WASHINGTON: As bank heists in America go, this was one of the weirdest: in 2003, a pizza delivery man walks into a bank with a bomb around his neck and a note demanding a quarter of a million dollars.
Police in Pennsylvania apprehend him, but shortly thereafter, the explosive device goes off, ripping a hole in his chest that kills him minutes before the bomb squad arrives.
Netflix has now come out with a mini-series on the robbery and returns to a question that has divided opinion for 15 years: was that man, one Brian Wells, a willing accomplice, or was he the unwitting victim of a bizarre plot?
The four fast-moving episodes of “Evil Genius,” directed by Barbara Schroeder and Trey Borzillieri, look back at all the puzzles that made up this heist in Erie, a small city in the Great Lakes region.
It all begins when Wells, 46, walks into a branch of PNC Bank with a gun shaped like a cane. Around his neck is a collar with a bomb on a timer.
He hands over a note demanding $250,000, but was given just over $8,000, and leaves sucking on a lollipop he grabbed from the counter.
In his hand he carries pages of rambling, hand-written instructions for a sort of a scavenger hunt for keys and combinations hidden around Erie that would remove the collar.
Death by remote control
But he never got as far as that hunt. Wells was apprehended near the bank, and handcuffed. Police realized he was wearing a bomb, and kept their distance.
That scene was filmed and broadcast by TV stations around the world.
“I don’t know if I have enough time now,” Wells told police. He said he had been tricked while delivering pizzas.
“I am not lying,” Wells said as he sat on the sidewalk. “It’s gonna go off.”
The collar starts to beep. Wills gets more and more agitated. Then it explodes and kills him.
To recover the explosive device, police had to cut off Wills’ head.
Then, in the following days, odd things start happening in Erie.
Robert Pinetti, a former colleague of Wells, is found dead in his home, apparently the victim of a drug overdose.
Then another man, Bill Rothstein, tells police there is a body in his refrigerator.
The body is that of James Roden, boyfriend of one Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, whom Rothstein describes as a woman who manipulates people.
Diehl-Armstrong, once a brilliant student noted for her striking good looks, suffers from bipolar disorder. Twenty years earlier, she was accused of murdering her then-boyfriend but argued she had acted in self-defense and was acquitted at trial.
It gets even more complicated, so pay attention.
According to a drug addict named Kenneth Barnes, Diehl-Armstrong planned the bank heist so as to get money to hire him as a hitman to take out her own father, whom she accused of spending the money due her as part of her inheritance.
Rothstein, a former boyfriend of Diehl-Armstrong and a mechanically-gifted eccentric, allegedly designed the bomb.
Diehl-Armstrong is, therefore, the “Evil Genius,” as the Netflix series is entitled.
Obsessed by this woman, co-director Borzillieri communicated with her for more than 10 years, in writing and over the phone, to better understand the case — becoming particularly focused on the subject of Brian Wells.
“In the beginning, very much like the residents of Erie and law enforcement, I believed that he was involved in this case and did so for a good long while,” said Borzillieri.
“By the end of the journey, my opinion is that he was innocent,” he told AFP.
A long FBI probe found that Wells was a “co-conspirator” — a conclusion which meant that the others involved in the plot could not legally face the death penalty for his murder.
“I think the whole plan initially started out as a way for them all to make some money. But it developed into more than just making money. It became almost a game to them. A diabolical, maniacal game,” said FBI special agent Jerry Clark.
Diehl-Armstrong, who died of cancer last year aged 68, also fascinated Schroeder, who is a journalist.
“Marjorie can be abrasive and off-putting, but she is also fascinating. She is like a train wreck where you have to turn your head and look and then she keeps your attention because she is eloquent,” said Schroeder.
“She was the most fascinating female I have ever come across.”
The last episode of Evil Genius adds a reasonable clue to the so-called Pizza Bomber mystery — previously unheard testimony from a woman named Jessica Hoopsick.
Hoopsick claimed she became friends with Wells and developed feelings for him, despite the fact that he was also a paying client, and says she wants to resurrect his reputation and name.
She says she was paid by Diehl-Armstrong and her people to recruit an easy target for their heist plans. She says she suggested Wells.
“He had no idea what would happen to him,” Hoopsick says in the Netflix series.