Brian Wells was either an innocent rube or the co-conspirator in one of the most complex and disturbing bank robberies in American history. Part scavenger hunt, part bank robbery, the heist ended for Wells when a homemade explosive collar locked around his neck detonated. The incident is known as the Pizza Bomb Heist or Collar Bomb Case. It is also the case behind Netflix’s four-part documentary series, Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist.
Brian Wells, who said he was just a pizza delivery guy, maintained that he was an innocent victim, forced by gunmen to rob a bank. His family believes that he was the hapless victim of a heinous murder. However, the FBI believes Wells was a co-conspirator of a botched crime.
|About Brian Wells|
|Death||August 28, 2003|
|Parents||Harold Wells, Rose Wells|
|BIRTH||November 15, 1956 Warren, Pennsylvania|
|CAUSE OF DEATH||Collar bomb strapped around his neck|
This Brian Wells wiki delves into his life, and involvement in what many are calling one of the most complicated, demented crimes in American history.
Who Was Brian Wells?
For someone who will forever go down in history as being the victim of one of the most bizarre murders in American history, very little is known about Brian Wells.
He was born on November 15, 1956, in Warren, Pennsylvania, the son of Harold Wells and Rose Wells.
His father was a utility worker. He died at age 60 in 1990, leaving behind his wife and five children.
Wells went to Erie’s East High School but dropped out in his sophomore year (1973) when he was 16 years old to work as a mechanic. He eventually got his GED.
In his freshman year, he got two F’s, three D’s, three C’s, two B’s, and an A in swimming. Despite the underwhelming grades, Wells was actually of normal intelligence.
At 16, the age at which he dropped out of high school, Wells had a tested IQ of 109, a little above the average of 100.
According to an Erie District School psychological study, which was conducted because of Wells’ poor grades, he had a verbal IQ of 100. But his performance IQ (which measures nonverbal tasks) of 120 was higher than 91% of the population.
The study revealed that Wells got straight A’s until he entered junior high school. It is thought that his father’s failing health (due to multiple sclerosis) was an emotional strain on the young Wells and contributed to his failing grades.
Brian Wells Was Well-Liked
Wells never married and had no children. Considered to be a loner, he was well-liked but had few friends.
Those who were acquainted with Wells described him as hardworking, reliable, and a little childlike. Because of his oversized glasses, he was often compared to Elton John.
Wells liked playing the guitar and lottery, as well as solving crossword puzzles. He also enjoyed watching the TV show, Survivor, and the musical, Jesus Christ Superstar.
In the early 1990s, Wells got a job as a pizza delivery man at Mama Mia Pizza-Ria in Erie, Pennsylvania. He got the job through the husband of his landlady, who owned a five-room cottage where Wells lived with his three cats.
After dropping out of high school, Brian Wells spent much of his adult life delivering pizzas. He enjoyed being a pizza delivery man because of the laid-back pace, and it provided him with his much-loved independence.
Wells was also a loyal employee. A coworker at Mama Mia opened her own pizza restaurant and asked Wells if he would like to work for her. The new shop was too busy and chaotic and drove Wells, who was a recovering alcoholic, to drink.
Over the almost 10 years that Wells worked at Mama Mia’s, he only ever called in late for work once, when his cat died.
For the most part, Wells had almost no interaction with police. In fact, he had a very short rap sheet, committing his only crime in 1992.
The Erie police charged Brian Wells with threatening to shoot a magistrate over an issue he was having with a neighbor. But it sounds much worse than it actually was.
Wells told the mayor that “it would be easier to use $1 bullets” to fix the issue with his neighbor than sue him. Wells pleaded guilty to harassment as a summary. It is as minor offense as one can be charged with.
Brian Wells Loved His Family and Routine
In around 2002, Wells took a break from delivering pizza, spending several months at his brother’s place in Arizona, where he worked in a tool and die shop. It shuttered its doors, and Wells returned to Erie, delivering pizza at Mama Mia’s.
According to friends and family, Brian Wells liked routine. He got up at around 7:15 a.m., read the Erie Times-News, ate breakfast at McDonald’s, and then drove to work at Mama Mia’s from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
On August 28, 2003, he told Tony Ditomo, the owner of Mama Mia’s, that he would like to leave by 2:00 p.m. or even a little earlier. He was planning on spending the evening with his sister at their 73-year-old mother’s apartment, eating pizza and watching TV.
August 28, 2003: Wells Robs the PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania
Brian Wells was Mama Mia’s only delivery driver the afternoon of August 28, 2003. At around 1:30 p.m., an order came in for two small sausage and pepperoni pizzas to be delivered to 8631 Peach Street, a location not far from the pizzeria.
