On the heels of the extremely popular docuseries Wild Wild Country about a bizarre and violent battle between a meditation cult and a local Oregon town, comes the Duplass Brothers' next Netflix true crime production. You have to take a look at the unbelievable trailer for Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist, which hits the site this Friday:
In 2003, a year before the incredibly unnerving horror movie Saw made its premiere, an eerily similar scene was unfolding in the aptly named town of Erie, Pennsylvania. Forty-six-year-old pizza delivery man Brian Wells entered a PNC bank and handed a note to the teller demanding $250,000. He showed the teller what under his shirt: a heavy, metallic device that was strapped around his neck. The note informed the her that she had 15 minutes to retrieve the cash before the device would explode, which she said was impossible. She quickly stuffed $8,702 cash into a bag while Wells chose a Dum Dum lollipop from a bowl of candy, stuck it in his mouth, and walked out of the bank. What makes it Saw-like is that Wells was not controlling the heist, it was someone else that sent him on a terrifying scavenger hunt for the only key that could set him free.
He was apprehended by police shortly after the robbery, standing in a parking lot next to his Geo Metro. He was thrown to the ground and cuffed, while he pleading with police to get the device off, telling them it was indeed a real bomb. By this time, camera crews had arrived and began filming as the cops crouched behind their cars waiting for the bomb squad to arrive.
Wells told police that he had been attacked by three black men who ordered him to rob the bank while they strapped the bomb around his neck. He sat alone in the parking lot, cuffed and waiting for 25 minutes for the bomb squad to arrive, watched carefully by the police who had their guns drawn and pointed at him. Suddenly the device began to beep faster and faster until it detonated and blasted through Well’s chest, killing him as the media cameras continued to roll. The video would be shared online widely, and to this day.
Rich Shapiro of Wired described the bomb as such:
The bomb itself was… a marvel of DIY design and construction. The device consisted of two parts: a triple-banded metal collar with four keyholes and a three-digit combination lock, and an iron box containing two 6-inch pipe bombs loaded with double-base smokeless powder. The hinged collar locked around Wells' neck like a giant handcuff. Investigators could tell that it had been built using professional tools. The device also contained two Sunbeam kitchen timers and one electronic countdown timer. It had wires running through it that connected to nothing—decoys to throw off would-be disablers—and stickers bearing deceptive warnings. The contraption was a puzzle in and of itself.
When police searched Well’s car, they also found another brilliant creation, a handmade old-fashioned gun that that was made to look like a short cane. They also found the handwritten instructions that Wells had been following. It referred to Wells as “BOMB HOSTAGE” and threatened: "This powerful, booby-trapped bomb can be removed only by following our instructions... ACT NOW, THINK LATER OR YOU WILL DIE!"
The day began when Wells delivered two pizzas to an odd location, a radio transmission tower at the end of a dirt road. Interestingly, as police dug, they discovered that Wells believed he was in on the bank heist, and that he was meeting the accomplices he had been scheming with in the weeks before. The three black men were, unsurprisingly, a racist scapegoat created by the group, which included handyman Bill Rothstein, who created the explosive device, Kenneth Barnes, and apparent mastermind Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong. Wells agreed to wear a fake bomb around his neck in order to rob the bank, but soon he discovered the device they clasped around his neck was real, and he had no choice but to go along with the new plan that made him the hostage.
Wells was required to follow the instructions to several new locations, where he would find the next directive. Police attempted to follow the scavenger hunt after Well’s death, looking for clues. They were led to a flowerbed of a McDonald’s drive thru, then to the woods several miles away, and then finally to another set of woods a couple miles from that where the key was to be located in a glass jar. Police found the glass jar, but it was empty. It appeared the puppet masters had been following along—watching every move of Wells, and they had retrieved the key before police arrived. Authorities discovered that the tasks were impossible—Wells never would have been able to get the money and get to the key in time to survive.
The press release for Evil Genius says that “Eventually, a middle-aged mastermind named Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong — once a town beauty, now a woman grappling with mental illness — is arrested. But 15 years later, Evil Genius proves there’s more to the conspiracy and murders than was ever thought.” The reason the group asked for $250,000 was because Diehl-Armstrong believed that she would inherit her father’s fortune, some $2 million, and wanted to pay someone to kill him.
There is so much more to this story that I don’t want to give away. As referenced above, Wire put out an amazing article about the Collar Bomb Heist. The four-part docuseries promises even more new information, and claims that "there’s more to the conspiracy and murders than was ever thought."
If "a bizarre collection of Midwestern hoarders, outcasts, and lawbreakers play cat-and-mouse with the FBI," is up your alley, make sure you queue up your Netflix account this weekend (officially May 11th) to find out the full story behind one of the most bizarre true crime stories I’ve ever heard.