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"The Bizarre Collar Bomb Bank Robbery" is a video made by Ryan Bergara and Shane Madej, uploaded onto YouTube on July 20, 2018. It was the second episode of the fourth season of BuzzFeed Unsolved: True Crime, and the sixty-eighth episode overall. You can find it here.

Description[]

This deadly bank robbery was just the beginning.

Background[]

On August 28th, 2003, a phone call is made during lunchtime rush to Mama Mia's Pizza, located at 5154 Peach Street. Tony Ditmo, the owner of Mama Mia's takes an order for two large sausage and pepperoni pizzas. Tony cannot understand the customer telling him the address, so he hands the phone over to his employee, Brian Wells. Wells is about 5'3", age 46 and balding on top. Wells takes down the address, 8631 Peach Street and heads out south on Peach Street, for what seems to be an ordinary delivery, and yet roughly two hours later, Brian Wells is on live TV for robbing a bank.

He is handcuffed and surrounded by state troopers in the parking lot of Eyeglass World with a bomb strapped to his neck. Wells tells the police that the bomb was fastened to him by a group of black men who ordered him to rob a bank. After about 30 minutes of gently trying to communicate his plight, Wells says to the police, "why is it nobody's trying to come get this thing off me? I don't have a lot of time... it's gonna go off. I'm not lying. Did you call my boss?" At about 3:18 P.M. the collar starts emitting a loud and rapid beeping noise, and then the bomb detonates and Wells falls backwards, slowly dying while medics and police are baffled in the background. Wells dies on the pavement. Two minutes later the bomb squad finally arrives.

Collar bombs have only been known to be used by Colombian drug lords in turf wars, making the use of one in Erie, Pennsylvania especially strange. Even more odd, police found several pages of instructions, telling Wells how to rob the bank, and remove his explosive collar. The notes were addressed to the "bomb hostage". The instructions were hand-written with illustrations. This case seemed pretty cut and dry, but as more details arose, it appeared that Wells may not have entirely been a victim.

To elucidate this possibility further, let's look into Wells. Wells's landlady and neighbor, Linda Payne, states that Wells was an ordinary Erie, Pennsylvania resident. Linda said "He liked to help people, he used to get up, get his breakfast at McDonalds or somewhereand a newspaper, come home and hang out until it was time to go to work. He was very shy, he took the hubcaps off of his car, because they were too shiny. He was the perfect tenant." At the age of 46, Wells lived alone with three cats. He was a dedicated employee at Mama Mia's Pizzeria. In the ten years of his employment there, he had only called in late for work once, due to the death of one of his cats. Admittedly, none of this seems to scream high profile bank thief.

The phone call to the pizzeria was made around 1:47 P.M. Wells agreed to take the delivery even though it was the end of his shift. Wells would've arrived at 8631 Peach Street at about 2 P.M. During investigation, it was found that the delivery location was not a home, but a TV transmission tower site in a wooded area off of Peach Street. It was only reachable by a dirt road. The area was swept and they found footprints that matched Wells' footwear, and the tire tracks of his Geo Metro. The area offered no clues as to how he had been lured there or what exactly happened when he arrived. But one thing is clear, it's during this time, that Wells was outfitted with the collar bomb. Because 20 minutes later, at roughly 2:20 P.M., Wells walked into the PNC Bank wearing the collar bomb. The bank was about two miles back up Peach Street. And Wells was wearing a T-Shirt with the word Guess across the chest. And a shirt that relatives say was not his.

Wells was instructed to "go to the bank quietly. Enter with the weapon you were given. Avoid panicking the tellers or customers. Use the weapon if anyone does not cooperate or attempts to leave the bank." Jon Sekel, a witness at the bank robbery saw Wells walk into the bank with a shotgun disguised as a cane, and what appeared to be a shoebox under his shirt. The bomb was already around Wells's neck at this point.

Wells gave a bank teller a white envelope, and spoke in a low voice. Wells's note to the bank teller said, "gather employees with access codes to vault and work fast to fill bag with $250,000. You only have 15 minutes." He then lifted his shirt and showed the teller his bomb, which the note confirmed. At one point the teller yelled "Audrey!", the code for a robbery.

