True story of America’s most diabolical bank heist: ‘Maniacal game’ masterminded by a misfit band of criminals ended with a pizza delivery man killed in the street when a bomb locked around his neck detonated
- Brian Wells, 46, walked into a PNC bank on August 28, 2003 with a bomb locked around his neck and demanded $250,000
- He left with under $9,000 and was soon apprehended by police, who he begged to free him from the device, which he claimed he’d been forced to wear
- The bomb exploded and killed him as cops and cameras watched before the bomb squad arrived in Erie, Pennsylvania
- Three weeks later, local man Bill Rothstein, who lived next to where Wells delivered his final pizzas, called police to say he had a body in his freezer
- He said it was unconnected to the heist and told police his ex-girlfriend, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, had shot her live-in boyfriend
- Police later determined that Diehl-Armstrong, Rothstein and several others, including Wells, had been involved in the collar bomb plot
- Wells’ family has maintained his innocence to this day, and a new Netflix documentary premiering on Friday supports that theory
- Diehl-Armstrong and another man were eventually convicted of the plot; Rothstein had died before the indictment and she died in custody last year
- The docuseries, Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist, includes a captivating, disturbing video interview with Diehl-Armstrong
It was as captivating as it was confusing: An ageing pizza delivery man sat in the middle of the road, surrounded by police cars on national television, begging for help as a device locked to his neck ticked ominously. It was August 2003, and Brian Wells, a loyal employee of Mama Mia pizzeria in Erie, Pennsylvania, was becoming increasingly agitated. He had just robbed a bank, taking away less than $9,000, allegedly at the behest of unknown conspirators. He was pleading his case to the armed authorities around him, men who had retreated to a safe distance with their guns drawn, and he insisted the bomb around his neck was going to explode.
Then, as the cameras and the cops watched, it did. Wells died in the street, his chest ripped open by the bomb. He was 46.
If that situation wasn’t crazy enough, however, Wells’ death only raised more questions. Police discovered he’d been given a note directing him on an elaborate scavenger hunt meant to take place after the robbery, seemingly to help him unlock the device from his neck, and he’d been carrying a cane that was actually a disguised loaded gun. Wells had no criminal history, and they had no idea whether he’d been an active participant in the bank robbery or an unwitting victim of a plot.
Then another pizza delivery man – Wells’ coworker – turned up dead under mysterious circumstances. Three weeks later, a local man called police to announce he had a body in his freezer, just steps away from the location where Wells had delivered his last pizzas. The media went wild and the authorities were flummoxed by the escalating violence in the normally sleepy town.
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Images of the crime scene were seared into the public consciousness on August 28, 2003 after Brian Wells – who pleaded with authorities to help him remove a bomb from around his neck – was killed in front of cops and television cameras when the device exploded
Authorities believed that Wells had been involved in the planning of the caper, though his family has always maintained his innocence and the new docuseries supports that assertion
Earlier in the afternoon, Wells robbed a PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania, wearing the device around his neck and carrying a gun disguised as a cane; he demanded $250,000 but left with under $9,000
The homemade collar bomb was strapped around Wells’ neck, and began ticking before it exploded and killed him as armed police looked on
Eventually, two people– a former beauty named Marjorie Diehl Armstrong and her drug-dealing fishing buddy, Kenneth Barnes – were jailed in connection with the plot, which authorities decided had involved a number of co-conspirators, including Wells himself. They reasoned that Barnes, Wells, Diehl Armstrong, her ex-boyfriend Bill Rothstein and his then-roommate, Floyd Stockton, had hatched the plan for monetary reasons (Wells had demanded $250,000 at the bank), though how, when and why the pizza delivery man became involved was never fully explained.
By the time authorities solidified their theory, Rothstein had died of cancer and Stockton was jailed on the West Coast on an unrelated charge. Barnes pleaded guilty to conspiracy and weapons charges in 2008 and was sentenced to 45 years in prison. He testified against Diehl-Armstrong, who was found guilty of armed robbery, conspiracy and using a destructive device in a crime of violence. She died last year while still serving her sentence.
Fifteen years after the bizarre crime, the case remains shrouded in mystery – and a new Netflix documentary, Evil Genius, re-examines the wild circumstances surrounding the death of Wells, whose family has always maintained his innocence. The film interviews retired authorities who investigated the case, and it includes a video interview with the mentally ill, highly intelligent Diehl Armstrong.
