Collar Bomb Heist

Brian Douglas Wells (November 15, 1956 – August 28, 2003) was an American man who died after becoming involved in a complex plot involving a bank robbery, a scavenger hunt and a homemade explosive device. Wells was killed when an explosive collar detonated while he was surrounded by police in his hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania. The collar had been forcibly locked onto his neck as part of the plot. The crime was investigated by a task force led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in conjunction with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and the Pennsylvania State Police, and was described as “one of the most complicated and bizarre crimes in the annals of the FBI”.[ The law enforcement investigators concluded that Wells was a knowing participant in the bank robbery, but did not know that his co-conspirators intended to let him die. Wells’ family argues he was not a willing participant, adding to the significant attention the story has garnered in the mass media.

The Collar Bomb

Wells dropped out of high school in 1973. For nearly 30 years, he worked as a pizza delivery man and was considered a valued and trusted employee of the Mama Mia Pizzeria in Erie, Pennsylvania. On the afternoon of August 28, 2003, Wells received a call to deliver two pizzas to 8631 Peach Street, an address a few miles from the pizzeria. The address was a television station WSEE-TV‘s transmission tower at the end of a dirt road.

According to law enforcement reports, Wells was allegedly meeting people who he thought were his accomplices, including Kenneth Barnes. Wells allegedly participated in the planning for the robbery, which included him wearing a fake bomb. If questioned, he was to claim that three black men had forced the “live” bomb on him and were holding him as a hostage. This was obviously a lie, to be sure they didn’t suspect the actual master minds behind this shit.

The instructions, addressed to “Bomb Hostage”, listed a series of strictly timed tasks to collect keys that would delay the detonation, and eventually defuse it. Additionally, it warned that Wells would be under constant surveillance, and any attempts to contact authorities would result in the bomb’s detonation. “ACT NOW, THINK LATER OR YOU WILL DIE!” was scrawled at the bottom of the instructions.

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The first task was to “quietly” enter the PNC Bank on Peach Street and give the teller an affixed note demanding $250,000, and to use his shotgun to threaten anyone who was not co-operating or attempting to flee. Upon entering the bank, Wells slid the note to a teller. The note stated that in 15 minutes the bomb would explode and that the full amount must be handed over within that time. Unable to access the vault that quickly the teller gave Wells a bag with $8,702 in it, with which he exited the bank.

I don’t think wells really realized what he’d gotten into at first, even witnesses at the bank stated he’d been very calm. If I were in a hostage situation like that I’d be freaking the fuck out. They armed him with a cane shot gun, showed below.

Around 15 minutes later, police spotted Wells standing outside his Geo Metro vehicle, and promptly arrested him. Wells claimed that three unnamed black people had placed a bomb around his neck, provided him with the shotgun, and told him that he had to commit the robbery and several other tasks, lest they kill him.

The police initially did not attempt to disarm the device. The bomb squad was first called at 3:04 pm, at least 30 minutes after the first 9-1-1 call. At 3:18 pm, just three minutes before the bomb squad arrived, the bomb detonated and blasted a fist-sized hole in Wells’s chest, killing him within a matter of minutes. Wells was believed to have been killed by Diehl-Armstrong and her conspirators to reduce the number of witnesses against herself and others.

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Diehl Armstrong

Although the note claimed that he would gain extra time by each found key, regardless of what had unfolded, Wells would never have had enough time to complete the tasks to get the bomb defused; police traveled the route on the note and could not complete it in the time the note allotted to Wells.

Wells was allegedly drawn into the plot through Barnes, whom he knew through a mutual acquaintance named Jessica Hoopsick. The plot was hatched to get funds to pay Barnes enough money to kill Diehl-Armstrong’s father, Harold Diehl, so that Diehl-Armstrong would receive an inheritance, according to authorities. However, Wells was handed only $8,702 by the teller, far from the $250,000 needed for the killing.[ Furthermore, the inheritance Diehl-Armstrong reportedly coveted was ultimately denied to her. Her father’s estate had once been valued near $2 million, but gifts to friends had lowered the value to less than $200,000 at his death in July 2014, at the age of 95. In an interview included in the Netflix miniseries Evil Genius about the Wells case, Harold Diehl reported that he had cut off financial support for his daughter decades earlier due to her criminal behavior and failure to hold a steady job. Additionally, his last will and testament left only $2,000 to Diehl-Armstrong, yet the estate’s obligation to pay outstanding medical bills before inheritances meant she received nothing.

