“I’m not lying,” an unlikely hostage says at one point in the first episode of Netflix’s four-part documentary series Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist. It is one of the few truths that turn out be reliable in a baffling case of manipulation and madness. The man who says it is Brian Wells, who is confined to handcuffs after what appeared to be a daring bank robbery attempt.
Known in the press as the “collar bomb” or “pizza delivery” heist, in 2003 Wells walked into a bank with an explosive device handcuffed to his neck, a walking-cane-gun, a note demanding money and an inexplicably complicated escape route. The documentary shows the pizza delivery man doesn’t come to a good end. The bomb squad shows up just in time to see him explode, which the TV cameras caught on tape because they beat them to the scene by what seems like hours. The bomb squad winds up cutting Wells’ head off to remove the bomb for forensic and technical testing. The technicians say it is a hard job and they do it “lovingly,” but Brian’s family says more respect was shown to the destructive device than his body.
Such are the conflicting viewpoints at work in Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist. The documentary was written and directed by Barbara Schroeder, and executive produced by Mark and Jay Duplass, who made Wild Wild Country. And this is a wild, wild ride. Just a week later, another pizza delivery man from Mama Mia’s, Robert Thomas Pinetti, also dies. This may be a clue, or it may be no mystery at all. Because even the cops understand there’s a drug plague in Erie, Pennsylvania, and it is out of their control. It is personally reasonable that anyone caught in it might very well overdose as a reaction to a friend’s death without being in collusion with the crime that killed him.
The crime is unique. It’s not that bank robbers rarely use bombs, which they don’t, but when they do use bombs they are rarely live. And they never go off. The forensics teams and investigators from both the local police and the FBI recreate the bomb, but can’t trace the parts. The probe leads to a magnetic but frightening woman, who has five dead boyfriends in her past, one of which one hung himself a month after she moved out. One of her still-living boyfriends is a self-professed genius whose friends think the woman has undue influence over, like she crawled inside his mind and put in roots. He became the friend she’d come to to hide a dead body.
Evil Genius twists the investigation into a story of compulsion. It is a compulsion for the cops, both state and federal, who follow it for fifteen years without closure. FBI and ATF agents, the county coroner and a local reporter couldn’t put it to bed, even when Geraldo Rivera wasn’t on the scene making enough noise for the whole country to hear. It is a compulsion for Bill Rothstein, the smartest man in any room before he died, while both the Wells case and what becomes a related murder investigation was still going on. He studied every move the cops made, adhered to alternative-side-of-the-street parking rules when it came to his red van, and spent almost every waking moment obsessing over Dieh-Armstrong. An obsession that ultimately also overcomes Trey Borzillieri. He interviewed the surviving mastermind for years, coming up with some of the leads the police themselves used. The series follows investigators’ deconstruction of the timeline, potential accessories and archival footage and mugshots to paint a portrait of a toxic couple.
Diehl-Armstrong is brilliant and irresistible. She used to be the “prettiest girl in town” and men “would do almost anything for her.” This includes hiding “The Frozen Body,” the title of the second episode. Evil Genius becomes a battle of wills between Diehl-Armstrong, Rothstein and all their associates in and around Erie. The woman manipulates her way into better jail conditions almost as easily as she does the man who can build bombs.
Neither Rothstein nor Diehl-Armstrong needed the money, Wells demanded $250,000 in cash, ostensibly to pay for a hit on Marjorie’s father, and came out of the bank with $8,702, not enough to shatter a kneecap. So the motivation for the crime comes from a deeper place. Evil Genius spends time on mental illness. Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong is bipolar. But so are some of the best people and artists. She is also paranoid and narcissistic. Rothstein is obsessed. He has been dumped and used and reconciled and dumped again by Marjorie. The two people who share the elevated IQs do a danse macabre.
The Wells case persisted for 15 years but what slips between the confessions, and what would have been missed on Dateline, 48 Hours, or Investigation Discovery, is the love story at the center. Rothstein loved Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong. He loved her obsessively, co-dependently and totally. In this case, that was a crime of explosive proportions.’
Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist is availalbe on Netflix.