August 28, 2003, roughly 1:30 PM: Mama Mia’s Pizzeria in Erie received a call from a payphone at a nearby gas station, and the owner picked it up. He couldn’t understand what the caller was saying, so he passed the phone to Brian Douglas Wells, a pizza delivery driver that’s been working with the pizzeria for ten years. This was the beginning of a complex and bizarre crime. This is the story of what will be known as The Pizza Collar Bomber.

The Day of The Robbery

On that same day, at around 2:30 PM, 46-year-old Wells entered the PNC Bank at Summit Towne Center and handed a note to the teller demanding $250,000 and that he would use his cane-looking shotgun on anyone who would not cooperate. He also had a bomb seemingly shacked around his neck, which the note also said would explode if the money was not handed to him in 15 minutes. He pulled his shirt down and showed a metal collar with two pipe bombs attached. The bankers informed him that it was impossible to access the vault within the time he’d given due to the safeguards in accessing the vault. Wells asked to just give all the money available. According to witnesses, Wells looked confident and even took the time to suck a lollipop when he reached the counter. The sum handed to him was $8,702. He then exited the bank.

Brian Douglas Wells. PA Department of Motor Vehicles / via Wikimedia Commons / Fair Use

15 minutes and a few 911 calls later, Wells was found by the police hanging out in a parking lot not too far from the bank he had just robbed, which was not the most brilliant idea. Naturally, he was tackled by the police. As he was handcuffed, he told the cops that three black men had placed the bomb around his neck and that it could explode any minute. The bomb squad was called, and the officers took their positions behind the car. For 25 minutes, Wells was just sitting on the pavement. At one point, he asked, “Did you call my boss?” concerned that his employer thought he ditched his job. Unfortunately for Wells, the bomb started to beep, and he tried to scoot back to save himself from the explosion. The bomb detonated and blowing a five-inch hole on his chest. The bomb squad arrived 3 minutes later.

The Scavenger Hunt

The enforcers checked Wells’s car and found nine pages of hand-written instructions addressed to the “Bomb Hostage.” The instructions included specifically timed tasks about robbing the bank and finding various keys and combination codes along Erie. It was complete with illustrations and maps and a fair amount of not-so-gentle warnings of what would happen if he ignored the instructions. One of which was that they would detonate the bomb remotely, so he must “ACT NOW, THINK LATER OR YOU WILL DIE!”

A page of the instructions found in Wells’ car. (Pizza Bomber Website)

The bomb was inspected, and the truth was found out to be far from what the letter was claiming.

It turned out to be a DIY device consisting basically of nothing but two pipe bombs connected to a kitchen timer and a fake phone that wouldn’t really remotely detonate the bomb. In fact, he could’ve just turned off the timer, and he could remove it unharmed. Some wires were not even connected to anything.

The Evil Genius Behind It All

The investigators continued the hunt that Wells left off but ended with nothing. When they arrived at the nearby woods, they found that the jar that was supposed to have the next clue was empty.

A month after the incident, Bill Rothstein, the guy who lived beside the TV transmission tower at the end of a dirt road where Wells made his last delivery, called 911 to report that “At 8645 Peach Street, in the garage, there is a frozen body.”

When he was taken into custody, he told them that he was in agony for weeks and considered killing himself that he had already written a suicide note, which they found in his home. The suicide note had an apology for those who cared for him and that the body in his freezer was that of Jim Roden and that he was not the one who killed him. The weird thing about his suicide note, though, was the disclaimer at the end: “This has nothing to do with the Wells case,” which translated to the investigators as something like, “This has something to do with the Wells case.”

The metal collar that held the bomb to Brian Wells was intact after the explosion. (Pizza Bomber Website)

Here’s what he said:

He confessed that the dead body was killed by his ex-girlfriend, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, who asked to help her hide the body, which he said he agreed to do.

Diehl-Armstrong was arrested. In 2005, state police handling Diehl-Armstrong’s case called the agents investigating Wells’ case. Diehl-Armstrong admitted that Roden’s death was indeed connected to the pizza bomber case. She told them she would tell them everything if they agreed to transfer her from Muncy state penitentiary to the minimum-security prison in Cambridge Springs. Note that Diehl-Armstrong suffered from bipolar disorder and was paranoid and narcissistic. She had had two lovers in the past who died; one due to an accident, and the other she shot due in self-defense, at least that’s what the jury ruled. Her high school classmates also described her as extremely intelligent with mastery in literature, history, and the law.

This was her confession:

Rothstein was the actual mastermind of the pizza delivery bombing, and she was the one who supplied the kitchen timers used in the bomb. She also said that Wells was not a victim but was actually part of the plan. She admitted to killing Roden because “he was going to tell about the robbery.”

Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong. (Heavy Website)

In late 2005, another witness came out by the name of Kenneth Barnes, a drug dealer who was outed by his brother-in-law when Barnes bragged to him that he was involved in the pizza delivery case.

Here’s his version of what happened:

Diehl-Armstrong asked Barnes to kill her father so that she could inherit his money when he died. The problem was she didn’t have the money to pay an actual hitman. And where could she get this money? Why a bank, of course.  He also said that Rothstein was the one who made the bomb, being the handyman and shop teacher that he was. Now, they needed someone to rob the bank. So Barnes asked his acquaintance Jessica Hoopsick, a hooker, to recommend someone they could easily pressure into committing a crime. She recommended her frequent customer, Wells. Turned out Wells agreed to do the crime but was tricked into believing that the bomb would be fake. He tried to back out when he found out that it wasn’t, but the collar bomb was already locked on his neck. As for the instructions written on the paper, it was speculated that they did that to lead him out of town where they could get the money that Wells would get and that they planned to kill Wells all along.

In 2018, Netflix released a documentary series about the whole case titled “Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist.”