On September 20, William “Bill” Rothstein, who lived in a house near the radio tower, called police to inform them that the body of a man, James Roden, was hidden in a freezer in a garage at his house. Rothstein was promptly arrested. After he telephoned police, but before they contacted him at his home, Rothstein wrote a suicide note indicating that his planned suicide had nothing to do with Brian Wells, though he never attempted suicide. Which usually indicates that it does have something to do with Brians murder.

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In custody, Rothstein claimed that Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, an ex-girlfriend he had dated in the late 1960s and early 1970s, had murdered her then-boyfriend Roden with a 12-gauge shotgun during a dispute over money. Rothstein claimed she subsequently paid him $2,000 to help hide the body and clean the shooting scene at her home. He claimed to have called the police out of fear, describing Diehl-Armstrong as dangerous and manipulative. The following day, she was arrested. A musical prodigy who graduated near the top of her high school class, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong’s adult life was characterized by hoarding and bipolar disorder. She was known to authorities, due to her husband and several later partners dying under suspicious circumstances. In 1984 she was arrested for killing boyfriend Robert Thomas, but was acquitted on grounds of self-defense. Rothstein had been implicated in a 1977 murder after having given a handgun to a friend who used the weapon to murder a romantic rival; Rothstein later attempted to destroy the weapon but was granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony.

Rothstein was admitted to the Millcreek Community Hospital on July 23, 2004. Rothstein had previously been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma showing myeloproliferative lymphoma, diffuse large cell type. Rothstein died of lymphoma on July 30, 2004, aged 60. Floyd Stockton (Stockling), a friend who lived at Rothstein’s house during the time of the bank robbery plot, was also believed to be involved. He was granted immunity for his testimony against Rothstein, but was never called to testify in court due to illness.

In January 2005, Diehl-Armstrong pleaded guilty but mentally ill to the murder of Roden and was sentenced to seven to 20 years in prison. In April 2005, Diehl-Armstrong confided to a state trooper that she had information about the Wells case, and after meeting with FBI agents, said she would tell them everything she knew if she was transferred from Muncy State Penitentiary to a minimum-security prison in Cambridge Springs. During a series of interviews, Diehl-Armstrong admitted to providing the kitchen timers used for the bomb, and said that Rothstein was the mastermind of the plot and that Wells had been directly involved in the plan.

In late 2005, Kenneth Barnes, an ex-television repairman in jail on unrelated drug charges and friend of Diehl-Armstrong, was turned in by his brother-in-law after revealing details of the crime to him. Barnes told investigators that he would tell them the whole story in return for a reduced sentence. He told them that Diehl-Armstrong was the mastermind of the crime and that she wanted the money to pay Barnes to kill her father, whom she believed was wasting her inheritance.

On July 29, 2008, U.S. District Court Judge Sean J. McLaughlin made an initial finding that Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong was mentally incompetent to stand trial for the bombing due to a number of mental disorders, indicating that this ruling would be reviewed after Diehl-Armstrong had received a period of treatment in a mental hospital. She was then transferred for treatment in a federal prison mental-health facility in Texas.

On September 3, 2008, Kenneth Barnes pleaded guilty to conspiring to rob a bank and to aiding and abetting.[ On December 3, 2008, Barnes was sentenced to 45 years in prison by a federal judge in Erie for his role in the crime.

In a July 2007 indictment, federal prosecutors alleged that Wells had been involved in planning the botched bank robbery. His co-conspirators Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong and Kenneth Barnes were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of bank robbery and conspiracy, as well as weapons charges, while other co-conspirators had already died. In 2008, U.S. District Judge Sean J. McLaughlin sentenced Barnes to 45 years in federal prison. Two years later, Diehl-Armstrong was also found guilty and was sentenced to life in prison in 2011, where she died of breast cancer in 2017.

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