On the afternoon of 28th August 2003, a 46-year-old pizza delivery man named Brian Wells walked into a bank in Erie, PA, with a bomb locked around his neck and shotgun shaped like a cane at his side. He handed the teller a note demanding $250,000 and grabbed a lollipop from the counter. Unable to access the safe, the teller gave him $8,702 from her drawer, and Wells left the bank with the money. An hour later, as TV cameras filmed and state troopers circled, the bomb went off. It tore a large hole in his chest, killing him immediately. A medical examiner had to decapitate Wells on site to remove the intact metal collar.
And we haven’t even gotten to the really weird part yet.
Netflix’s four-part documentary, Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist explores the many twists and turns of what is certainly one of the strangest true crime stories in recent memory. Produced by the Duplass brothers (who also made Wild, Wild Country), the docuseries goes beyond the heist itself to reveal a truly bizarre cast of characters caught up in an increasingly wild whodunit. To give you an idea of just how complicated things get, Brian Wells’ heist and death take up only the first 15 or so minutes of the first episode.
Want to know more? Warning: spoilers ahead.
So, who is the Evil Genius?
There’s an entire rogue’s gallery here to choose from, but it's Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong who's depicted as the mastermind behind the pizza bombing. Diehl-Armstrong had been a talented student and valedictorian of her high school class, but as an adult she struggled with bipolar disorder. Friends and family describe her as brilliant and charming but also greedy and manipulative. And the men in her life tended to...die.
In 1984, Diehl-Armstrong shot and killed her then-boyfriend Robert Thomas. She claimed it was self-defence and was acquitted of the crime in 1988. In 1992, her husband Richard Armstrong died of a cerebral haemorrhage, and Diehl-Armstrong received a large malpractice settlement. In 2003, a few weeks after the failed pizza bomb heist, police found the corpse of Jim Roden, another of Diehl-Armstrongs boyfriends, in her friend's freezer. That friend, Bill Rothstein, told police that Diehl-Armstrong had killed Roden in order to cover up her part in the pizza bombing. But Rothstein was no innocent bystander (more on that in a bit).
What’s the deal with the collar bomb?
When police arrested Wells outside the bank, they discovered a metal collar bomb fastened around his neck. He told them he’d delivered a pizza to a group of Black men who held him down and put the contraption on him. In Wells’ car, they a lengthy note instructing him to rob the bank and then proceed on a complicated scavenger hunt to retrieve the three keys he would need to unlock the collar.
Police didn’t buy the story about the Black men and had doubts that the bomb was even real. Wells himself didn’t seem very concerned it would go off, leading investigators to believe he was a willing participant in the botched heist. When the explosive device detonated, the bomb squad was still a few blocks away. Police later followed the instructions for the scavenger hunt and determined there was no way Wells would have completed it in time to remove the collar bomb and save his life. They believe that the note and scavenger hunt were written and designed by Rothstein (the man who later reported the body in the freezer to police).
So the pizza delivery guy was in on it?
Hmmmm, possibly? Investigators believe Wells may have cooperated, thinking the bomb was fake. They determined that Diehl-Armstrong and Rothstein enlisted Wells to rob the bank in a plot to finance the murder of Diehl-Armstrong’s father. The duo planned to cash in on her inheritance.
But exactly what role Wells played remains unclear. The FBI has called the case "one of the most complicated and bizarre crimes” they’ve ever worked. The whole plan involved a crew of hapless co-conspirators who all had a slightly different version of how events went down. Investigators would spend years attempting to create a coherent narrative from the tangle of various stories, double-crosses, murders, peripheral characters, and “evil geniuses” that cluttered the plot.
Is there a black comedy quasi-based on the pizza bomber?
Sort of. Aziz Ansari and Jesse Eisenberg starred in 2011's 30 Minutes or Less, a movie in which Eisenberg plays a slacker pizza delivery man who gets a bomb strapped to his chest and told it will detonate if he doesn't rob a bank in 10 hours. In this version, the pizza delivery man lives. The screenwriters insisted they had limited knowledge of the real-life pizza bomb heist, and the cast and crew supposedly had no idea it had happened. Still, the FBI agents who witnessed Wells' death criticised the film.
Where can I watch Evil Genius again?
But is Zac Efron somehow connected to this?
We're so glad you asked! Shortly before High School Musical would rocket Efron to stardom, he appeared in an episode of the short-lived television series Heist, playing an unfortunate pizza delivery guy forced to strap a bomb to his chest and rob a bank. He blows up about two minutes into the pilot.