would not be long before the police were on their trail.

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