After taking the order, Ditomo gave Wells the phone to get the address. Just after 1:30 p.m., Brian Wells left to make his sixth pizza delivery for the day. It would be his last.
Instead of being the address of a home, it was the location of WSEE-TV’s transmission tower at the end of a dirt road on the outskirts of town.
At this point, Wells’ life took a drastic turn from a reliable pizza delivery man to a bank robber.
At 2:28 p.m., Brian Wells, 46, walked into a PNC Bank located at 7200 Peach Street in Erie, Pennsylvania, carrying a cane and handed the teller a multi-paged note. He also asked to speak to the manager.
The teller told Wells that the bank manager would not be available until 3:00 p.m. Wells responded by telling the teller he didn’t have until 3:00 p.m. and needed the $250,000 right away.
At this point, Wells lifted his white T-shirt. It had the word “Guess” spray painted on it and showed the teller a bomb that was locked around his neck.
The teller then read the note he handed her, which read, “Gather employees with access codes to vault and work fast to fill the bag with $250,000, you only have 15 minutes.”
The teller told Wells that she could not open the vault but emptied various cash drawers, placing $8,702 into a bag. Wells left.
Brian Wells’ Arrest
In addition to a letter he was supposed to give the bank teller, the alleged perpetrators gave Brian Wells two pages of hand-written instructions, addressed to “Bomb Hostage.” It listed several timed tasks to collect keys which would delay the bomb’s detonation and eventually defuse it.
The note also warned Wells that he was being watched. So, if he attempted to contact the police, the bomb would explode.
“This powerful, booby-trapped bomb can be removed only by following our instructions… ACT NOW, THINK LATER OR YOU WILL DIE!” was printed at the bottom of the instructions.
Brian Wells was part of a scavenger hunt. If he did everything he was told to do, he’d end up with the keys and the combination needed to free him from the bomb locked around his neck. Failing any of the tasks or disobeying any orders would result in his death.
Wells completed the first task; entering the PNC Bank on Peach Street and giving the teller a note demanding $250,000.
The second note read, “Exit the bank with the money and go to the McDonald’s resturaunt [sic]. Get out of the car and go to the small sign reading drive thru/open 24 hr in the flower bed. By the sign, there is a rock with a note taped to the bottom. It has your next instructions.”
Wells drove straight there after he left the bank with the bag of cash. He retrieved a two-page note from the flower bed, directing him to a wooded area several miles away. But Wells was arrested before he got to that clue.
Police spotted Wells sitting in his car and arrested him. He identified himself as Brian Wells and said he robbed the PNC Bank.
Wells claimed that three unnamed black men placed a bomb around his neck, gave him the cane (which was really a disguised shotgun). They told him to rob the bank and complete several other tasks. If he failed, the bomb would go off.
Brian Wells Pleads for Police to Help
The police did not attempt to disarm the bomb as they are not qualified. And because Brian Wells was somewhat calm, or rather, wasn’t acting the way they thought a man with a bomb collar on would, they didn’t think it was real.
In fact, they thought the bomb was probably fake and that Wells was involved in the plot.
Still, they called the bomb squad at 3:04 p.m., more than 30 minutes after the first 911 call was made. Wells, with his hands cuffed behind his back, sat on the pavement, his legs curled beneath him, waiting for the bomb squad to arrive. The police, meanwhile, took positions behind their cars with their guns drawn.
At one point, Wells asked a trooper, “Did you call my boss?”
He worried that his boss, Tony Ditomo, would think he was shirking his responsibilities.
The Collar Bomb Detonates
Brian Wells also repeatedly pleaded with the police, telling them the bomb was live and said, “Why is it nobody’s trying to come get this thing off me? I don’t have a lot of time. He pulled a key out and started a timer. I heard the thing ticking when he did it. It’s going to go off. I’m not lying.”
Moments later, Brian Wells was dead.
At around 3:18 p.m., Brian Wells started to fidget and scooted backward. The bomb locked around his neck started to beep. It then detonated.
Wells was blasted onto his back with the bomb ripping a five-inch gash in his chest. He died on the pavement. The bomb squad arrived three minutes later.
FBI Gathers Evidence
Immediately after Wells died, police began looking for evidence. In Wells’ car, they found an ingeniously crafted gun made to look like a cane. They also found the instructions telling Wells which bank to rob, how much money to ask for, and where to get his next clue.
It was then they realized that when Wells was arrested, he was on his way to the next clue. They picked up the scavenger hunt, and located the container with the orange tape. In it, they found a note telling them to go two miles out of town where the next clue would be in a jar in a wooded area.
