Evil Genius: The 2003 “Pizza Bomber” Bank Heist & The Black Widow Who Blew It All Up

Brian Wells, with collar bomb, 2003/YouTube video [screenshot]

ERIE, PA — On August 28, 2003, a pizza delivery driver entered a local bank branch and slipped the teller a note demanding $250,000.

It seems a typical first step in countless harebrained cash grabs, but this particular attempted heist exposed one of the most bizarre transgressions in modern crime history — explosively.

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The pizza guy was Brian Wells, 46, a gentle and well-liked man known in his Erie, Pennsylvania, neighborhood for looking after his elderly mother. He had no criminal history and a fine reputation.

Wells jaunted into the PNC Bank branch that morning brandishing a cane that actually functioned as a working shotgun. His note explained that an active bomb was locked around his neck, he had no way to remove it, and that if he didn’t get the money, the device would go off.

Bank staffers stuffed $8,000 cash into a bag and sent Wells on his way. Police surrounded him in the parking lot immediately. Officers handcuffed Wells and held him at gunpoint.

Sitting on the pavement, Wells sadly pleaded for someone to get the collar-bomb off him, and calmly explained how he landed in this predicament. The more Wells talked, the louder and more rapidly the device beeped. Then he blew up.

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Brian Wells [Wikipedia]

During the heartbreaking standoff, Wells said that he’d gone on a pizza delivery run that morning, whereupon three people held him down, locked the bomb around his neck, gave him the note and the gun-cane, and ordered him to go rob the bank.

Never panicking, Wells continually told the cops around him that the bomb on his neck was going to explode and he begged them to remove it. They didn’t.

With news cameras focused on the scene from a multitude of viewpoints, local media broadcast the horrific, infernal death of Brian Wells on live television.

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Afterward, police found a pile of handwritten instructions for the “Bomb Hostage.” The notes detailed a wild scavenger hunt for Wells to obtain keys for the collar bomb and deliver the loot to the crime’s planners.

Thus, Wells was not only telling the truth but, in an extra cruel twist, he could never have actually gotten the device off his neck in time. He was doomed from the moment he dropped off those last three pizzas.

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After decapitating Brian Wells’ body on the spot to remove the device (to the outrage of his loved ones), multiple law-enforcement teams commenced a vast investigation into what one federal agent ultimately described as “one of the most complicated and bizarre crimes in the history of the FBI.”

In the course of the freakishly evolving case, all paths continually led to one central perpetrator: Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong.

Born in 1949, Diehl-Armstrong grew up full of promise. Exceptionally intelligent, charismatic, and musically talented, she excelled both academically and socially until falling victim to bipolar disorder in her late teens. From there, Diehl-Armstrong’s life took a series of terrible turns deeper into darkness.

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In 1984, police arrested Diehl-Armstrong for murdering her boyfriend, Robert Thomas, but she successfully claimed self-defense and a jury found her not guilty. Diehl-Armstrong, however, would go on to kill again.

In fact, the big break in the “pizza bomber” case — as the murder of Brian Wells had become known — occurred about a month after the crime, when William “Bill” Rothstein called the local authorities to report that he helped his ex-girlfriend hide a body inside a freezer in his garage. The ex-girlfriend was Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong.

The frozen dead man turned out to be James Roden, Diehl-Armstrong’s most recent romantic partner. Marjorie fatally blasted Roden with a 12-gauge shotgun in a dispute over money — funds she apparently would later attempt to obtain by way of the collar-bomb scheme.

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Rothstein himself proved to be a troubling figure on par with his ex. Similarly hyper-intelligent and frighteningly unhinged, Rothstein had been implicated as an accessory to a 1977 murder, but granted immunity in exchange for his testimony.

In removing James Roden’s remains, police also found what appeared to be a suicide note in which Rothstein claimed his planned death had “nothing to do with Brian Wells.” Rothstein never actually attempted to kill himself, but the note pointed cops in the direction of the pizza bomber.

William Rothstein [Erie Bureau of Police]

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In July 2004, Rothstein died of cancer. Six months later, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong pleaded guilty but mentally ill to the murder of James Roden and was sent to jail for seven to 20 years.

Seeking better prison accommodations in April 2005, Diehl-Armstrong reached out to the FBI and said she was ready to spill all she knew about the pizza-bomber case.

First, it was all about the money. Specifically, Diehl-Armstrong wanted $250,000 to hire a hitman who would execute her own father, whom she mistakenly believed was rich.

In plotting out the scheme, then, Diehl-Armstrong asked her “fishing buddy” Kenneth Barnes to build a pipe bomb. She also gave two egg timers to William Rothstein, a skilled mechanical builder, and told him to create a ticking detonator that could be locked around the neck of a patsy they’d get to do the robbery — a tragic role that fate cast upon Brian Wells.

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On the morning of the robbery, Rothstein ordered three pizzas and attacked Wells when he showed up to deliver them. The assembled gang downed hot slices as they locked the bomb around Wells’ neck and gave him their insane, impossible instructions.

As Wells had reportedly known the heist’s planners and had supposedly interacted with them previously, prosecutors allege that he was in on the scheme. But friends, family, and others who knew Wells insist that he was an entirely innocent victim. Still, Wells has never been legally exonerated.

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Authorities now believe that James Roder — the frozen dead boyfriend — was also an active participant in the robbery and in locking the bomb on Wells. Prosecutors say Diehl-Armstrong therefore shot Roder to death to keep him quiet.

Kenneth Barnes, Marjorie’s bomb-building fishing buddy, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit armed robbery and using a destructive device in a crime of violence. He testified against Diehl-Armstrong and, in 2008, was sentenced to 45 years in federal prison.

Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong blamed the conveniently now-dead Rothstein as the atrocity’s true mastermind. In addition to her existing jail term, Diehl-Armstrong got a life sentence for armed bank robbery, conspiracy, and using a destructive device in a crime of violence.

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Both Barnes and Diehl-Armstrong claim that Brian Wells had been in on the caper, but tried to back out when he discovered the bomb would be live, and not just a phony prop. Because of this, neither had to face murder charges.

In 2017, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong died of breast cancer in federal prison. She maintained to the bitter end that none of this mess was her fault.

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Main photo: Brian Wells, with collar bomb, 2003/YouTube video [screenshot]