On Aug. 28, 2003, a 46-year-old pizza delivery man strutted into a bank in Erie, Pennsylvania, armed with a shotgun modified to look like a walking cane and handed the teller a note demanding $250,000 in cash.
A collar bomb was fastened around the man’s neck — and, the note said, it would go off if he did not get what he wanted.
Carrying a bag stuffed with more $8,000, that man, named Brian Wells, walked back out of the bank as calmly as he’d walked in. He didn’t get far before being surrounded by police.
A strange scene then played out that would make the case the subject of international news coverage in the ensuing days, months and years.
Wells, sitting on the ground, pleaded for help as he described how he’d been forced by three people to rob the bank. He’d gone to the trio to deliver pizzas, he said, but instead they strapped an explosive to him and ordered him to bring back a quarter of a million dollars.
He begged for his life as the device he wore began beeping louder and louder, faster and faster, insisting he had very little time left to live.
News cameras were rolling when the bomb exploded — broadcasting Wells’ death live, from multiple angles.
Afterward, police recovered several pages of detailed, handwritten instructions from Wells’ car. The papers were meant for 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 bizarre 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.
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Fifteen years later and key questions in the case — labeled the “pizza bomber” and “collar bomb heist” — remain the subject of debate, despite a prosecutor-endorsed theory of the crime. Could Wells really have been a victim of the same bank robbery he helped carry out? Who else was involved? And what was their real goal?
As a federal agent told PEOPLE in 2003: “It defies logic that a human would do that to himself. But in all my years on the job it has never ceased to amaze me what people do and what the possibilities are.”
Complicating matters for some, those eventually identified as being involved have blamed one another while protesting their own innocence.
The tangled saga is featured anew in Netflix’s four-part true crime documentary series Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist, which is streaming now.
Writer-director Barbara Schroeder and co-director Trey Borzillieri drew from years of work including countless interviews with Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, a woman who left a string of dead men behind her and whom prosecutors have described as one of the plot’s masterminds.
Evil Genius delves into the disputed question of Wells’ true involvement, unearthing interviews with witnesses who defend him as an unwitting pawn, despite investigators’ belief he had some participation in the planning.
How the Case Unfolded, According to Authorities
Investigators were at first baffled by the arcane intricacies of the crime but honed in within a few years on Diehl-Armstrong.
As they later proved in court, she hatched the 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 rich.)
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.” He reportedly needed money for his own debts.
“Sadly, the plans of the other individuals were sinister, much more sinister,” said United States Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan.
Wells’ family was present for this announcement and vocally protested this allegation.
Authorities, according to the Plain Dealer, have described Rothstein as helping plan the robbery and bombing.
The case cracked open thanks in part to multiple informants and statements made by Diehl-Armstrong herself. In the course of the investigation, both she and Barnes both admitted some involvement with the robbery.
A prosecutor in the case once reportedly described the suspects as “twisted, intellectually bright, dysfunctional individuals who outsmarted themselves.”
Not long after Wells died, Rothstein, the former boyfriend, ended up turning on Diehl-Armstrong, telling police she had fatally shot boyfriend James Roden.
Rothstein even led investigators to Roden’s body, which had been placed in a freezer in his garage.
Authorities said that Diehl-Armstrong killed Roden because he knew about the impending bank heist and had indicated he was going to inform on her to the police. She ultimately pleaded guilty but mentally ill to his slaying, insisting she was not responsible but wanted to avoid a longer sentence.
Roden was not the first man she killed or who had died around her. Diehl-Armstrong fatally shot Robert Thomas, her then-boyfriend, in 1984 but was acquitted after arguing self-defense. Richard Armstrong, her husband in 1992, died from a cerebral hemorrhage after which she won a malpractice suit against the hospital where he was treated.
In a 2007 report in PEOPLE, friends described Diehl-Armstrong as highly intelligent. She was her high school valedictorian and had a master’s degree, though she also had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Two individuals ended up in prison on robbery and weapons charges related to Wells’ death, but because prosecutors believed he was involved in planning and executing the heist, no one was ever charged with murder.
Wells’ relatives have long contended he would never have participated in such a scheme. Speaking with PEOPLE in 2003, two of his neighbors recalled him as a simple, likable man of modest means.
Barnes pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit armed robbery and using a destructive device in a crime of violence. He was sentenced in 2008 to 45 years in federal prison for his role in the case and testified against Diehl-Armstrong at her subsequent trial.
He spoke several times to Evil Genius‘ Borzillieri, saying that Wells was aware of the plot but had tried backing out after learning the collar bomb was live — and not a fake, as initially promised.
Diehl-Armstrong was also found guilty for her role — on charges of armed bank robbery, conspiracy, and using a destructive device in a crime of violence — and, in 2011, received a life sentence.
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.
She died behind bars last year and was buried in an unmarked grave, according to Evil Genius. Until her death, she said over and over that she was not to blame.