But the whole scenario is, unquestionably, still stranger than fiction.
As the investigation progressed, authorities identified a strange cast of characters they believed to be connected to the plot, namely (clockwise from top left) local drug dealer Kenneth Barnes; former beauty Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong; her ex-boyfriend Bill Rothstein; his roommate Floyd Stockton; fellow pizza employee Bob Pinetti; delivery man Brian Wells, who was killed by the bomb; and prostitute Jessica Hoopsick, who was close with Wells and bought drugs from Barnes
Bill Rothstein, left, and Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, right, were both highly intelligent and had dated decades before the 2003 plot, though she was dealing with serious mental illness
‘Something like this had never happened before in the history of the FBI – where a potential hostage is sent into the bank with a device, or to rob the bank, and the device detonates, resulting in their death,’ says lead agent Jerry Clark in the film. ‘This had just never happened. Somebody murdered Brian Wells that day. Whether he was involved or not, it’s still a murder.’
The crime fascinated Trey Borzillieri, an actor and producer who was living in Brooklyn at the time of the heist, and he embarked upon an investigation as a citizen journalist that would continue for more than a decade – including a strange correspondence and relationship with Diehl-Armstrong herself. He eventually partnered with director Barbara Schroeder to make a film documenting the unbelievable saga, and the four-part docuseries showcases letters from Diehl-Armstrong and recordings, in addition to her video interview. It premieres on Friday.
‘We were just stunned by these questions that remained,’ Schroeder tells DailyMail.com. ‘This was an FBI major case that was technically closed, but it was still unsolved in so many ways. There was the question: Who, for sure, was the mastermind? Why was there this crazy scavenger hunt that happened after the bank heist? There were a couple of other deaths. There were more layers to this case.’
On August 28, 2003, Wells was nearing the end of his shift at the pizzeria when a delivery order came in. He agreed to take it and and drove to the remote site; not long afterwards, he turned up at PNC Bank, holding a cane and wearing a t-shirt that said ‘Guess,’ and demanded $250,000. He got far less and the cops soon apprehended him in a nearby parking lot, where they waited for the bomb squad. Wells said he’d been forced to wear the collar by unidentified black men but didn’t seem overly upset until the device started ticking. It exploded and killed him before the bomb squad arrived.
Four days later, another pizza delivery man at Mama Mia’s, Bob Pinetti – who had been acting strangely and was due to be interviewed by the police the next day – was found dead; an autopsy concluded he had died by either accidental overdose or suicide. The connection to Wells raised questions, but still no one seemed to have answers.
On the day of the heist, Wells had agreed at the end of his shift to deliver pizzas to a rural location adjacent to Bill Rothstein’s home
Rothstein called police three weeks after the heist to announce that he had been keeping a body in his freezer which he insisted was unconnected to the Wells case; he said his ex-girlfriend, Diehl-Armstrong, had shot her live-in boyfriend and asked him for help
Diehl-Armstrong had already been tried and acquitted in 1984 in connection with the death of another boyfriend; her husband, Richard Armstrong, had also died under mysterious circumstances
Three weeks later, lifelong Erie resident Bill Rothstein, whose house was adjacent to the location of Wells’ final delivery, called police to say he had a dead man in his freezer but it was unrelated to the collar bomb case. He said the body was that of James Roden, and police should question the man’s long-term girlfriend, Diehl Armstrong.
She was already something of an infamous figure in Erie; she’d been acquitted of killing a former boyfriend, and her husband had died after a fall at home under strange circumstances. She had also dated Rothstein, who told authorities that Diehl Armstrong had asked for help after fatally shooting Roden. She denied it and hurled allegations right back at Rothstein.
‘He had a thing for her that went beyond just boyfriend/girlfriend kind of thing,’ Ray Borkowski, Rothstein’s longtime friend, says in the film. ‘It was like somehow she got into his psyche and just lived there. I mean, look what happened! No normal human being does that for somebody. You don’t go to somebody’s house and go and wrap up a dead body in a sheet and go and throw it in your freezer.’