One teller whispered to a customer to leave and a group of people began to exit. The teller told Wells that there was no way to enter the vault at that time, and was only able to hand over $8,702. Sekel said about Wells, "we walked right past him. He didn't bat an eye!" Sekel said Wells didn't appear scared or cocky, he was actually calm. Wells left a sealed note for the police, along with his drivers license with the teller, as he was told to do. A woman with a cell phone called 911, and about three minutes later Wells walked out of the bank sucking on a Dum-Dum he took from the bank counter.

Police would later find pages of instructions in Wells's car. The first note read, "exit the bank with the money and go to the McDonald's restaurant. Get out of the car and go to the small sign reading drive thru/open 24 hr in the flower bed. By the sign, there is a rock with a note taped to the bottom. It has your next instructions."

At the McDonalds, Wells collected a two page note that directed him to go up Peach Street, to a wooded area several miles away. Shortly after, Wells was stopped by state troopers and handcuffed while he told them about the bomb. The troopers left him sitting on the ground, shouting for help. They called the bomb squad as soon as they visually confirmed the device around his neck. And the rest is history.

The notes directing Wells said, "this powerful booby-trapped bomb can only be removed only by following our instructions...act now, think later, or you will die." Wells was warned that he would be watched by sentries, and that "if anyone follows or interferes, we may leave and allow timer to detonate or call cell phone detonator." If Wells did as he was instructed, which included driving around the city to gather passwords, clues and keys that would disarm the bomb, Wells would end up with the combination to free himself from the bomb, however, it seemed based off of the instructions that Brain Wells never stood a chance. The Plot assumed that he would be able to rob a bank of $250,000 and drive around in a Geo Metro with a collar bomb, without interference from the police.

Cops tried completing the hunt themselves, hours after Wells had died. Bouncing from clue to clue until eventually one of the clue locations came up empty. It seemed that whoever was executing this plan had called it off once the police interfered. One thing to note is that the instructions contained words like "we" and "us", making it appear that there were multiple conspirators.

Theories[]