Police found the jar, but it was empty. Whoever put the bomb collar on Brian Wells was most likely watching him and police and called off the ordeal.
Wells was found wearing two t-shirts. The outer one spray painted with the word, “Guess,” didn’t belong to him. He must have been forced to wear it after being strapped to the collar bomb. It was a taunt; guess who’s behind this?
The bomb itself was also a marvel. It consisted of two parts—a triple-banded metal collar with four keyholes and a three-digit combination lock. The hinged collar looked like a handcuff.
The bomb also contained two six-inch pipe bombs packed with smokeless powder. It also contained two Sunbeam kitchen timers and an electronic countdown timer. And to throw the bomb squad off, the maker of the bomb ran wires throughout it that connected to nothing.
If investigators could figure out who made the intricate collar bomb, they could unravel the mystery of Brian Wells’ death. Was he a willing participant or a hapless victim forced to rob a bank and carry out a macabre scavenger hunt to save his own life?
Co-Conspirators Quickly Turn on Each Other
The FBI had clues, but no idea who made the bomb and carried out the grisly incident. They didn’t have to wait long to get an inside edge.
On September 20, less than a month after a collar comb murdered Brian Wells, a man by the name of Bill Rothstein called 911 and said, “At 8645 Peach Street, in the garage, there is a frozen body. It’s in the freezer.”
It was his own address. And his backyard extended almost to WSEE-TV’s transmission tower.
Police found the frozen body of James Roden. Rothstein said he was killed because he was going to report the collar bomb plot to the police.
He confided to the FBI that an ex-girlfriend of his, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, killed Roden and that he had helped her hide the body.
Rothstein was an unlikely accomplice to hiding a body. The 59-year-old was an unmarried handyman and lifelong resident of the area. He was also smart and articulate and fluent in three languages—English, French, and Hebrew.
Rothstein told police that Roden’s murder had weighed on him for weeks, so much so that he contemplated suicide. He even wrote a suicide note.
In it, he apologized “to those who care for or about me,” identified the body in the freezer, and said he had nothing to do with Roden’s murder.
The start of the suicide note was a little odd, which read, “This has nothing to do with the Wells case.”
Rothstein went on to explain to police how Roden ended up in his freezer. He claimed that in mid-August, his ex-girlfriend, Diehl-Armstrong, told him she had a fight with her live-in boyfriend over money and shot him with a Remington shotgun. She needed help getting rid of the body.
Diehl-Armstrong maintained she didn’t kill Roden over money. Instead, she insisted, it was a crime of passion brought on by his abuse.
Regardless, Roden was dead, and Rothstein went over to her home. He helped clean up the scene and hid the corpse in a chest freezer in his garage. On top of that, he melted down the 12-gauge shotgun and scattered the pieces throughout Erie County.
While he did everything Diehl-Armstrong wanted him to do, he couldn’t bring himself to grind up the body with an ice crusher. Instead, he called 911 because he was afraid of what Diehl-Armstrong would do to him.
Bill Rothstein died of lymphoma in July 2004 before being linked to the collar bomb.
The next day, on September 21, Diehl-Armstrong was arrested for the murder of Roden. After her arrest, she implicated Rothstein and herself in the collar bomb case.
The next day, on September 21, Diehl-Armstrong was arrested for the murder of Roden. After her arrest, she implicated Rothstein and herself in the collar bomb case.
Diehl-Armstrong told investigators that she was not involved in the plot, but admitted she knew about it and that she supplied the kitchen timers. She also confided that Brian Wells was not a victim but was in on the plan.
Rothstein was, too, in fact. Diehl-Armstrong said he was the mastermind of the plot.
Even before implicating herself, she was already a suspect in the collar bomb plot.
Police met with four separate informants who said that Diehl-Armstrong talked to them in detail about the crime.
One kept notes of the conversation. Diehl-Armstrong is alleged to have said she killed Roden because “he was going to tell about the robbery.” She also helped measure Brian Wells’ neck for the bomb.
Sixteen months later, in January 2005, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong pleaded guilty to the collar bomb case and murder of Brian Wells, but was mentally ill. She was sentenced to seven to 20 years in state prison.
On April 4, 2017, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong died of breast cancer while serving time at a federal prison in Carswell, Texas. She was 68.
In late 2005, shortly after Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong first started speaking to the FBI, a witness came forward. He was former television repairman-turned-crack dealer by the name of Kenneth Barnes was also involved.
