Transy Book Thieves Appeal; Receive Higher Sentence
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.
Transy Book Thieves Appeal; Receive Higher Sentence
Two days later, the four, having told their parents they were going on a skiing trip, instead drove to New York to see Christie's. The end was now near. When they originally contacted the Transylvania library about viewing the books, they used the alias of a "Mr. Beckman" and a Yahoo email address. Foolishly, they used the same email address and alias in contacting Christie's. So while they went to New York and visited Christie's, the police were checking the email address to see who else they might have contacted. Voila! Christie's. And now for the final error. While at Christie's they left one of the thief's cell phone number for Christie's to contact them. The police tracked the email messages to Christie's, obtained the cell phone number they had given that auction house, and had one of their names. By February 11, 2005, they had all of the names and the four were placed under arrest.
In April, all four pleaded guilty. In December of 2005, sentences were handed down. Each received 87 months in prison, a seemingly steep sentence for some barely more than kids, first-time offenders, of comical incompetence. Nevertheless, this sentence was at the low end of the sentencing guidelines, which were 87 to 108 months. Two factors making those guidelines so extreme were the use of a "dangerous weapon," and the high value of the items they stole, along with their important historical nature.
And so the thieves would make one more miscalculation. They appealed. They argued that the stunning device, which they called a "stun pen," rather than a "stun gun," should not have been classified as a "dangerous weapon." The appeals court ruled against them. The court noted that, under the statute, it did not actually have to be a dangerous weapon if it was used in a way such as to create fear in the victim that she could be seriously harmed. That, the court said, the defendants had done. The appeal failed.
However, the story does not end there. When the defendants appealed the sentencing, the prosecution did the same. When the trial court valued the books taken, they excluded the Audubon volumes the thieves dropped in the stairwell after being spotted by a second librarian. That court reasoned that the thieves had not removed those books from the library, so they were never stolen. That argument sounds reasonable at first, until you realize that every person who pilfers goods from a store and is nabbed by a security guard at the exit could claim they had never stolen the goods. The appeals court ruled that once the defendants placed those books under their control, they were stolen, even if they later dropped them on the way out.
Here, the defendants finally got a break. It could have been worse. The appeals court indicated that those first couple of Audubon volumes, which the defendants picked up, but decided not to take because they were too heavy, had also been under their control. However, the court decided not to add these to the value of those stolen since the government had not asked to include them too.
With judgment rendered, the appeals court sent the case back to the trial judge to reconsider the length of the sentence. With the revised value of the books considered stolen, the guidelines call for a range of 108 to 135 months. If the trial judge again uses the low end, the defendants will receive an extra 1 3/4 years in prison for their efforts. They can only hope that the judge will take mercy on them. The guidelines are no longer mandatory, as they were at the time of sentencing, so it is possible they could get a break, but instead they may now be looking at nine years for this hare-brained, almost prank-like scheme.
Never failing to do the wrong thing, three of the defendants managed to make one more faux pas. Against the advice of their attorneys, the three granted interviews to Vanity Fair Magazine, which was published in December 2007. In it, they failed to show any serious signs of remorse, and their attorneys fear that this attitude will earn them little sympathy. For some reason, these most unlearned of students cannot seem to grasp the simple aphorism that crime, like stupidity, does not pay.