On August 28, 2003, 46-year-old pizza deliveryman Brian Wells walked into a PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania, with a cane that was actually a shotgun and a bomb strapped to his body.
Demanding $250,000, he got approximately $8,000, but his getaway was stymied by responding police officers, who sat him down in the middle of a nearby road, where they quickly discovered that he wasn’t lying about his explosive device. The thing was, the bomb was attached to a giant metal collar around his neck, and Brian—who was in possession of nine pages of rambling handwritten notes, some of which contained instructions for a scavenger hunt he was supposed to complete in order to release himself from the explosive—desperately wanted it removed. “It’s going to go off. I’m not lying,” he warned police, and before the bomb unit could arrive, go off it did, blowing him to kingdom come.
It was a sight straight out of a Saw sequel—and so horrifying, it legitimately earns the designation “unforgettable.”
Wells’ fatal fate is depicted in stark video footage at the beginning of Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist, and establishes the mood of callous violence and perplexing treachery that defines Netflix’s latest true-crime gem. Executive produced by Wild Wild Country’s Mark and Jay Duplass, and written and directed by Barbara Schroeder (alongside co-director and executive producer Trey Borzillieri), this four-part documentary series is yet another of the streaming service’s based-on-real-events triumphs; a mystery so bizarre and confounding, one wouldn’t dare write it as fiction for fear of having it labeled unrealistic. It’s no surprise that Schroeder avoids excessive aesthetic embroidery for her material—the insanity speaks for itself.
As is soon revealed by Evil Genius, Wells wound up with his collar after delivering a pizza to a remote tower site, where he claimed (shortly before his demise) that some African-American men had affixed the contraption to his neck. There were signs of struggle at that location, but as with the bomb itself, there was scant forensic evidence to point FBI, ATF and state and local law enforcement agents in any sort of distinct direction. Was Wells a daring crook trying to pull one over on police? Or was he a victim, killed for failing to accomplish a mission for which he hadn’t signed up?
Before those questions could be answered, cops fielded a call (three weeks later) from 59-year-old local Bill Rothstein, a bearded giant in bib overalls, who said that his on-again, off-again 54-year-old girlfriend Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong had the dead body of her boyfriend James Roden on ice—literally, in a freezer in Rothstein’s garage. And where was Rothstein’s residence located? Adjacent to the tower site where Wells had first reportedly run into lethal trouble.
In police interviews presented by Evil Genius, Rothstein claims he couldn’t comply with Diehl-Armstrong’s demand that he dispose of Roden’s body via a meat grinder, hacksaw and woodchipper. The more the story develops, however, the more it becomes clear that Rothstein and Diehl-Armstrong are somehow working in concert—and, furthermore, that Roden’s death may have been linked to the bank heist. Schroeder spins this tangled web through expert use of archival footage, of which there is plenty: surveillance and dash-cam footage, childhood photos and home movies, crime-scene snapshots and clips, and audio recordings of interviews with Diehl-Armstrong conducted by co-director Trey Borzillieri, who for years struck up a correspondence with the woman.
A once beautiful, promising brainiac who charmed everyone she met and appeared to have the world at her fingertips, Diehl-Armstrong was, by 2003, a slovenly recluse who lived in a disgusting home that would make Hoarders proud, and who was known for being deviously cunning and manipulative. Moreover, Roden wasn’t the first boyfriend of hers to wind up in the morgue; in 1984, she had been charged with killing a prior beau, only to escape prison due to her severe mental illness. As virtually everyone agrees in Evil Genius, such diagnoses were accurate: Diehl-Armstrong suffered from, among other things, bipolar and personality disorders, mania and “narcissistic traits.” Thus, Rothstein’s accusations against his paramour weren’t completely far-fetched. The specifics of why Roden came to inhabit a freezer, however, remained elusive, in large part because both Rothstein and Diehl-Armstrong were not just unstable and untrustworthy, they were also highly intelligent and seemingly intent on toying with authorities.
There’s much, much more to Evil Genius’ ensuing saga: a second pizza delivery man who perished under mysterious circumstances; a fishing buddy of Diehl-Armstrong’s named Ken Barnes who was wrapped up in her dispute with her father over an inheritance; and a prostitute named Jessica Hoopsick with ties to both Wells and Barnes. Family feuds and fractured relationships abound in Schroeder’s portrait, which she lays out lucidly and suspensefully, segueing between the feds’ investigation, the conflicting stories and confessions of her primary suspects, and the backstory particulars that shed light on the motivations—and culpability—of all involved.
At only four brisk episodes, Evil Genius doesn’t waste time on superfluous detours. Still, it’s not exactly a straightforward affair, if only because its tale is so eye-openingly nutty. While most of its mysteries are eventually answered by the closing installment, Schroeder and Borzillieri’s series leaves a few threads loose. And as its stunning final truths come to light, the show transforms into a condemnation of our justice system. Still, it’s Diehl-Armstrong who, long after Evil Genius has concluded, proves most difficult to shake.