Barnes was an old friend of Diehl-Armstrong’s and spoke quite freely about the collar bomb case with his brother-in-law. His brother-in-law then told police what he heard. Barnes was already in jail on unrelated drug charges.
Barnes, threatened with more jail time, agreed to a deal. He told investigators everything about the crime for a reduced sentence.
Like Rothstein, Barnes said Diehl-Armstrong was the mastermind behind the collar bomb plot. He alleged that she needed to come up with money to pay Barnes to kill her father so that she could inherit his fortune.
His story had holes in it, but not enough for police to question the veracity of his claims.
In September 2008, Barnes pleaded guilty to the conspiracy and weapons charges involved in the collar bomb plot.
He was sentenced to 45-years in jail.
Floyd Stockton, a convicted rapist, knew of the robbery but received immunity from prosecution. Stockton was living with Rothstein at the time of the collar bomb plot, having fled from Washington State where he was wanted for a rape charge.
Stockton said the motive behind the murder was financial. He explained that Rothstein needed to come up with money to settle his parent’s estate while Diehl-Armstrong wanted money from her father’s estate before he spent it all.
Stockton was well aware that Rothstein and Diehl-Armstrong were making a bomb. He even helped carry it out of Rothstein’s garage on the day of the robbery, handing it to Rothstein.
It has been alleged that Stockton was in charge of divvying up the money from the heist.
Stockton now lives in Bellingham, Washington and has rebuffed any requests for comment.
Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong was the mastermind of the entire collar bomb plot but needed to enlist a few co-conspirators for help. Wells was allegedly lured into the collar bomb plot with the promise of a big payout.
According to the FBI, Brian Wells led a bit of a double life. The unassuming pizza delivery man reportedly had a relationship with Jessica Hoopsick, a prostitute.
The two had sex roughly twice a month for five years. Along with Barnes, who was also a client, Brian Wells would buy crack and trade it to Hoopsick for sex.
In the weeks leading up to the robbery, Wells fell behind on payments to his crack dealers and needed cash.
Hoopsick, meanwhile, was offered $5,000 by Barnes to find a “gopher” who could be scared into robbing a bank. She gave them the name Brian Wells.
After being brought into the scheme, it is thought that Wells knew he was going to be the one robbing the bank but that the bomb would be fake. It had to look real, though, to fool the bank tellers.
As for the scavenger hunt, it was a ruse to trick the police. So, if he was caught, he could point to the instructions as evidence that he was innocent and simply following orders.
On the afternoon of August 23, 2003, Bill Rothstein called in the phony pizza order. When he got to the TV transmission tower, Wells realized he had been double-crossed. Before securing the bomb around his neck, they told him it was real.
He tried to escape but was stopped. A gun was fired as a warning and Wells was locked into the collar bomb. From this point forward, Brian Wells went from co-conspirator to unwilling participant, fighting for his life.
Just 55 minutes after having the collar bomb strapped around his neck, 40 minutes after he robbed the PNC Bank, and 20 minutes after being arrested, the bomb detonated and killed him.
Investigators Close Collar Bomb Plot
In July 2007, the U.S. attorney’s office in Erie called a news conference and announced the investigation into the collar bomb plot was over. Diehl-Armstrong and Barnes were charged with carrying out the crime. It also named Rothstein and Wells as co-conspirators.
Up to this point, everyone believed that Brian Wells was a victim. Even the FBI thought he was a victim at first. The notes Wells carried suggested that, if he completed the scavenger hunt in the allotted time, he would live.
That day, though, it was revealed for the first time that Brian Wells was actually involved in the collar bomb plot. But, police would eventually reveal that the entire scavenger hunt was a hoax.
The bomb was rigged in such a way that any attempt to remove it would detonate it. So, on August 23, 2003, Wells was destined to die.
The Pizza Bomb Heist, According to the FBI
The FBI believes that Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong devised the pizza bomber case to have her father, Harold Diehl, killed so she could inherit some of his estate. His estate was once valued at around $1.8 million, but he was giving much of it away to friends and neighbors in the years before he died.
She wanted her piece of the pie before it was too late. Coming up with $125,000 to pay Kenneth Barnes to kill her father was the motivation for the pizza bomb plot.
Barnes and Rothstein were also major players in the plot. But they needed someone to wear the collar bomb and carry out the bank robbery.
Enter Brian Wells.
At trial, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong told witnesses that Rothstein and Wells knew each other, and they even measured Wells’ neck for the collar bomb. She noted that Wells was well aware of the plan but did not know the extent to which he would be participating.
One month before the collar bomb incident, Diehl-Armstrong, Roden, and Wells met at Barnes’ house to discuss the bank robbery. As part of the initial bank robbery plan, Roden was supposed to be the driver for Wells.