  • The first suspect is William A. Rothstein. Rothstein was a 6'6" hoarder who only wore dungarees and chest pouches filled with pens and notebooks. He spoke multiple languages, was an engineer and a high school shop or introductory mechanics teacher.
    • Less than a month after the collar bomb incident, Rothstein called the police and told the dispatcher, "at 8645 Peach Street, in the garage, there is a frozen body... it's in the freezer." The address was Rothstein's home, and he claimed the body was there because he was storing it as a "favor for a friend".
    • The friend in question was a woman named Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong. The body was 45 year old James Roden, who was killed by his then girlfriend Marjorie, by shotgun blast while he was sleeping in her bedroom. This occurred on August 13th, about six weeks before Roden's body was reported. Rothstein had twice been engaged to Diehl-Armstrong, so given their history, he agreed to get rid of Marjorie's shotgun and store the body, but stated that he called the police once Marjorie suggested that he put the rest of Roden's body in an ice grinder.
    • He was placed in custody hours later. He agreed to testify against Marjorie for immunity. He told the police that he had been feeling incredibly guilty and at one point was considering suicide. Police found a suicide note in a desk at his home. Interestingly, the note started with "this has nothing to do with the Wells case". Which truly is an odd thing to say, because from an outside perspective, it has no apparent relation.
    • The only link between Rothstein and Brain Wells seemed to be a coincidence. Rothstein's house was one of the only houses in the vicinity of Brian Wells's last pizza delivery in the woods. Rothstein's house was a mere five minute walk away. Additionally, the phone call that placed the order of pizzas was traced to a pay phone on 8228 Peach Street, at a Shell garage only a half mile away from Rothstein's home. Lorraine Blodgett, the manager of the convenience store at the Shell garage, stated Rothstein would often come in. "He'd come in to buy newspapers and cookies. He'd sit outside in his car and have brunch, read the paper." Rothstein also used to make calls from the pay phone.
    • Police searched his home and found power tools, welders and "piles of old machinery." One NPR article states that Rothstein The collar was made up of "a triple banded metal collar with four keyholes and a three digit combination lock and an iron box containing two six inch pipe bombs loaded with double base smokeless powder. The hinged collar locked around Wells's neck like a giant handcuff." Investigators were able to tell that the device had been made using professional tools. In 2007, a Pennsylvania grand jury agreed that Rothstein had dumped over 1,000 pounds of evidence at a local landfill. But even if Rothstein did make the bomb, he didn't quite fit the profile of the mastermind of such a cruel operation.
  • Marjorie Dhiel-Armstrong is the second suspect. After Rothstein tipped off the police to the murder of James Roden, police entered Marjorie's home, which was a mess of dog feces, clothes and fast food cartons. The police had to wear toxic hazard suits.
    • Marjorie already had a reputation in Erie and had killed before. She admitted to having shot her boyfriend, Robert Thomas in 1984. She was acquitted because she stated that she was a victim if domestic abuse. Her first husband hung himself and her second died after hitting his head at home on a coffee table.
    • According to her former high school classmates, she was known for her intelligence, but over the years it mingled with madness. She suffered from multiple mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, paranoia and narcissism. Her moods would swing and she seemed unable to stop her rapid fire speech. The local D.A. Brad Faulk, who had also attended school with Marjorie, described Marjorie as "one of those folks that thinks she's smarter and slicker and brighter than everybody else... And that at the end of the day, she believes she will win or she'll prevail on anything that she does-it's the way she's been for 40 years."
    • She seemed like the type that would make a bank heist more complicated than it needed to be. And she also seemed to be the type that would need to brag about her genius plan. The FBI made a profile of the collar bomber, based on behavioral analysis. The collar bomber was profiled as a hoarder, comfortable with shop machines and power tools. The collar bomber also had access to work with these tools alone, and took pride in their creations with dual purposes. A collar and a bomb and a cane and a shotgun. They had a violent past and a superiority complex. This profile fit the combination of Rothstein and Diehl-Armstrong. She had a complex, a violent past, and he had shop skills.
  • The third suspect is Kenneth Barnes. A witness came forward in 2005 and that said Kenneth Barnes was involved. He was a former TV repairman turned crack dealer.
    • Earlier in 2007, 27 year old sex worker, Jessica Hoopsick, came forward saying she knew Brian Wells and had "turned tricks" with him at the home of Kenneth Barnes." Hoopsick had left a message on Brian's answering machine and was a link between Brain Wells and Diehl-Armstrong. It turned out that Kenneth E. Barnes, who would supply Hoopsick with drugs, used to go fishing with Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong.
    • Barnes had spoken too freely about the collar bomb plan. And his brother in law turned him in while Barnes was already in jail for unrelated drug charges. Barnes and Diehl-Armstrong had also been seen driving the wrong way on the highway near one of the locations of the search. Barnes said he would exchange information for a reduced sentence.
    • Barnes also confirmed the FBI's belief that Diehl-Armstrong was the mastermind. He stated that Diehl-Armstrong needed the money because she wanted to pay Barnes to kill her father, who she believed was blowing through his fortune, which was money she expected to inherit. Barnes claimed that he was kept in the dark about most of the plan. But he had already corroborated with much of what the FBI had already heard. Other than Barnes, investigators had previously spent weeks with informants who said that Diehl-Armstrong talked about plans of the bomb in intimate detail. A fellow inmate of Diehl-Armstrong told authorities that Diehl-Armstrong had admitted to killing her boyfriend James Roden, because he was going to expose the bomb plot.
