A quiet and solitary man spent an entire lifetime avoiding the spotlight... only to blow-up on TV. Was he a victim? According to the FBI he was a conspirator. Or was he?
This is a murder mystery/bank robbery that will satisfy the most tested sleuths. It has filled my mind for the past seven years. I can honestly say that is just as interesting today as it was all those years ago when I first decided to get up off the couch and step into the... Erie Pizza Bomber Case.
It began on Thursday August 28, 2003, a beautiful summer day in Erie, Pennsylvania just before 2:00pm. The phone rang inside Mama Mia's Pizzeria. Owner Tony Ditomo routinely answered it. "A male adult voice spoke asking for two small sausage and pepperoni pies. He said he was up at a tower site across from an auto lot on upper Peach St. The wind was blowing and his voice was cutting in and out. Tony gave the phone to Brian Wells, the deliveryman, and he got directions. The pies were in the oven cooking by the time the call ended." A few minutes later Wells stepped out to deliver the pizzas to a TV tower site at the end of a long, wooded and strangely eerie dirt road.
Around 4:00pm that same afternoon Tony received a different type of call. It was the FBI this time, calling to inform him that his pizza deliveryman was dead. The news was shocking. "I told them he wouldn't do something like that. Then I watch it in on the five o'clock news. I couldn't believe it." The news report on TV that evening showed Wells walk into the PNC Bank branch in the Summit Town Plaza and rob it using a live bomb. The bomb went off.
In the days afterward more information became available. It was revealed that Wells walked into the bank using a cane with an oddly shaped collarbomb locked around his neck, the likes of which were never seen before in the U.S. He stood waiting in line for the teller, and then handed her a cryptic note demanding $250,000.00. The cane he walked with was actually a fully loaded and operational handcrafted cane-shotgun.
After receiving a bag of cash ($8,702.00) he left the bank and was quickly pulled over by police. Once the officers noticed the collarbomb, they backed away from him and secured the area. News trucks and cameramen rushed to the scene. A live television feed was established and was broadcasting on the local FOX affiliate. A heated standoff between Wells and police began.
With rifles pointed at him, the police waited for the bomb squad to arrive. From a seated position in front of a police car, Wells called out "It's going to go off, I'm not lying." Then, "Why isn't anyone trying to get this thing off of me? Did you call my boss?"
At 3:18pm the bomb exploded. Pieces of the collarbomb fragmented and shot everywhere. Wells fell backwards and was motionless. The impact caused a contusion to his chest and stoppage of his heart. Kara Rhodes, Erie Times News reporter, was at the scene; "The bomb went off and there was just silence, it was eerily silent." An audio problem actually prevented the precise moment of the explosion from being shown on live TV. Police at the scene found eight pages of notes directing Wells on a scavenger hunt of sorts in search of keys to unlock the bomb from around his neck. The note read, "Act Now, Think Later Or You Will Die". The perception of Wells began to change and a lengthy multi-agency investigation commenced.
In what has fast become one of the most bizarre and infamous bank robberies in U.S. history, the mysteries of the Erie Pizza Bomber Case continue to unfold. Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, along with her severe bi-polar and personality disorders, recently stood trial in Erie, Pennsylvania on federal grand jury charges of bank robbery, conspiracy, and weapons charges. At the trial, information in this very tight-lipped case finally became available. Opinions around town and inside the courtroom evolved.
After hearing testimony, Brian's former 'Boss', Tony, was saddened. "Brian was a good employee, but I am angry. I am hurt. Knowing that he planned this with those people. That he was a part of it. He could have asked me for money, he could have asked his brother John for money. He didn't have to do that." Tony held out hope for Brian's innocence and now feels duped by his former employee. But is his newly formed opinion based on fact or fiction. Fact: Brian Wells was seen driving away from the TV tower site the day before the crime. Fiction: Other details regarding his involvement are coming from Co-Conspirator Ken Barnes, a convict with a vested interest. Brian's involvement and the ruse at the heart of the bank robbery will be debated forever.
When Diehl-Armstrong delivered her testimony to jurors, the opinions of many of those seated in the gallery changed one hundred and eighty degrees. People questioned the term "reasonable doubt". Standing outside the courthouse when Diehl-Armstrong had finished, I interviewed a resident that has been following the case for years:
"Okay, what do you think?"
"I thought I knew her [Diehl-Armstrong] and that she was absolutely guilty, but now I'm not too sure. No cause really all this time I've been thinking I knew her, but what I found out today, was that she filed police reports about Ken Barnes before the pizza bomber killing, that has not come out before [in the media]. Why was she filing a report about Ken Barnes stating he wanted to kill her father before the pizza bombing even happened? I'm blown away by that."
Might she be innocent? The Diehl-Armstrong connection began on September 21, 2003, when Pennsylvania state police were called to the home of William A. Rothstein.
Caller: "Ah, Mam, at 8645 Peach St. in the garage, there is a body in the freezer."
Operator: "A body?"
Caller: "There is a woman there with brown hair, green slacks and a blue blouse. Her name is Marjorie Diehl... Armstrong"
Two-time fiancée to Diehl-Armstrong, Bill Rothstein, called police with his hands in the air. Rothstein claimed to have been hired by Diehl-Armstrong to dispose of the body of her boyfriend for the past ten years, James Roden. He was an abusive alcoholic that pushed her into a rage. During a recent prison visit with Diehl-Armstrong she said, "I shot him twice with the shotgun, I killed him, I admit it." Rothstein told police that she was taking it too far. He explained that she intended to put the body through a meat grinder and that he didn't think he could handle something like that. That notion was what pushed him to call police.
