Murder of Brian Wells

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Brian Douglas Wells
Brian Douglas Wells.jpg
Born Brian Douglas Wells
(1956-11-15)November 15, 1956
Died August 28, 2003(2003-08-28) (aged 46)
Erie, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Cause of death Explosive device collared around neck
Nationality American
Occupation Pizza delivery man
Motive Bank robbery

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. He was killed when the explosive collar, which had been forcibly locked onto his neck as a part of the plot, detonated while he was in police custody. The bizarre affair was subject to much attention in the mass media.

In a July 2007 indictment, federal prosecutors alleged that Wells had been involved in the planning of the botched bank robbery. Two of his alleged co-conspirators, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong and Kenneth Barnes, were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of bank robbery, conspiracy, and weapons charges. 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, in 2011, was sentenced to life in prison, where she died in 2017.

The event[edit]

Pizza delivery[edit]

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 later found to be that of the radio station WSEE-TV's transmission tower at the end of a dirt road.[1]

According to law enforcement reports, Wells was allegedly meeting people he thought were his accomplices, including Kenneth Barnes. Wells allegedly participated in the planning for the robbery, which included him wearing a fake bomb.[2] If questioned, he was to claim that three black men had forced the "live" bomb on him and were holding him as a hostage.[3]

At the television tower, Wells found the plot had changed, as he learned that the bomb was real. He wrestled with the men (presumably Barnes and William A. Rothstein)[4] and tried to flee, but one of them fired a gun, causing Wells to stop. At this time, the collar bomb is assumed to have been latched around his neck. The culprits gave him a sophisticated home-made shotgun, which had the appearance of an unusually shaped cane, and two pages of hand-written instructions.[5]


Triple-banded metal collar that was locked around Wells' neck

The instructions, addressed to "Bomb Hostage", listed a series of strictly timed tasks to collect keys which 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.[6]

The first task was to "quietly" enter the PNC Bank on Peach Steet 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 gave 15 minutes to produce the full amount or the bomb would explode. Unable to access the vault in that time, she gave him a bag with $8,702 in it, with which Wells exited the bank.[7]


Cane-like shotgun used by Wells during the bank robbery

Around 15 minutes later, police spotted Wells standing outside his Geo Metro vehicle, and promptly arrested him. Wells claimed that three unnamed 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.[6]

At first, the police made no 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' chest, killing him. Wells was believed to have been killed by Diehl-Armstrong and her conspirators to reduce witnesses against herself and others.[8] The event was broadcast on television and the footage subsequently found its way to video-sharing sites.[9]

Although the note claimed 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 allocated to Wells.[8]


Wells was allegedly drawn into the plot through Barnes, whom he knew through Diehl-Armstrong.[8] The plot was hatched to get funds to pay Barnes enough money to kill Diehl-Armstrong's father, so that Diehl-Armstrong would receive an inheritance, according to authorities. However, Wells had only stolen $8,702, far from the $125,000 needed for the killing.[10] 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. 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.[11]


On September 20, William "Bill" Rothstein, who lived in a house near to the radio tower, called police to inform them that the body of a man, James Roden, was hidden in a freezer in a garage. He was immediately arrested. He claimed his ex-girlfriend, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, whom he had dated in the late 1960s and early 1970s, had murdered Roden (Diehl-Armstrong's then live-in boyfriend), during a dispute over money, with a 12-gauge shotgun, and contacted him to aid her in hiding the body. Rothstein claimed to have not been directly involved in the murder, but could not bring himself to grind up the body and called the police out of fear of Diehl-Armstrong; the following day, she was arrested. In January 2005, Diehl-Armstrong plead guilty but mentally ill to the murder of Roden and was sentenced to seven to 20 years in prison. Rothstein died of lymphoma in July 2004 aged 60.[6]

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.[12] 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.[6]

