On the afternoon of August 28th 2003, Brian Wells delivered pizza to a remote location in Eire, Pennsylvania. Hours later, he robbed a local bank after handing the teller a note to say that he had an explosive device securely strapped onto him. Surrounded by police shortly after, he pleaded with them to locate the key for the device, only for it to explode and kill him. Thus the baffling ‘pizza bomber’ case gripped America. Was he acting alone? Or was there a mastermind?
Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist, is a four-part documentary series by filmmaker Trey Borzillieri who spent years digging into the various players involved in the crime. That includes cultivating a large volume of correspondence with chief suspect: Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong. As episode one (“The Heist”) explores, there are a lot of bizarre factors involved in an already baffling-looking robbery.
Wells had detailed letters on him that instructed he should follow a complicated scavenger hunt, of which a genuine bank robbery was one such condition. The end goal? To obtain the keys that would remove his deadly collar device. However, his casual nature when committing the theft (CCTV footage shows him strolling out of the bank sucking on a lollipop), plus his possession of a handmade ‘walking cane shotgun’ raised questions as to what extent (if any) he was in on the plot.
The documentary lays out all the intrigue early on in order to hook you in and then spends the next two episodes (“The Frozen Body” and “The Suspects”) exploring the various key players. William Rothstein called the police to report that the body of Diehl-Armstrong’s boyfriend was in his chest freezer. Interview footage of Kenneth Barnes (drug dealer and fishing friend of Diehl-Armstrong) shows his story keeps changing, including claiming that Diehl-Armstrong wanted to pay him to murder her father.
And then there is Diehl-Armstrong herself. Considering that Borzillieri had been in written correspondence with her and making/receiving phone calls for years then there is clearly plenty of material to draw from. Evil Genius explores her high intelligence and the promise she showed in her youth (she has several college degrees which she herself is often keen to point out). Yet she also presented with severe mental health issues throughout her life. It is arguable that there is not much objectivity in the deconstruction of her personality, and yet a wealth of content is presented that paints a picture of a complicated woman indeed.
Evil Genius is a short four episodes so despite there being an occasional lack of focus when the given narrative bounces around there is still so much intrigue to be wrung out of this truly odd case. The large volume of source material used (letters, interview footage, CCTV, news broadcasts, court room comments) fleshes out the well-placed interviewees who give their take on what happened. Thankfully, the series closes by addressing the controversy surrounding Wells’ involvement in the plot. His family has long advocated that his death was the murder of an innocent man, not the bumping off of a co-conspirator, and Evil Genius presents a final witness to fill in some vital gaps.
Evil Genius is a compelling watch. Whatever Wells’ involvement may have been, the use in the show of actual police footage at the moment that lethal device locked around his neck exploded is shocking enough to strip away the chin-stroking intrigue and remind you that this was a man, violently murdered.
Words by Michael Record