Diehl Armstrong, while manipulative and controlling, was also dealing with serious mental illness, though she did her best to blame Rothstein for everything – saying ‘he couldn’t have me, so he wants to destroy me; he wants to put me away for life.’
The lawyer who defended her in 1984, when she was prosecuted for killing her boyfriend, says in the film that Diehl Armstrong was his ‘punishment on earth.’
‘She could be talking about one thing and then start talking about birds or God knows what or horoscopes,’ he says. ‘She had to brush her teeth 32 times a day. Not 31,not 33. It’s just amazing to me – four times I had her committed; four times the mental health system found her to be competent.’
He adds: ‘We shouldn’t be talking about a collar bomb … she was sick, she was disturbed, and anybody that was around her knew that. You have to deal with the disease, and if you have a disease it’s never going to get better and your thinking is way off. Why jeopardize society by putting the person on trial and run the risk they’ll be acquitted?’
Rothstein testified that Diehl-Armstrong had killed her live-in boyfriend, Roden, over an argument about money, and he cut a deal on misdemeanor charges. Within a year, Rothstein was dead, as well, succumbing to widespread cancer; many investigators believed that he knew he was dying throughout the ordeal and reveled in taking the secrets of the bomb plot to the grave.
When Agent Clark had first interviewed Rothstein, the overall-clad handyman informed him: ‘I want you to know right off the top that I’m the smartest guy in this room.’
‘I believe that Bill was definitely a manipulator in this whole case,’ retired officer Ron Morgan says in the film. ‘And I think that Bill thought he could outsmart anybody, including law enforcement.’
Diehl-Armstrong, meanwhile, was serving time for killing Roden, and she was bragging in prison – telling several fellow inmates that she’d been involved with the collar bomb plot. Authorities were also zeroing in on her fishing buddy, Kenneth Barnes, who sold drugs to a prostitute with whom Wells had a relationship. Barnes eventually confessed, saying that he’d conspired with Diehl-Armstrong, Rothstein and Rothstein’s roommate, Floyd Stockton, to set the bank heist plan in motion.
Kenneth Barnes, pictured in handcuffs, was a drug dealer and a fishing buddy of Diehl-Armstrong; he eventually confessed and gave details about the plot to authorities, painting Diehl-Armstrong and Bill Rothstein as the masterminds
Diehl-Armstrong was found guilty of armed robbery, conspiracy and using a destructive device in a crime of violence; she died last year while still serving her sentence
Rothstein died less than a year after the heist, before authorities brought charges, and always insisted he was not involved
Barnes said Diehl-Armstrong and Stockton put the bomb on Wells, who believed it to be fake; his story wavered when it came down to whether Wells was a willing participant or not, however. Stockton also testified against Diehl-Armstrong in exchange for immunity. It was clear, however, that Diehl-Armstrong and Rothstein were the major players – and brains – behind the scheme.
‘I think the whole plan initially started as a way for them all to make some money, but it developed into more than just making money,’ Clark says in the film. ‘It became almost a game to them – a diabolical, maniacal game, but a game where, “Let’s see how we can get away with this crime, we’re really smarter than everybody else, and we’re certainly smarter than law enforcement.”’
The prostitute who was friendly with Wells, Jessica Hoopsick, also gave evidence in Diehl-Armstrong’s trial, saying she’d overheard plans one night at Barnes’ house to rob a bank, and a woman had been present – though she did not directly implicate Diehl-Armstrong. Hoopsick agreed to a video interview for the Netflix documentary, and she insists on Wells’ innocence – offering a few additional, and astonishing, revelations.
‘There was definitely special feelings; I’m not going to say it was love, but there was definite special feelings,’ she says in the film. ‘He was a good guy; there’s only a few of them left in the world.’
Through it all, Trey Borzillieri maintained his correspondence with Diehl-Armstrong, whose behavior and communication became more and more erratic. The sheer magnitude of the plot, and the strange cast of characters, continued to fascinate both Borzillieri and Schroeder as they put together the documentary.
‘One of the big lessons was that the authorities did the best job that they could,’ Schroeder tells DailyMail.com. ‘These were scrappy criminals who were able to outwit and outplay them, to some extent – so it was pretty harrowing … that they were able to pull this off. It’s a little scary; everybody needs to be vigilant.’
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