On August 28, 2003, pizza delivery man Brian Wells responded to an order at the end of his shift. Hours later, he would be surrounded by police, cross-legged on the pavement with a bomb wrapped around his neck. Within minutes of their arrival the bomb would detonate, blowing a hole clean through Wells’ chest on live television.
Before his death, Wells walked into a local bank in Erie, Pennsylvania carrying a homemade shotgun and a handwritten note. He demanded $250,000 from the tellers, but was only able to get around $9,000. He was quickly apprehended by police shortly after the robbery, and he told them a bizarre story that would take years to fully unravel.
Wells told police he had a bomb around his neck, and that he had been forced into robbing the bank by three men. He insisted that he had to complete a list of tasks within a certain time frame, or else he would die. Police were baffled by the explanation, and just three minutes before the bomb squad arrived the bomb around his neck exploded. Wells died in the middle of the road.
When police approached his body, they found a set of notes — more like instructions — on what he needed to do to live. The notes were essentially an odd scavenger hunt for keys scattered throughout the town, leading to the final key that would unlock the collar around his neck.
The bomb was an intricate homemade device that consisted of a metal collar that attached around Wells’ neck like a handcuff. It contained keyholes and a combination lock, as well as baking timers and two 6-inch pipe bombs.
The sinister instructions found on his body read, “This powerful, booby-trapped bomb can be removed only by following our instructions… ACT NOW, THINK LATER OR YOU WILL DIE!”
Police had interrupted Wells in the middle of his quest for keys, so they attempted to finish the hunt to find answers. They realized someone had quickly removed the remaining notes, presumably done once they realized police were involved.
Wells was an unwilling participant in a bank robbery gone wrong… or so police initially thought.
A month after Wells’ execution was broadcast on the evening news, a handyman living on the land next to Wells’ last known delivery location, called 911. The man, Bill Rothstein, would admit to having a dead body in his freezer — the body of a man named Jim Roden. The admission seemed unrelated to the Wells bombing case, but in the end would become a monumental break in solving the mystery.
Rothstein told police Roden was killed by his girlfriend, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong. She previously dated Rothstein and asked for his help covering up the crime. Rothstein told police he feared the woman, and complied with her demands.
Police arrested Diehl-Armstrong for murder and she was sent to jail in 2005. But, Diehl-Armstrong wanted to be transferred to a jail closer to her Erie home. So, she told authorities an alarming piece of information that would blow the door to the bomb collar case off its hinges.
The woman — who had previously killed a boyfriend in the ’80s, claiming self-defense — told police she knew of the robbery plot Wells had been involved in. She implicated Rothstein in the crime, who had passed away from cancer the year before. Diehl-Armstrong also insisted she killed Roden to keep him quiet about the bomb case.
Months later, another person would be named in the complicated heist: drug dealer Kenneth Barnes. Barnes was in jail at the time he was implicated, so he negotiated a deal with police. He told them an entire story about how Diehl-Armstrong had orchestrated the robbery plot in order to get money to pay for someone to kill her father. She wanted him dead to retrieve a family inheritance.
Barnes explained to police that Brian Wells was actually in on the robbery scheme — but he thought the bomb collar was fake. When he realized the bomb was real he attempted to escape, but the other conspirators pulled a gun on him and forced him to wear the collar.
Wells truly believed that if he followed the steps given to him, he would survive. However, after fully analyzing the bomb collar, the FBI concluded that the bomb was set to detonate no matter what. The others had planned to kill Wells all along.
Materials for making bombs were found in Rothstein’s home, and the FBI believes he concocted the bomb collar that killed Wells. They also believe Rothstein was actually the mastermind behind the whole scheme, and he confessed to the body in the freezer in order to control the situation. He wanted to implicate the others before they implicated him.
Ultimately, Rothstein was dead before they could ever charge him with anything. Both Diehl-Armstrong and Barnes were charged with the crime and sent to prison. The FBI still stands by the theory that Wells was involved from the very beginning, but was double-crossed by his fellow conspirators. His family, however, believes he was completely innocent.
The bizarre crime shocked and confused the nation at the time. It took several years before it was ever solved, and it still feels like not all of the questions have been answered.
In 2011, the comedy 30 MINUTES OR LESS starring Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari detailed a story eerily similar to the bomb collar heist. In the movie, a pizza delivery guy is taken hostage by two criminals, strapped with explosives, and forced to rob a bank within a certain time frame. One of the kidnappers needs the robbery money to pay to have his father killed, in order to obtain his inheritance.
The filmmakers claim the movie isn’t based on the crime, but the Wells family found the striking similarities too hard to watch. Wells’ sister commented on the film at the time of its release, “It’s hard for me to grasp how other human beings can take delight and pride in making such a movie and consider it a comedy.”
Was the film inspired by the bomb collar heist? Probably. But the actual story is much more devastating and puzzling than any filmmaker could ever imagine. While the case is almost hard to comprehend, the one thing that stands out among the chaos is this: Wells trusted the wrong people and ended up dead.