That didn’t happen, of course. Roden was going to warn police about the bank robbery, and Diehl-Armstrong killed him.
If caught by police, Wells was instructed to tell them that three black men forced the collar bomb on him and were holding him hostage.
On August 22, 2003, the day before the bank robbery, Rothstein, Diehl-Armstrong, and Wells met at Rothstein’s house to go over the plan. After the successful robbery, Wells was supposed to hand all the money over to Rothstein.
The next day, however, when Brian Wells got to the television tower, he discovered the plot changed and the bomb was real. By then it was too late. The plan was in motion, and Brian Wells was robbing a bank to save his life.
After robbing the PNC Bank of $8,702, a nervous Wells parked his car in the parking lot of a nearby Eyeglass World. Troopers, who saw that Wells matched the description of the bank robber, arrested and handcuffed him.
Wells was under strict orders not to contact the police, and if he did, he’d die. And they would know if he did because he was being followed.
He was. Both Diehl-Armstrong and Barnes watched Wells rob the bank with binoculars sitting in her red Jeep Cherokee.
Rothstein was there as well, but he was in his own vehicle. And after detonating the bomb, the three returned to Rothstein’s house, and they all piled into Rothstein’s car.
It was then that the trio made their way to an undisclosed destination. Before they got there, Diehl-Armstrong had them stop by the side of the I-79, as she had to retrieve something she left in a wooded area.
The item was most likely the clue that police could not find after they located the empty jar. She then tossed this unknown object into the backseat of the car.
While Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong was sentenced to jail for organizing the collar bomb plot, many believe that the real mastermind got away with murder.
According to Jim Fisher, a retired FBI criminal investigator, there is no way Diehl-Armstrong could have planned the pizza bomb caper.
Fisher points to a profile of the Collar Bomber generated by the FBIs Behavioral Analysis Unit.
“It continues to be the opinion of the [department] that this is much more than a mere bank robbery,” it reads. “The behavior seen in this crime was choreographed by ‘Collarbomber’ watching on the sidelines according to a written script in which he attempted to direct others to do what he wanted them to do… Because of the complex nature of this crime, the [FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit] believes there were multiple motives for the offender, and money was not the primary one.”
Multiple motives mean that the bank robbery wasn’t even the point of the whole ordeal. The architect didn’t care about the money. Instead, they wanted to craft a twisted puzzle, one that would defy explanation.
For Fisher, this does not sound like anything Diehl-Armstrong would do. While she had a violent past, she was bipolar, on Social Security disability for mental illness, and a hoarder.
While Diehl-Armstrong was smart—she was the valedictorian of her high school class and earned a Master’s in Education—she no longer had the mental capacity to organize and carry out anything like the pizza bomb heist or design and build the actual bomb.
And chances are good that if she did want to kill her father, she wouldn’t have gone to the James Bond/Die Hard with a Vengeance-type length to create an unnecessarily complex and time-consuming plot.
If history is any indicator, she would have taken matters into her own hands. But if Diehl-Armstrong wasn’t the mastermind, who was?
Is Bill Rothstein the Mastermind Behind the Collar Bomb Heist?
The FBI’s profile states that the person who built the bomb was “comfortable around a wide variety of power tools and shop machines,” and was “a frugal person who saves scraps of sundry materials in order to reuse them in various projects.” The architect was also “the type of person who takes pride in building a variety of things.”
To anyone with a passing interest in the pizza bomb heist, this sounds more like Bill Rothstein. He was a handyman who had the skills to design and create the elaborate explosive device used in the bank robbery.
On top of that, Fisher pointed to the description of the mastermind directing others according to a written script. A script that contained information only Rothstein had access to.
It’s possible that Rothstein was toying with investigators from the start by building a bomb that could not be diffused and creating a useless scavenger hunt that would confound police.
Then there was the 911 call in which he fingered Diehl-Armstrong in the Roden murder, said he wasn’t aware of the collar bomb caper, and had nothing to hide. He was in control of the collar bomb plot, and his own interrogation from the start.
Barnes and Rothstein said that Diehl-Armstrong was the mastermind of the collar bomb plot. But the evidence points to Rothstein.
Rothstein built an intricate bomb and cane gun and executed a heinous crime that grabbed worldwide headlines and baffled authorities for years. He recruited co-conspirators he could easily control and kept crucial details about the plot secret.
Until his dying days, Rothstein denied knowing anything about the collar bomb plot.
In July 2004, before he could be linked to the pizza bomb heist, Bill Rothstein took his secrets to the grave.