The world was stunned when Brian Wells strode into a bank armed with a shotgun cane and with a bomb strapped around his neck
A balding, middle-aged man shuffles into a bank, waving a shotgun and demanding that terrified cashier hands over the money.
But, as the robber says, this is no ordinary heist – and if staff don’t follow his instructions, everyone, including him, will die. To make his point, he lifts up his bulging t-shirt, revealing a live bomb cuffed around his neck with a heavy metal brace.
Brian Wells’ story which sounds like something out of a Saw film, ending with the desperate robber sat cross-legged in a car park, surrounded by armed police and screaming for help as the collar beeps ever faster.
But the nightmare was real, playing out on news channels around the world – with audience of millions captivated by Wells’ horror story.
Huge questions about the bank robbery remained unanswered for years after the event, and now a new four-part Netflix documentary, Evil Genius, is revisiting the crime – often described as one of the most complicated and bizarre in the FBI’s history.
But who was the real twisted mastermind behind the case of the “pizza bomber”, and could Wells have played a role himself in organising the unconventional heist which saw him turned into a human time-bomb?
A deadly delivery
Brian Wells’ story started with a pizza.
On the afternoon of August 28, 2003, Wells, a school dropout who worked as a pizza delivery man, was sent to deliver two takeaways to an address in the outskirts of Erie, Pennsylvania, where he lived.
Wells had worked as a pizza delivery man, before he found himself embroiled in a nightmarish crime
But after being threatened at gunpoint, the 46-year-old walked away from the scene as a pawn in someone else’s deadly plot, with a DIY explosive collar bolted around his neck, a disguised shotgun in his arms and a two-page note addressed to “Bomb Hostage”.
Wells had been given his instructions: the hand-written note explained that if he wanted to diffuse the box-shaped bomb beneath his chin, he would have to complete a series of tasks within a strict time limit.
Completing these instructions would lead him on a scavenger hunt where he would find keys to delay the detonation, and then eventually diffuse and remove the collar.
The hostage was also warned that he would be watched on every step of the way, and that the bomb could be remotely detonated if he tried to contact the police.
Scrawled at the bottom of the page was the threat: “This powerful, booby-trapped bomb can be removed only by following our instructions… ACT NOW, THINK LATER OR YOU WILL DIE!”
The botched robbery
For his first task, Wells had to rob the bank on nearby Peach Street, using the disguised shotgun to threaten anyone who didn’t cooperate.
Wells was fitted with a heavy steal collar which would supposedly detonate if he tried to remove it or call the police
He drove there in his car and once inside, with a deathly calmness about him, he grabbed a lollipop from the counter, the heavy metal collar bulging beneath a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan: “Guess?” – a possible taunt to investigators.
After strolling to the counter, Wells passed his note to the cashier, warning that they had 15 minutes to hand over $250,000 (£185,000) or the collar would explode.
Terrified bank staff readily did as he said, although this wasn’t enough time to get anything from the vault.
The cashiers could only had access to $8,702 (£6,450) behind the counter, which they bagged and handed to Wells, who strolled out of the bank with the cash and his disguised shotgun.
Wells’ note then sent him off on a life-or-death scavenger hunt, the collar weighing around his neck the whole time.
“Exit the bank with the money and go to the McDonald’s resturaunt [sic],” the next instruction read.
“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.”
The two-page note in the flower bed told Wells to go to a wooded area a few miles away, where he’d find a jar sealed with orange tape containing his next instructions.
Wells’ final minutes
Before he could reach the next step, police responding to the bank robbery spotted a nervous looking Wells about to get into his car.
They approached him and arrested him fifteen minutes after the robbery, throwing him to the pavement and cuffing his hands behind his back.
When Wells explained that he had an explosive clasped around his neck, police backed away, forming a circular cordon around the pizza delivery man, who sat cross-legged on the concrete.
The bank robbery Wells carried out lead to a deadly scavenger hunt – with his life supposedly as the prize
The arrest made for a striking scene, and before long the world’s media was centred on the same car park, where a tense stand-off was underway.
The explosive collar had been built by a professional, with a complex tangle of wires and sturdy metal case preventing officers from disarming the booby trap.
Fake wires were knotted among real ones, with the decoys designed to confuse the authorities as the clock ticked down.
“Why isn’t anybody trying to get this thing off me?” Wells screamed to the police officers, but with the bomb squad en route, none of them dared to move any closer in case they set it off.
Then at 3:18pm, with the bomb squad just minutes away, Wells’ collar started to beep, the noise getting faster every second.
Wells shuffled backwards, fidgeting in his panic, but he couldn’t escape the explosive hanging around his neck.
The bomb went off right there in the car park, and he was propelled onto his back with a five-inch gash in his chest, killing him on the spot.
Picking up the pieces
The police were left with a horrific mystery to untangle: who was behind the bombing? Why send someone on a scavenger hunt through the city in broad daylight?
And why choose Wells as the hostage?
Investigators found the instructions in Wells’ car and tried to follow the path he had been set, only to find that the notes and keys at each step had been removed, as if someone knew they were coming.
Police then worked out how long Wells had been given before his collar went off, and found that there was no way he could have completed the next step of the trail in time – meaning he would have died no matter what.
With the whole town shaken by the crime, it wasn’t long until tips came flooding in to the police.
In September 2003, Bill Rothstein, who lived near the address where the two fateful pizzas were delivered, called to claim his troubled ex-girlfriend, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, had paid him to cover up the murder of her most recent partner.
Police arrested them both and Diehl-Armstrong admitted the murder, earning her a 20 year prison sentence, while Rothstein died in hospital a year later, before anyone could testify against him.
Then, in April 2005, Diehl-Armstrong, rotting in jail for the murder, confessed that she also had information relating to the Wells case.
She claimed she had been aware of the plot but that Rothstein was the mastermind, with Wells himself directly involved in the plan.
Later that year, convicted drug dealer Kenneth Barnes, an ex-television repairman and friend of Diehl-Armstrong, was turned in by his brother-in-law after boasting about his involvement in the crime.
When questioned, Barnes, who knew Wells through a mutual friend, claimed Diehl-Armstrong was the real mastermind.
He said she wanted to carry out the $250,000 robbery so she could pay to have her father killed – for his $2m (£1.5m) inheritance.
A web of evil
It wasn’t until 2007 when police finally thought they had the full picture, although the details remain contested to this day.
After interviewing Barnes and Diehl-Armstrong, federal prosecutors claimed Diehl-Armstrong was the true mastermind, with Barnes, Rothstein and Wells also involved in planning it.
The theory was that Wells had thought the bomb would be fake, and that the note he was given would give him an alibi and excuse him from carrying out the crime.
But on the day of the bombing, he was coerced at gun-point into strapping a real bomb to himself and sent on a deadly goose chase.
In 2008, Kenneth Barnes pleaded guilty to his role in the robbery and murder, and was sentenced to 45 years in prison.
A year later, Diehl-Armstrong’s trial started, and she was eventually convicted in 2010 of armed bank robbery, conspiracy to commit armed bank robbery, and of using a destructive device in a crime – earning her life in prison.
Diehl-Armstrong died of breast cancer in prison last year, and it looked like the horrific story had finally come to an end.
But then, earlier this year, a final detail emerged: Jessica Hoopsick, a prostitute whose clients included Barnes and Wells, came forward to admit she was involved in the plot.
She said Barnes promised her money if she could find a target who could be coerced into robbing a bank.
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