One of the stranger crimes in America’s rich criminal history took place just down the Thruway from us on Aug. 28, 2003.
On that date, a sad, pathetic-looking, recovering alcoholic pizza deliveryman named Brian Wells walked into a small bank branch just south of Erie, Pa., about 100 miles southwest of Buffalo, with a bomb locked around his neck.
Wells, 46, handed a teller a note, warning that if she didn’t hand over $250,000, the bomb would go off.
“Do not cause panic,” read the note, which had been written by the individuals who locked the collar bomb around Wells’ neck. “Sounding any alarm will interrupt this action and guarantee injuries and death ... Involving authorities at this point will get this hostage and other people killed.”
The teller didn’t have access to anything approaching $250,000. She gave Wells a bag holding $8,702 cash. When Wells walked outside, bank officials called 911, and police responded immediately, detaining Wells in a nearby parking lot.
Wells begged the cops to let him go, so he could deliver the cash to the people who locked the bomb around his neck.
If he didn’t get the money to them very soon, he’d be a dead man, Wells implored.
“I don’t have a lot of time,” he said.
He wasn’t lying.
Shortly after those words passed from his lips, Wells was indeed a dead man. From somewhere nearby, apparently using a remote control device, someone set off the bomb, sending Wells to a grisly end.
It took nearly four years, but in July 2007, a task force headed by Jerry Clark, a wily and hard-working FBI agent, solved the crime. Members of the U.S. Attorney’s office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives were also intimately involved.
The story of how they solved it took a lot of weird, strange twists and turns, and the tale is well told by Clark and his co-author, Palattella, an award-winning reporter for the Erie-Times News.
Strangely enough, the investigation turned up evidence that Wells was at least partly involved in the planning. The authors write that Wells knew the other conspirators and – very reluctantly – agreed to become part of the plot.
He just didn’t plan on getting killed.
The book tells the story of the slovenly, demented, loosely organized cast of characters who plotted this caper – a crime that, for all the national publicity it got, has to be viewed as a failure on every level.
This gang was no slick “Ocean’s Eleven,” made up of cool dudes who look like George Clooney or Brad Pitt. There’s no one in this case that could be portrayed by Julia Roberts. The Pizza Bomber players included the following:
• Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, a loud, opinionated woman who had a high IQ and numerous psychiatric problems. She was already notorious in Erie because, 19 years earlier, she had shot and killed a boyfriend and gotten away with it because of her mental health issues. She’d also had other scrapes with the law. When police went to her home after she killed her boyfriend back in 1984, they found the place to be unbelievably filthy and filled with four tons of spoiled food that she had fraudulently obtained from programs designed to help the poor. The authors say she’d also killed another boyfriend, which didn’t come to light until after the Pizza Bomber crime.
• Bill Rothstein, another loud, obnoxious character who sometimes worked as a substitute shop teacher at a local high school. Obese and opinionated, Rothstein wore bib overalls, had some expertise in electronics and also lived in a filthy home.
• Ken Barnes, the operator of a grungy Erie crack house where, according to the authors, a prostitute entertained Brian Wells and other customers. According to police, Barnes’ crack house was even more squalid than the residences of Rothstein and Diehl-Armstrong.
• Floyd “Jay” Stockton, a drifter and convicted sex offender who sometimes lived with Rothstein.
In the end, Diehl-Armstrong and Barnes went to prison for the Pizza Bomber case; Rothstein died of an illness before he could be prosecuted, and Stockton became a government witness.
That’s about as much detail as I want to give away, but the tangled story strikes me as something that a skilled director such as Martin Scorsese could turn into a very interesting little movie. It should be noted that members of Wells’ family have angrily disagreed with the notion that Wells had any willing contact with the plotters of this crime.
As a reporter who has covered crime in Buffalo for the past 35 years, I felt myself sympathizing with Palattella, who spent years trying to unravel the story. At one point, he gave Diehl-Armstrong his home phone number. She dialed that number again, again and again over the years, spending countless hours filling the off-duty reporter’s ears with all kinds of theories, opinions and outbursts. I can only imagine what effect that had on him and his family life.
There’s also a very interesting subplot here about jealousy among police agencies. The book raises some very serious questions about the Erie Police Department and some information that, according to the authors, it failed to provide to the task force.
I wish I could tell you that kind of thing never happens in Western New York police circles. I can’t.
By Jerry Clark and Ed Palattella
438 pages, $9.99 paperback original
Dan Herbeck is a veteran News reporter and the co-author, with Lou Michel, of “American Terrorist.”