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The Truly Bizarre and Mysterious Case of the Pizza Bomber

Some unsolved crimes really go the extra mile to baffle and perplex. Here we have cases that are riddled with weirdness and liberally peppered with bizarre clues. Such mysterious cases can prove to be labyrinthine in their mysteries and seemingly unsolvable, dooming us to a limbo of blind speculation and guesses. One such case certainly would have to be the time a pizza delivery man robbed a bank with a bomb collar around his neck, which has launched one of the weirdest unsolved crimes there is.

August 28, 2003 was a normal business day for the PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania, and at 2:28 PM one of the tellers had already met with many customers when she was approached by her next, a balding middle aged man wearing a t-shirt and carrying a large bag and a cane. The teller thought nothing much of this unassuming, nondescript man as he picked up a lollipop and began sucking on it, that is until he passed a note across the counter on which was scrawled instructions to access the vault and fill the bag with $250,000 in cash. To show he meant business he then revealed that tied around his next was a bomb that looked sort of like a box-shaped collar with a timer that hung down on his chest. The teller remained calm, and since she could not access that kind of money she instead put $8,700 into the bag and sent the man on his way. The robber accepted the money, left the bank, and drove off in his car, but things were just starting.

As soon as the man was gone police were notified and launched a hunt for the perp and his vehicle. The robber was found to be 46-year-old Brian Wells, who was far from a career criminal and had for the last 10 years worked as a pizza delivery man at the local Mama Mia’s Pizzeria. It would not be long before police located Wells in a nearby parking lot and surrounded him, after which he was taken into custody and handcuffed as he screamed about the bomb collar he was wearing. Wells pleaded to police that the collar he was wearing was a very real bomb and warned them that it was going to go off at any moment. When asked how he had come to be in this predicament, Wells claimed that he had delivered pizzas to a group of men who had forced him at gunpoint to put the device on in an elaborate plot to have him rob the bank for them. This was all very intriguing, but before police could question him any further the device around his neck began to beep in a very alarming way. Police backed off, cleared the area, and the bomb then exploded, killing Wells and kicking off a bizarre mystery.

Brian Wells during the heist

As police sorted through the crime scene they would uncover myriad strange pieces of evidence. The bomb itself was found to be a sort of sophisticated homemade hinged contraption that fastened around the neck and held a box with two pipe bombs within it, as well as two kitchen timers, four keyholes and a three-digit combination lock. The whole thing was rather meticulously designed, complete with fake wires to throw off any would-be bomb defusing specialists, and it was all really rather brilliant. Another gadget was the cane Wells had been carrying, which was found to not be a cane at all, but rather a shotgun that had been ingeniously redesigned and rigged to look like a cane. Whoever had designed these things obviously knew what they were doing, and it was doubted that Wells could have devised and crafted them himself. Who had gone through all of this trouble to make this bomb so that they could get a pizza man to commit a robbery? No one knew.

Looking through the dead man’s belongings only furthered the mystery. There were found in his possession a full nine pages of elaborate and at times bizarre instructions for Wells, who is referred to in the notes as “Bomb Hostage,” to carry out, as well as maps and drawings. The notes do indeed tell him that he is to rob the bank or risk having his head blown off by the bomb, but making it all even weirder are the steps that he was told to take when that was completed. Reading through these pages uncovered what was essentially a bizarre scavenger hunt. Wells was to complete a series of tasks, after which he would be directed to hidden keys and combination codes that would eventually allow him to remove the bomb. He is strictly told in no uncertain terms to not in any way tamper with the device, that he was being watched, and the instructions ominously end with, “Act now, think later or you will die!” The bank robbery was found to have been the first task, and they had caught him in the midst of the second, so he had not gotten very far, and police were left trying to figure out who had put him up to this outlandish scenario.

In an effort to get more information, authorities actually went about trying to complete the scavenger hunt themselves. The note had instructed Wells to go to the parking lot he was found in, where he was to find a flower bed containing a rock with more instructions taped to it. Police found those, and they then followed the new instructions to an orange container that held still more instructions. These led them on another wild goose chase to find a jar that would supposedly contain the next steps, but this jar was found to be empty, suggesting that the perpetrators knew the police were doing the scavenger hunt and had backed away. Before long the case was hitting the news in a big way and multiple law enforcement agencies would become involved, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), and the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP).

Brian Wells being confronted by police

The scavenger hunt had led to a dead end, so they began interviewing Wells’ employer. According to his boss, he had received a pizza delivery order at 1:30 on that day, after which he had gone to the location, which was identified as being a remote TV transmission tower in a wooded area off a dusty dirt road. When the area was examined, authorities found evidence that Wells had indeed been there, but there was no clue as to what had happened next. That would change when on September 20 a seemingly unrelated 911 call came in from a man named Bill Rothstein, who told the startled operator that he had a frozen dead body in the freezer of his home, which also just happened to sit up right against that TV tower.