    • The FBI met with Diehl-Armstrong while she was serving time for the murder of James Roden. Diehl-Armstrong promised to tell them everything, if they would transfer her from Muncy state penitentiary to Cambridge Springs, a minimum security prison closer to Erie. Diehl-Armstrong insisted to the FBI that she had nothing to do with the collar bomb plot. But she did supply the kitchen timers used for the bomb and was within a mile of the bank robbery when it happened. She agreed to drive around Erie with the agents and show them where she had been that day, linking her to several locations of the crime. Marjorie also admitted to the FBI that on the day Brian died, she had gone to the Shell station with her jeep and bought 10 dollars of gas. Rothstein and Barnes were also with her. Rothstein had used the pay phone before Wells died, implying that Rothstein made the phone call to the pizzeria. She then claimed she would provide no further information without immunity, but she already given away too much information. The FBI informed Diehl-Armstrong that they had enough information to indict her. She claimed that Rothstein planned the whole thing, and more importantly, that Wells was in on the heist.
  • Brain Wells is the fourth suspect. When looking at the known details of the timeline, two things come off as suspicious on the part of Wells. First, that Wells's demeanor was so calm during the robbery. And second, that it seems there was no evidence to back up Wells's story that he was attacked by a group of black men, who locked him in the collar at gunpoint. Wells's calm throughout the situation troubled the police, who were never quite able to rule him out as a conspirator in his own death.
    • In 2007, district attorney Mary Beth Buchanan stated that she believes Brain Wells was in on the plot along with Rothstein, Barnes, and Diehl-Armstrong, who was the mastermind. The D.A. also believes that Diehl-Armstrong and Barnes had planned on taking the money from Brian as soon as he had robbed the bank, but fled when they saw the cops and left Brian for dead.
    • Because Wells allegedly never had a chance in his doomed scavenger hunt, D.A. Buchanan belivees that Brain Wells was part of the operation and given a collar bomb for an alibi. The collar would also insure that Brian would stick to the plan, hand over the money, and if things went downhill, "he would not survive to be a witness against the other conspirators."
    • Kenneth Barnes also claimed that Wells had been talking about the robbery about a month before it happened. According the FBI affidavit, another witness had corroborated this. In July 2007, D.A. Buchanan announced the investigation was over, stating that Diehl Armstrong and Barnes were charged with carrying out the crime. The indictment also stated that Rothstein and Wells were conspirators, based on information gathered over four years of over a thousand interviews. Wells was charged with being in on the scheme from the beginning. Kenneth Barnes claims Wells was winning to help with the promise of money because he was in an expensive relationship with Jessica Hoopsick.
    • According to the indictment completed in 2007, Wells thought the bomb was fake and so he agreed to wear it. He was told it was meant to fool the cops. If he was caught, he could blame the threatening instructions. Barnes claims Wells only realized when he delivered the pizzas to the TV transmission tower that the bomb was real and he was locked into the device at gunpoint when he tried to run away.
    • District attorney Buchanan said that over time Wells had changed from a co-conspirator to an unwilling participant. Wells was double crossed To make things more confusing, a week later the FBI concluded that the whole plot was a hoax. They believe that the bomb would have gone off if anyone had tried to remove it and Jim Fisher, a retired FBI agent, believes that Wells's death was part of the plan. "It was a first-degree murder... this was an intentional, premeditated homicide. Moreover, it was extremely cruel in the way the crime was executed."
    • Despite the debate, Well's family firmly believes that he was a victim. As Buchanan completed her statement of the investigation, one of Wells's sisters continuously yelled "Liar!"
  • The official aftermath unfolded as follows.
    • In February 2011, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong was sentenced to life in prison, plus 30 years for her role in the heist. Diehl-Armstrong claimed on her first day on the stand that she never knew Brian Wells and had never heard of him until he was on the news. Diehl-Armstrong claimed that she is not the killer and that they are still out there. Diehl-Armstrong died on April 4, 2017 of natural causes in a Texas prison.
    • Kenneth Barnes was sentenced in 2008 for "conspiracy to commit armed bank robbery, using and carrying a firearm during a crime of violence." Barnes's 45 year sentence was reduced to 20 because he cooperated with authorities and admitted involvement. He's expected to be released in 2027.
    • William Rothstein died of terminal cancer in the summer of 2004, before facing any charges. For what it's worth, retired FBI agent and criminal justice professor Jim Fisher believes that Rothstein was the true mastermind. "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."
    • And finally Brian Wells, whose supposed involvement is what classifies this case as a cold case for many, despite the official conclusion that Wells had been a part of the plan, many point out evidence against this idea, such as the fact that he let people at the bank leave during the robbery. And the note he left with the teller easily led the police to him, but some prosecutors say that was intentional. Wells's family and friends say he was "100 percent innocent." And there was no way he could have been involved. Others say Wells started out as a willing participant but was double crossed and became a victim.
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