On August 28, 2003, pizza guy Brian Wells took one last delivery on his route in Erie, Pennsylvania, before finishing his shift. The last-minute call came from an address with an obscure address: a transmission tower site, down a dirt road, on the outskirts of town. Wells, 46, never returned to the pizza shop.
The next time he was seen was later that same afternoon, when he walked into Erie’s PNC Bank and passed the teller a note demanding $250,000. With a walking-stick and a huge protrusion in the front of his shirt — what bank customers thought was a neck injury apparatus, but Wells claimed was a bomb — and his t-shirt with “Guess” spray painted across it. Wells made off with $9,000, the most the teller could give him. As soon as he was gone customers in the bank began dialling 911, and he only made it a few hundred yards in his car before a State Trooper pulled him over.
Wells was handcuffed and left on the pavement. He desperately bargained with the police, telling them he had a bob around his neck that was put there by some people who jumped him when he was making a pizza delivery. The device was attached to his neck like a large handcuff, and was beeping. While the Troopers kept their distance from Wells, waiting for the bomb squad to arrive and confirm the bomb story, the device around Wells’ neck suddenly stopped beeping. Mere seconds later, it exploded, leaving a 5-inch gash in Wells’ chest. He was dead, and the whole ordeal was captured on camera by local news film crews who were documenting the riveting arrest.
The investigation into Wells' robbery and death will be covered in tonight's episode of "The Price of Duty," with former FBI detective Jerry Clark recounting how the diabolical bank heist changed his life forever.
"I get a call, 'Hey we got a new bank robbery at 7200 Peach Street, [and there is] a potential bomb utilized during the robbery.' All right, well we've had those before, and many times you arrive on scene and they're hoax devices. But for whatever reason, this one felt different almost immediately," Clark told producers.
As Clark predicted, this was no ordinary bank robbery.
In Brian’s car, the police discovered handwritten notes with elaborate instructions, one reading: “There is only one way you can survive and that is to cooperate completely... This powerful, booby-trapped bomb can be removed only by following our instructions… ACT NOW, THINK LATER OR YOU WILL DIE!” The notes led Brian on a bizarre scavenger hunt, giving him time extensions on the bomb exploding for each step completed. So it seemed like Brian had really been jumped, but the police obviously had to get to the bottom of it. This is one of the most movie-esque murder plots ever committed — and it’s the subject of Oxygen’s weekly "Martinis & Murder" podcast.
Brian had given the police little detail aside from his name and place of work, and the accusation that “someone” had set him up. The police went straight to Mama Mia’s Pizzeria, where Brian worked, and his co-workers expressed sincere doubt that Brian would have been able to make a bomb himself. So the police traced the call for the two pepperoni pizzas to the transmission tower site and found Brian’s shoe impressions and tire marks there, but here the trail went cold.
They turned their attention to the bomb instead. FBI analysis found that the bomb was not amateur work--it was very well designed. They found that the bomb was indeed initiated before Brian walked into the bank, and it had an inbuilt timer, as well as a booby trap that would trigger it if anyone attempted to remove it. Unfortunately, there was no DNA or fingerprint evidence on the bomb that could link it to its maker. The FBI thought one possible scenario was that the maker was a shop teacher with a background in electronics, and had a workshop at their house.
Enter: Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong
Born in 1949, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong had lived in Erie, Pennsylvania all her life. She was an only child to two parents who ran a successful awning business. Marjorie was considered a child prodigy, was good at music and graduated at the top of her class. With a high IQ, she also excelled at college and got a Master’s degree. Marjorie’s high school sweetheart was a guy named Bill Rothstein. He was another “genius” who was in Mensa. They were engaged in their 20s, but it didn’t last. After Marjorie broke off the engagement, she really began struggling with her mental disorders, including bipolar and depression. In 1984, she murdered her next boyfriend, Robert Thomas, in his sleep, shooting him six times. She was acquitted of the crime because it was believed he was violent and abusive towards her. In 1990, she married her next serious boyfriend, Richard Armstrong, who she called her one true love.
However, after only 2 years, in 1992, Marjorie was rushing Richard to hospital with a serious head injury. He died of an internal brain hemorrhage. Marjorie said he had fallen, and the coroner corroborated, saying the death was accidental. There was no further investigation.
Marjorie was apparently devastated by the death, and despite settling for $250,000 with the hospital in a medical malpractice case, Marjorie began to struggle even more with her mental illnesses. She was deemed “disabled” due to her psychological condition, and got disability payments from Social Security, on top of the hospital pay out and help from her father, who bought her a house.