Now comes the chilling coincidence; Bill Rothstein's house, with Roden's body in the garage, is located exactly next to the dirt road leading to the specific tower site that Brian Wells was sent to deliver the pizzas on August 28, 2003. Police arrived and searched the property. Roden's body was found exactly where he said, in a freezer. The body was sent to the coroner where it began a seven day thaw-out process in preparation for an autopsy. Later it was determined that he indeed withstood two shotgun blasts in the back.
At the same time police find a suicide note written by Rothstein that read: "The body in the freezer has nothing to do with the Wells Case." In police video from the crime scene, Rothstein asks investigators, "Did you guys get my note? Just wanted to be sure you didn't think this had anything to do with the Wells Case." In an earlier section of the video he says, "One of you guys said you found a liver in the garbage?" Rothstein looks around the room for confirmation, as if he's proud of himself. He approaches a garbage can in his kitchen. Atop the pile of garbage within the can rests a bloody glob, something looking very similar to liver you would find in the butcher's case. Rothstein continues, "If there is a liver in there it would have had to come from her. It wouldn't be human because the body is frozen. It would have to come from her since I am a vegetarian and don't eat meat. She probably had it in her purse. She feeds liver to her cats and dogs."
The various agents of law enforcement listen intently as Rothstein continues holding court over the crime scene, "There could be some rags at the bottom of that garbage can with my blood on them and a razor blade." Rothstein looks towards investigators and points to his wrist, "From when I cut myself on purpose." The bloody glob resting atop the garbage can was identified as a coagulated blood clot belonging to Bill Rothstein himself. This dialogue is an open window into the brain of the man who many consider to be the mastermind of the Erie Pizza Bomber Case. This dialogue and game of cat and mouse with law enforcement agents is his pay dirt and maybe our proof rolled into one.
The Erie Pizza Bomb Case is a complex statement from a sad, lonely, poor and evil man. The swan song of a deranged, eccentric, and highly intelligent mastermind who never succeeded at anything in life. A man with characteristics and personality traits that perfectly match the FBI's profile of the "Collarbomber" in this case. He is dead, but testified against Diehl-Armstrong from the grave through these long videotapes taken at the crime scenes back in September 2003.
In the video, Rothstein exhibits the psychopathic behavior needed to be believable as the mastermind of this strange crime. The crime scene footage takes place at two addresses in Erie, Diehl-Armstrong's home on Bacon St. (where Roden was shot and killed) and Rothstein's home on Peach St. (where the body was kept).
"He wasn't more happy then when making people squirm.", says an old friend. Rothstein worked as a handyman and shop teacher. He guided law enforcement agents through the filthy, garbage packed and rodent infested homes as if he was the teacher lecturing to students in forensic studies. He listed every method, chemical and device he used to destroy all evidence and cover up the killing of Roden. He felt comfortable sharing information as he claimed only to be providing a service to Diehl-Armstrong... working as a "Cleaner" of her crime scene... not unlike the character "Mr. Wolf" from the movie Pulp Fiction.
The proximity of Roden's body, Rothstein's house and the TV tower site where Brian Wells was sent to deliver the pizzas was no coincidence. Police hate coincidences, he knew that. Unfortunately for Diehl-Armstrong, it was all a part of Bill Rothstein's master plan. Diehl-Armstrong believes he framed her and the other Co-Conspirators in the Erie Pizza Bomber Case. On the stand she stated, "He loved me, and if he couldn't have me, then nobody could." Payback is a bitch, especially when it comes from an eccentric madman trying to prove his intellectual dominance.
Today, Brian Wells and the image of a 46-year-old man lying dead on the hot asphalt, sun beating down on him in the parking lot of Eyeglass World has all but faded from the headlines in the infamous Erie Pizza Bomber Case. Wells' death on August 28, 2003 is still at the center of the case; however, the bizarre nature of the crime and its would-be masterminds who have emerged from behind TV towers, inside a freezer chest, crack house porches and local Erie legend have indeed pushed Brian Wells out from under the spotlight.
The public perceived Wells to be a victim for many years until July 11, 2007 when the FBI handed out two indictments and shared for the first time that they believed Wells had been involved in the planning. Once the FBI inferred Wells as a participant, his days were gone as a tragic figure. Couple his participation with an utter lack of physical evidence connecting anyone to the bomb or cane gun and there goes any notion of the FBI investigating his death as a murder. They were forced to be content with investigating those who planned and conspired to rob the bank that day. However, what remains at the center of this case is the question... Was a plan this bizarre actually intended to be a bank robbery?
Now, seven years later, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong's trial has ended with a guilty verdict on all three charges. The jurors didn't believe the theory that she was too busy cleaning up one killing to be bothered with another (it takes time to foster such an opinion). Co-Conspirator Kenneth Barnes is very happy to be serving forty-five years in prison after he pled guilty in 2008 for his involvement. "There isn't a place I'd rather be. I can be my own man and have a little slice of heaven. I'm sick and not sure how much longer I will live." Interestingly, Diehl-Armstrong put the FBI onto Barnes in the first place. The man who in the end may have done the most damage to her.
Is it clear yet that Wells was a co-conspirator? In an event more similar to a scene from a twisted horror-flick than a successful bank robbery attempt, the answer is no. Brian Wells is not the pizza bomber; he is a murder victim. But as of November 1, 2010, it's clear his case will never be heard.
Last In Line Pictures presents ERIE PIZZA BOMBER CASE: Who Killed Brian Wells?, a documentary film coming in 2011