By Bill Hewitt
Updated September 22, 2003 12:00 PM

From the start, the episode had a bizarre quality to it. Standing in the PNC Bank branch near Erie, Pa., on Aug. 28, Brian Wells informed a teller that he had a bomb and demanded $250,000. After Wells walked out with a bag of money, police surrounded him. Wells showed them that he indeed did have a bomb–locked to his neck by a bizarre metal collar–and told them he had been forced to carry out the heist and that the device was set to detonate in about 20 minutes. “Why is it nobody’s trying to get this off me?” he complained at one point. “I don’t have a lot of time.” In fact the device went off, killing Wells, before the bomb squad arrived. As Desiree Rice, an eyewitness who saw Wells on his knees, rocking nervously in his final moments, recalls, “Nobody knew if he was a good guy or a bad guy.”

That’s still an open question. Had someone strapped the bomb to Wells, a 46-year-old pizza deliveryman, and ordered him to rob the bank? Was he acting alone? Was this a suicide? One thing is certain: Odd new clues keep tumbling out. On Sept. 8 the FBI released sketches of two men who–according to motorists who saw them–were acting suspiciously around the time of the explosion. One of the men wanted for questioning was spotted with a backpack trying to get across a busy road, while the other was seen “running feverishly” from a wooded area nearby. In a note later found by police, Wells was directed to go to four spots after the robbery–including a location close to where the two men in the FBI sketches were seen.

Those who knew Wells find it impossible to imagine he would or could have masterminded such an elaborate scheme. One of seven kids, he grew up in a blue-collar section of Erie but dropped out of high school in 1973. He went to work delivering pizzas for local restaurants, including Mama Mia’s. About five years ago Wells moved into a modest guest cottage behind the home of Laverne and Linda Payne.

The Paynes found him to be a likable, simple soul who mostly kept to himself. He had three cats on whom he doted, but he apparently never came up with names for them, always addressing them simply as “kitty.” As far as the Paynes could tell, he had no interest in improving his station in life. “Material things weren’t important to him,” says Linda. She recalls that several years ago Wells’s car, which he used for deliveries, was badly damaged in an accident. He didn’t have the money for a replacement, so the Paynes spotted him the cash for a used Geo Metro (which he dutifully finished paying back a few weeks before he died). “But he thought the Geo had flashy hub caps,” says Linda. “They were too flashy for him, so he took them off.”

It is not exactly the portrait of a Dillinger wannabe. On the day of the robbery the Paynes say everything seemed perfectly normal with Wells. He arrived for work at Mama Mia’s at the usual time, and around 2 p.m. he set out to deliver two small pepperoni pies to an address about four miles away. The address turned out to be phony. At 2:40 p.m. Wells was in the bank with the bomb, as well as a cane that was rigged to fire a bullet. Police believe that the bomb itself was relatively unsophisticated, but they still don’t know whether the collar was specially made or adapted from some other use. The deadly device had four locks and a combination dial. “I’ve never seen one like this,” says Patrick Berarducci, a senior special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Investigators continue to run down leads, including whether the death of Robert Panetti, 43, who worked with Wells and was a friend and who was found to have suffered an apparent drug overdose three days later, is in any way connected. But even they profess to be baffled by the case. “It defies logic that a human would do that to himself,” says Berarducci. “But in all my years on the job it has never ceased to amaze me what people do and what the possibilities are.”

Bill Hewitt
Michelle York in Erie