Editor’s note: A new Netflix series, “Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist,” is based on a shocking crime that occurred in 2003, one which has been covered extensively by The Post over the years. The series, which debuts on May 11, sheds new light on the events of that day. The following is an excerpt from a Post article from 2011, republished in cooperation with Netflix.
Bizarre story of pizza deliveryman blown up by ‘collar bomb’ still an enigma years later
By Candice M. Giove
Published: July 31, 2011
“I don’t have a lot of time,” he whimpered.
Pennsylvania pizza deliveryman Brian Wells, 46, leaned against a police car in handcuffs and begged authorities to defuse the explosive device locked around his neck. A crowd swelled around him. Police drew their weapons. A news camera rolled.
“Why is it that nobody’s trying to come get this off?” he cried.
Wells told police he wound up in the grip of the 30-pound necklace of death after delivering pepperoni pies to three thugs who forced him into the strange contraption and gave him a handwritten directive. Frightened, he followed the meticulous instructions, held up a bank in Erie, then embarked on a scavenger hunt for four keys and a deactivation code to liberate himself from the bomb.
But authorities nabbed him at his third, and what would become his final, destination.
That note also contained a macabre warning: His life could end in a second.
“MOST IMPORTANT RULE! Do not radio, phone or contact anyone. Alerting the authorities, your company or anyone else will bring your death. If we spot police vehicles or air craft [sic] you will be killed.”
The police discounted his tale and didn’t call in a bomb squad until nearly 30 minutes into the standoff. Wells grew more frantic.
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“He pulled a key out and started a timer,” Wells warned cryptically. “I heard the thing ticking and it’s going to go off.”
“I’m not lying,” he pleaded. “Did you call my bosses?”
Cops moved the shackled, shaken man from the pavement of a parking lot to a patch of grass. Alone, Wells crouched and listened to the bomb ticking away as steady as a heartbeat. He knew his time was running out.
Authorities in the distance remained wary of the collar bomb, which created an odd bulge underneath Wells’ T-shirt. They weren’t sure it was real until the moment it went off. It was a gruesome end.
The earsplitting explosion ripped apart much of Wells’ upper body in a split-second. Then the only sound in the ensuing shock and silence was airborne metal pieces clinking to the ground.
The bomb squad arrived three minutes later. They’d later discover the device was designed to blow him to smithereens in only 55 minutes.
Federal authorities couldn’t even figure out how to remove the fatal choker from the dead man’s neck and, 18 hours later, they decapitated him.
Brian Wells moments before the “collar bomb” went offPolaris
It’s been almost eight years since that Aug. 28, 2003, bank heist. It’s one of the most bizarre robberies in America — and one that’s still shrouded in mystery. Was Wells a double-crossed crook who, as prosecutors claimed, thought he’d be wearing a pretend explosive? Or was he just an innocent pizza deliveryman, as his family claims, murdered for greed?
Wells told police in his final moments that he delivered two Mama Mia Pizza-Ria pies to a customer’s address, which turned out to be a desolate dirt road at the foot of a television tower. In his version of the events, three thugs shot at him, forced him into the bomb, and then handed him a gun disguised as a cane and a strange set of handwritten directions.
His first task, he said, was to quietly rob $250,000 from a PNC Bank on Peach Street. In the end, only $8,702 had been stuffed in his sack. He set off to a McDonald’s drive-thru to pick up a clue hidden beneath a rock in a flowerbed. His next stop, at the Eyeglass World parking lot, was where his life ended.
Security camera footage of Wells after robbing $8,702 from a PNC Bank
Investigators worked on the labyrinthine “collar bomb” case for years. For the criminals, the whodunit seems to have become a depraved game of who’s the last man standing. The unraveling of the heist began a month after Wells’ death, with a 911 call about a frozen dead man.
William Rothstein phoned police confessing that he had shoved a stiff into a freezer in his unoccupied home’s basement. He said his ex-fiancée, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, paid him $2,000 to discard the corpse of her boyfriend, James Rodden, whom she shot around the time of the heist. Curiously, Rothstein’s vacant house sat next door to the desolate television tower where Wells delivered the pizza.
When police visited the caller at his apartment, they also met his roommate, Floyd Stockton, who was wanted for raping a disabled teen.
Police then closed in on Diehl-Armstrong and she was charged with the Rodden murder on Sept. 21, 2003. At that point, her role in the collar-bomb crime was not apparent.
While awaiting trial, the bipolar Diehl-Armstrong wound up shut away in a mental ward, where police couldn’t question her.
But her dead boyfriend’s proximity to the exact location of Wells’ “capture” sounded alarms. When investigators working the case pressed Rothstein about the bank heist, he teased that he might have used the payphone on the neighboring dirt road to place the deadly pizza order.
Maybe it thrilled Rothstein, described as a sociopath, to see his ex and co-conspirator trapped behind bars. She was one less person to worry about. Yet she outlived him: A year later, Rothstein succumbed to lymphoma.
William Rothstein, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong and Kenneth Barnes
When Diehl-Armstrong stood trial in 2005 for slaying her boyfriend, she claimed her murder motive was Rodden’s ineptitude at helping her figure out who had swiped more than $130,000 from her Erie home. Found guilty in 2005, Diehl-Armstrong was shipped to prison.
With heightened suspicions because of her connection to Rothstein, they quizzed her on Wells’ death and the heist. The cold case started warming up when she pointed the finger at the late Rothstein and her dead boyfriend as players in the crime. She even told investigators that her real motive was to kill her boyfriend. She said she provided Rothstein with two average cooking timers for the bomb.
With Rothstein dead and gone, police followed the trail to his rapist roommate. Stockton’s account was much different from that of Diehl-Armstrong, who he said planned the whole thing with Rothstein. Later, Stockton’s ex-wife linked his penmanship to the impeccable cursive in the heist notes.
In investigators’ hands were many unconnected puzzle pieces. They decided to question a friend of Diehl-Armstrong named Kenneth Barnes. Of course, he told another story.
In his version of the events, the locked-up murderess had solicited his services to kill her father so she could cash in on inheritance money. In exchange, she promised to bankroll the hit man’s mission with money from a heist she had planned.
Members of a bomb squad check the body of Brian Wells for explosives after the “collar bomb” went off.Polaris
Barnes said there was even a dress rehearsal for the crime. The day before it took place, Barnes claimed, he, Diehl-Armstrong, Rothstein and Stockton staged a run-through — with Wells present. It was the first time someone had implicated the pizza deliveryman in the crime. Barnes went so far as to say he and the murderess sat back with binoculars to watch Wells perish.
When indictments finally came down in 2007, US Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan charged “mastermind” Diehl-Armstrong and Barnes for the crime. The prosecutor included the explosive twist: Brian Wells was in on it.
The pizza man, according to investigators, thought the bomb would be a fake — and when he realized it was not, he panicked. The revelation outraged his family. They pointed to the fact that an autopsy found a small bullet lodged in his leg — proof that he was coerced.
The still-unopened “collar bomb”Getty Images
“When you have a bomb locked to your neck and the federal authorities chop your head off to get the bomb off — there was no way that he would put that on himself,” his brother John Wells said.
In February, Diehl-Armstrong, who now has cancer, was finally sentenced to life behind bars. She appealed unsuccessfully. Barnes cut a deal and had his sentence reduced to 30 years.
With the case finally closed, it seems Wells’ role will never be fully explained. Prosecutors used the theory that Wells was involved, but did not charge him posthumously. His friends still maintain that he died that day a victim, ignored and unaided by police.
The trailer for the new docu-seriesVideo courtesy of Netflix