In July 2007, U.S. attorney Mary Beth Buchanan announced the investigation was over and that Diehl-Armstrong and Barnes had been charged with the crime, with Diehl-Armstrong as the mastermind. The deceased Rothstein and Wells were also indicted as conspirators to the crime. Wells was announced to have been been a part of the scheme from the beginning and had thought the bomb was fake and the instructions in his pocket were an alibi if he were to get caught. However, she revealed that Wells was betrayed by his conspirators and that he was fitted with a real bomb that would have exploded even if it were removed.[13][14]When he discovered the bomb was real, Barnes said a pistol was fired in order to force Wells' compliance, and witnesses confirmed hearing a gunshot.[15]

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.[16] She was then transferred for treatment in a federal prison mental-health facility in Texas.[17]

On September 3, 2008, Kenneth Barnes pleaded guilty to conspiring to rob a bank and to aiding and abetting.[15][18] On December 3, 2008, Barnes was sentenced to 45 years in prison by a federal judge in Erie for his role in the crime.[19]

On February 24, 2009, Judge McLaughlin scheduled a hearing for March 11, 2009, to determine if Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong was now competent to stand trial.[20] Judge McLaughlin ruled Diehl-Armstrong incompetent to stand trial in July 2008. On September 9, 2009, the judge determined that she was indeed competent to stand trial. As of October 2010, Diehl-Armstrong's trial was underway in Erie, Pennsylvania, and she had taken the stand to testify on her own behalf as part of her defense.[21] She asked for a change of venue, arguing that extensive media coverage of the case prevented her from receiving a fair trial. Judge McLaughlin denied this request, noting that while the allegations were unusual, "the [news] coverage as a whole has been about as factual and objective as it could be under the circumstances."[22]

On November 1, 2010, Diehl-Armstrong was convicted of armed bank robbery, conspiracy to commit armed bank robbery, and of using a destructive device in a crime.[23] On February 28, 2011, she was sentenced to life in prison, to be served consecutively with the prison term previously imposed in 2005 for killing Rohen.[24] In November 2012 the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed her conviction.[25] In January 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court denied her petition for certiorari, declining to hear her case.[25][26] In December 2015, Diehl-Armstrong lost a second appeal of her conviction.[27] She died in prison of breast cancer on April 4, 2017, at the age of 68.[28]

Media attention[edit]

The incident and the subsequent investigation were covered in American national media several times as the case continued to develop. When the story broke, many wrongly believed the incident to be terrorism-related.[29] America's Most Wanted featured the story three times with newly released evidence in hopes officials could gather new clues behind the case.[30]

A collection of news articles that reported developments in the Brian Wells story was analyzed in a scientific study of information novelty.[31]

The story was described in detail in the January 2011 issue of Wired magazine.[32]

In 2012, Jerry Clark and Ed Palattella published Pizza Bomber: The Untold Story of America's Most Shocking Bank Robbery (ISBN 0425250555) a true-crime book detailing the events.[33]

The story was covered in a February 2018 episode of Swindled, a podcast dealing with white-collar crime.[34]