Her next boyfriend was James Roden, an unemployed alcoholic. They lived together for nine years without event. Indeed, Marjorie would only leave the house one night per week--on garbage pickup night, she’d scour the neighborhood looking for things on the side of the road to add to her collection of hoarded ephemera. But then in August of 2003, the peace would be disturbed when Marjorie’s neighbor heard gunshots coming from the house.
How is this all connected?
On September 21st, three weeks after the robbery/bombing, the police received a phone call. A man’s voice told them, “I have a dead body in my freezer.” The caller was Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong’s former fiancé, Bill Rothstein.
Bill went to the police station for questioning, and explained how he and Marjorie had been friends for years, and that she would often call on him for help, which is how he ended up with a dead dude in his freezer. Bill said that six weeks earlier, Marjorie had called him in a panic, saying she’d shot and killed her boyfriend, James Roden. After an argument, she allegedly shot him twice with a 12-gauge shotgun.
Bill said he went to Marjorie’s, wrapped the body in tarps, and dragged it to his van, before taking it home and putting it in the freezer. He also helped Marjorie get rid of the gun, sawing it into pieces and melting it down with a torch.
The police went straight to Bill’s house--and found Marjorie there, sitting in the bed. When the investigators told her who they were, she went “berserk” according to State Police Supervisor Lamont King, screaming at them to get out of the house. Officers had to restrain her, and they found James in the freezer as described. The police arrested Marjorie for the shooting.
Here’s where it gets interesting: while recovering James’ body, investigators realized Bill’s house was less than five hundred yards from where Brian Wells made his last delivery, right under the transmission tower.
Bill gets cocky
That night Marjorie refused to talk with investigators, but Bill was very chatty. He told investigators he was “the smartest guy in this room,” and reeled of his impressive educational resume--including his degree in electrical engineering and that he was a substitute science teacher with the Erie school system, specializing in robotics. By bragging, Bill willingly admitted to police he fit the exact profile of their bomb maker they were looking for.
While searching Marjorie’s house, police managed to find two ads in the paper circled by Marjorie a few days before James’ murder. They were for shotguns. One of the sellers confirmed selling a gun to Marjorie and Bill. By now, investigators are convinced Marjorie had something to do with the robbery/bombing.
But things took yet another turn when Marjorie was found mentally incompetent to stand trial by the court in 2004. It meant that anything she said might not be able to be used in court. Now in a state mental hospital, Marjorie’s testimony against Bill would be useless. Shortly after, Bill was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In July 2004, investigators tried to get a confession from Bill on his deathbed, but he passed without uttering a useful word.
By the end of 2004, Marjorie was determined as knowing the difference between right and wrong, and therefore declared competent able to stand trial. But she didn’t--instead, on January 7th, 2005, she pled guilty to the murder of James Roden, and was sentenced to 7 to 20 years in prison. Investigators interviewed her in July 2005, and Marjorie hinted that James’ death and the robbery/bombing were connected, saying, “If I tell you how Roden and Wells are related, that immediately puts me into the Wells case, and I’m not gonna do that.” But Marjorie did give up one detail, a name: Ken Barnes.
Who is Ken Barnes?
Barnes was a misfit friend of Marjorie’s. An odd but smart guy, and a retired television repairman. Ken was also a crack dealer, and when he was questioned by police on August 11th, 2005, he admitted to being part of the robbery/bomb plot. Ken told investigators that Bill built the bomb, and that the robbery was Marjorie’s idea. They asked Ken to help with the timing mechanism on the bomb. The weirdest part was Marjorie’s reason for wanting to rob the bank: Ken said Marjorie wanted to rob the bank in order to kill her father to get an inheritance. He knew this because he was going to be the one killing her dad--but for the fee of $250,000. That’s what led Marjorie to come up with the bank robbery plot.
On October 12th, 2010, Marjorie stood trial for the robbery/bombing. The prosecution sold Marjorie as the “catalyst” for the entire robbery/bombing, despite Bill building the bomb, and her clear mental instability. Ken pled guilty to his role in the conspiracy and was sentenced to 45 years in prison, and on the stand, he testified against Marjorie. Ken also said that he and Marjorie had followed Brian to the bank, watching from a vehicle parked across the street. According to Ken, Marjorie also killed James -- remember, he was her ex, who was found in Bill’s freezer -- because he threatened to tell police about her plot.
On the stand, Marjorie gave a long and rambling testimony (possibly a symptom of bipolar). She said the investigators set her up and the government framed her, and that Bill was the true mastermind. The jury reached a verdict on November 1st , 2010, finding Marjorie guilty. She was convicted with conspiracy to commit bank robbery with the utilization of a destructive device, and she was sentenced to life in prison on February 28th 2011. She earned another 30 years for using a bomb in the crime. The sentence would begin as soon as she finished serving her time, or was paroled, for killing James Roden. She is in an all-female prison near Fort Worth, Texas.