After Robbing a Bank Wearing a Bomb, a Pizza Guy Was Told to Go on a Scavenger Hunt to Save Himself
The handwritten notes found in Wells' car after he died soon after robbing a bank in 2003 are addressed to the "Bomb Hostage"
A 46-year-old pizza delivery man with a bomb fastened around his neck robbed a Pennsylvania bank in August 2003, walking out with more than $8,000 in cash.
Minutes later, with police surrounding him nearby, that man, Brian Wells, pleaded for help.
The bomb collar he wore was going to explode, Wells said. It had been locked around him by three people in order to compel him to do what they wanted and return with $250,000.
“Why is no one coming to get this thing off of me?” he asked authorities.
Minutes before a bomb squad arrived, the device Wells was wearing exploded — his death captured by local news cameras.
Afterward, police recovered several pages of handwritten instructions from Wells’ car. The papers were addressed to the “Bomb Hostage” and contained directions first to rob the bank and then to proceed on an elaborate scavenger hunt for keys and codes to disable the explosive Wells wore.
However, in one twist among many, it was not realistically possible for Wells to complete the instructions in enough time to save himself from the bomb. Investigators ultimately determined the device, which included four locks and a combination dial, could never have been safely removed.
At the time, Wells appeared to be a hostage of the same crime he had just committed.
But in subsequent years, authorities uncovered an intricate criminal plot and concluded Wells was no pure victim. They said he had, in fact, helped plot part of the same scheme that led to his death.
His family disputes this and the bizarre, arcane details of the case have inspired international news coverage in the nearly 15 years since the bank robbery.
The debated question of Wells’ true involvement, as well as how the investigation unfolded, is re-examined in Netflix‘s four-part docu series Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist, which is streaming now.
PEOPLE has been given exclusive access to the detailed notes recovered by investigators who searched Wells’ car.
Previously, investigators made only one of these pages available to the media. No one knows for sure who wrote them.
Barbara Schroeder, Evil Genius‘ writer-director with co-director Trey Borzillieri, drew from years of work including countless interviews with Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, whom prosecutors have described as one of the pizza bombing plot’s masterminds.
As was later proved in court, Diehl-Armstrong hatched the robbery scheme to force Wells into the PNC Bank in Erie with a ticking bomb around his neck because she apparently needed money so she that could have her father killed. (She mistakenly believed he was wealthy.)
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According to police, a month before the robbery Diehl-Armstrong had asked her friend Kenneth Barnes if he knew how to build a pipe bomb.
Around that same time, she also gave two egg timers to William Rothstein, a handyman and former boyfriend who likely built the collar bomb that killed Wells by blowing a gaping hole in his chest.
In July 2007, four years after the robbery, federal prosecutors announced that Barnes and Diehl-Armstrong were believed to have been responsible, along with other conspirators including Wells, who was “involved in a limited extent with the planing.”
Wells’ family was present for this announcement and vocally protested the allegation.
Authorities, according to the Plain Dealer, have described Rothstein as helping plan the robbery and bombing.
A prosecutor in the case once reportedly described the suspects as “twisted, intellectually bright, dysfunctional individuals who outsmarted themselves.”
Barnes pleaded guilty to weapons and conspiracy charges and remains in prison while Diehl-Armstrong was convicted and later died behind bars. Rothstein, who died in 2004, was never charged but denied involvement and offered to police — unprompted — that he had nothing to do with “the Wells case.”
Diehl-Armstrong also said she wasn’t responsible. She has said she believed Wells was involved in the heist and that Rothstein was the brains behind the entire plot, not her.
Barnes has said much the same. He told Evil Genius‘ Borzillieri that Wells was aware of the plan but tried backing out after learning the collar bomb was live.
Wells reportedly needed money for his own debts.
As United States Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan said in 2007: “Sadly, the plans of the other individuals were sinister, much more sinister.”
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