The story was covered in an April 2018 episode of Casefile True Crime, a podcast dealing with true crime.[35]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Bank Robber May Not Be Perpetrator". WSEE News. August 29, 2005. Archived from the original on August 29, 2005. Retrieved August 16, 2011. 
  2. ^ "Pizza Deliveryman Who Robbed Bank Had Neck Measured for Bomb Collar". Fox News. Associated Press. 2007-07-19. Retrieved 2010-09-30. 
  3. ^ Caniglia, John (2007-07-12). "Double-crossed: Erie pizza bomber Brian Wells was both victim and conspirator". The Plain Dealer. p. 3. Archived from the original on 2007-08-22. Retrieved 2007-07-15. 
  4. ^ Martin, Jim (2008-12-03). "Barnes gets 45 years". Retrieved 2013-06-16. 
  5. ^ "Collar Bomb Probe Gets Weirder". Retrieved 2017-11-23. 
  6. ^ a b c d "The Incredible True Story of the Collar Bomb Heist". Retrieved 2017-11-03. 
  7. ^ "Jury Convicts Woman in Collar Bomb Robbery". Retrieved 2017-11-23. 
  8. ^ a b c John Caniglia (2007-07-11). "Erie Bomb Victim was the Dupe in a Greedy Plan". The Plain Dealer. Retrieved 2011-08-16. 
  9. ^ STUCK, LEANNE (28 August 2015). "12th Anniversary of Erie Pizza Bomber Case". 
  10. ^ Nephin, Dan (2007-07-11). "Indictment: Bomb victim in on bank plot". USA Today. Associated Press. Retrieved 2011-08-16. 
  11. ^ "Woman in pizza bomber case to get nothing from father". Retrieved 2017-11-03. 
  12. ^ "Pizza collar-bomb case solved, official says". Retrieved 2017-11-03. 
  13. ^ "Erie bomb victim was the dupe in a greedy plan". Retrieved 2017-11-03. 
  14. ^ "Indictment: Bomb victim in on bank plot -". Retrieved 2017-11-23. 
  15. ^ a b "Collar Bomb Bank Robber Gets 45 Years". Retrieved 2017-11-03. 
  16. ^ "Diehl Armstrong: Mentally Incompetent". W.I.C.U 12. 2008-07-29. Archived from the original on 2008-12-06. Retrieved 2008-08-29. 
  17. ^ "Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong Could Make Court Appearance". [permanent dead link]
  18. ^ "Pennsylvania 'Pizza Bomber' Co-Defendant Pleads Guilty in Bizarre Bank Heist Plot". Fox News. 2008-09-02. Retrieved 2008-09-02. 
  19. ^ "Collar Bomb Bank Robber Gets 45 Years". CBS/AP. December 3, 2008. Retrieved August 16, 2011. 
  20. ^ "Diehl-Armstrong Hearing Scheduled". [permanent dead link]
  21. ^ Defense humanizes collar bomb suspect for jury By JOE MANDAK – Associated Press Published – Oct 28 2010 12:14PM PST
  22. ^ U.S. v. Diehl-Armstrong, Case No. 1:07-cr-26-SJM-1. 739 F.Supp.2d 786 (2010), accessed 29 July 2017
  23. ^ "Diehl-Armstrong faces life sentence". 
  24. ^ ""Pizza Bomb" Update: Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong sentenced to life for bizarre Pa. collar-bomb killing". CBS/AP. March 2, 2011. Retrieved August 16, 2011. 
  25. ^ a b "Pizza-bomber robbery appeal rejected". CNN. January 15, 2013. Retrieved January 17, 2013. 
  26. ^ Diehl-Armstrong v. U.S, no. 12-7609, (docket). Retrieved January 17, 2013.
  27. ^ "Diehl-Armstrong comes up short in 2nd appeal". Erie Times-News. 29 December 2015. Retrieved 11 September 2016. 
  28. ^ "Erie's Diehl-Armstrong recalled as unique and deadly criminal". Erie Times-News. 4 April 2017. Retrieved 5 April 2017. 
  29. ^ Johnson, Kevin (2003-09-17). "Was pizza deliverer a robber or a victim?". Usatoday.Com. Retrieved 2009-10-18. 
  30. ^ "The Erie Collar Bomber". America's Most Wanted. Archived from the original on 2009-06-19. Retrieved 2006-09-05. 
  31. ^ "Newsjunkie: Providing Personalized Newsfeeds via Analysis of Information Novelty" (PDF). Microsoft Research. Retrieved 2006-09-05.  [PDF] (see Figure 5 in Section 5.2 of the paper)
  32. ^ Schapiro, Richard (December 27, 2010). "The Incredible True Story of the Collar Bomb Heist". Wired. Retrieved August 12, 2011. 
  33. ^ Clark, Jerry; Palattella, E d (2012). Pizza bomber: the untold story of America's most shocking bank robbery (Berkley premium ed.). New York: Berkley Books. ISBN 9780425250556. 
  34. ^ "Brian Wells Archives — Swindled | a podcast about white-collar crime and corporate greed". Swindled | a podcast about white-collar crime and corporate greed. Retrieved 2018-03-21. 
  35. ^ "Case 81: Brian Wells - Casefile: True Crime Podcast". Casefile: True Crime Podcast. Retrieved 2018-04-15. 

External links[edit]