Authorities soon descended upon the property, and Rothstein claimed that he had not killed the man in the freezer, but that he had instead been hiding it for an ex-girlfriend named Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong. Apparently the dead man was her new boyfriend James Roden, and had been shot by her during an argument, after which she had desperately pleaded with Rothstein to help her hide the corpse. He did as he was told, but felt very guilty about it, even writing a suicide note in a plan to kill himself, which chillingly ends with “This has nothing to do with the death of Brian Wells,” and such was his torment that he had called 911 to alert police. Diehl-Armstrong, who already had a long history of the alleged murder of boyfriends and husbands, was arrested and sent to prison, and at the time this didn’t seem to have much to do with Wells at all except for the unfortunate location of Rothstein’s house and the odd mention in the suicide note, but this would change.

In 2005, Diehl-Armstrong was being interrogated by authorities when she suddenly made the revelation that she knew about what had happened with the Wells case, and that she would tell them everything if they transferred her to a minimum-security prison. She would tell police that she had been the one to supply the kitchen timers for the bomb, and that there had been several conspirators, including her dead boyfriend Roden, Rothstein, his roommate Floyd Stockton, and indeed Wells himself. According to her, the whole thing had been Rothstein’s idea, and while they could not interview Rothstein anymore because he had died in 2004, they had just gained a promising new lead.

Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong

The authorities involved began probing into people who had known the alleged conspirators, and they soon found out that most of these informants had information that made them strongly believe that Diehl-Armstrong was likely the actual mastermind, and that she had killed Roden to keep him from talking about the plan. They also found another accomplice named Kenneth Barnes, who was a friend of Diehl-Armstrong and a known drug dealer. Barnes, who was already in jail for drugs, coughed up a lot of information under questioning, firmly pointing a finger at her for orchestrating the plan in order to get money to pay to have her own father killed for his considerable inheritance money.

Barnes also concurred that Wells was in on the whole plot, but that he had not been aware that the bomb was real. This fit in with what authorities had already suspected. Speaking to bank personnel and looking through surveillance footage police could clearly see that Wells had been supremely confident throughout. He had picked up a complimentary lollipop and sucked on it, showed no fear, and left the premises casually swinging the cane and the bag of money like it was the most natural thing in the world. This confidence and lack of apparent fear led them to believe that far from an innocent pawn, he might have been in on the whole thing to some extent, although his carefree demeanor suggests that he didn’t realize his life was actually in danger. Indeed, Barnes confirmed this, and said that in Wells’ mind, the whole bomb thing was just to fool the police if he was ever caught, but to the other conspirators it turned into a very real game to see what would happen. He also added that the bomb was never meant to be removed, and that the scavenger hunt was impossible to finish in time anyway. In short, they had planned to kill Wells from the beginning in order to get rid of witnesses to the plot and have one less person to divide the spoils with.

This still left a lot of mysteries, though. For one, Wells’ family would insist that he had not been an active participant in the crime, and there was also the fact that Wells had obviously been engaged in the second stage of the scavenger hunt when he was caught. Why would he do that if the money was already in the bag and he didn’t think the bomb was real? Also, why would he willingly take part in such a ruse if all it would do was point fingers at his co-conspirators if he was caught? The whole bomb plot doesn’t make much sense either way, as even if he was supposed to die from the beginning, why would they go through such an elaborate way to do it, which required highly specialized equipment? Even with the overly complicated method, why not just blow up the bomb right after the job was done?

For her part, during her trial Diehl-Armstrong vehemently denied having anything to do with masterminding the plot, claiming that she did not know Wells and that she had merely provided the timers for the bomb. It didn’t help her, and in the end she would receive a life sentence for her role in it all. Barnes would receive a 45-year prison sentence, Stockton would go to jail for unrelated crimes, and the others involved were already dead. Case closed. Or was it? Although the alleged conspirators were brought to justice in some way or another, the murkiness surrounding the how and why of it all has never really been dispelled, and indeed there are many theories and conspiracies still surrounding it.

One idea that has caught on in recent years is that the real mastermind behind the whole plot was never Diehl- Armstrong at all, but rather Rothstein, who in the end had never been formally been charged with anything. This theory has been championed by retired FBI criminal investigator Jim Fisher, who believes that among all of the conspirators it was Rothstein who had the necessary know-how to make the bomb. Fisher also believes that Rothstein was playing everyone, including the police, and that the robbery wasn’t the point, but rather the game. He theorizes that it was all a sophisticated game to mess with the authorities and waste their time, and that everything Rothstein had done, including the 911 call and the body in the freezer, had been carefully orchestrated and calculated as part of his twisted amusement. In this theory, Rothstein simply wanted to make headlines and create an enduring mystery, and if that is true he definitely seems to have succeeded. Fisher has said of it:

The son of a bitch ended up winning. He died with all of the secrets. He died taking all the answers with him. He gets the last laugh in that sense. He escaped punishment. He escaped detection. He left us with these idiots and a bunch of questions.

Another idea that has been thrown about is that the real mastermind is still out there, a phantom puppet master behind the scenes pulling the strings only to vanish into history. Of course there is no way to know if all of this speculation is any more valid than any of the other ideas orbiting the case, and in the end we are left with many questions but few answers. What happened to this poor pizza delivery man, and was he being used or did he know what he was doing? Why the elaborate bomb plot and scavenger hunt? Who was really behind it all and what was their real motive? Exactly what roles did these various players really play, and what was the ultimate purpose? There have been no new clues or groundbreaking leads, and the case had gone on to become one of the more complicated and odder of the many true crime cases out there.