Brian Douglas Wells and the weirdest bank robbery in criminal history
August 28, 2003, was supposed to be an ordinary day for employees working in the PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania. But it became the scene of one of the strangest and most disturbing heists in the entire catalogue of human crime. It was an incident which baffled investigators, inspired an episode of Black Mirror (Shut Up and Dance, in which a young man is blackmailed into committing a series of crimes), and left one individual, the bank robber, dead.
At 2:28 pm Brian Douglas Wells, a short, balding pizza delivery man with a visible bulge around his neck, walked into the PNC branch, carrying a short cane. Less than an hour after, he was carrying eight thousand dollars with him and had been killed by a makeshift bomb.
Upon entry, Wells silently passed a piece of paper to the bank clerk. The chilling note read "Gather employees with access codes to vault and work fast to fill bag with $250,000. You have only 15 minutes." He then pulled up his shirt to reveal a metal collar strapped around his neck and explained that it was attached to a lethal explosive device. If the bank refused to accept to his demands then it would detonate, killing him instantly. The terrified tellers explained that there was no way that the vaults could be opened so quickly and handed over all the cash they had available, stuffing around $8,000 into the bag. Wells left and drove off and was quickly caught by local police outside a McDonald's parking lot. Wells, obviously in considerable distress, pleaded with police officers to help him, stating that the explosives were armed and primed. A fleet of news reporters arrived on the scene soon after and a stalemate ensued, with Wells sitting cross-legged, crying and trembling in fear.
Wells remained cuffed on the roadside next to a police car for another half hour and told the police officers taking cover at a safe distance that a cabal of men had accosted him at gunpoint while he was making a routine delivery and had forced the explosive collar around his neck. Almost as soon as Wells explained this, the lights on the bomb began flashing and a high-pitched noise came from it. Seconds later, it exploded violently. The bomb squad arrived on the scene three minutes later. By 3.18pm, Wells was dead, and the police precinct and district attorney's office were left scratching their heads in confusion, asking the same question over and over again: "What the hell just happened?"
The bizarre case was complicated further by the evidence forensics managed to recover, each item more unusual than the last. The cane turned out to be a disguised single-barrel shotgun, which could fire one shell at a time - to threaten uncooperative bankers with. The bomb was an incredibly intricate piece of engineering, one that couldn't possibly have been built by someone who lacked a great deal of craftsmanship. It fitted around the neck, much like a giant pair of handcuffs, triple-banded with four keyholes and a three-digit combination lock. The iron box which sat over the chest contained two large pipe bombs loaded with double-base smokeless powder, as well as two Sunbeam kitchen timers and one electronic countdown timer - useless decoys designed to distract the police if they wanted to defuse it.
Inside Wells' car, the homicide detectives recovered handwritten instructions addressed to a "bomb hostage", which included precise orders and a number of maps and directions. It looked like someone, or a group of people, had forced Wells to wear the suicide vest against his will and had sent him on a sadistic scavenger hunt. "There is only one way you can survive and that is to cooperate completely," the notes read. "This powerful, booby-trapped bomb can be removed only by following our instructions… ACT NOW, THINK LATER OR YOU WILL DIE! "
These puzzle pieces formed a disturbing picture. Police had no idea who the culprit, nicknamed the "Collar Bomber", was. He seemed to be playing a game with them; how else could one explain the convoluted method of robbery? Or the fact that the hostage was forced to carry out the robbery? Why had the bombmaker sent Wells running around town, if not to obfuscate investigators?
Wells himself was something of an enigma. Outwardly, the middle-aged man seemed utterly nondescript, noteworthy only because of how much of an unambitious underachiever he was. A high school dropout who had been delivering pizzas for nearly 30 years, Wells was well-liked at his job at Mama Mia’s, Peach Street, and had only missed one shift in a decade - when his cat had passed away. Yet what nobody realised was that Wells was secretly living a double life, and was immersed in crime and drugs. He'd been buying crack to give to a local prostitute in exchange for sex and was now in debt to the dealers, including one named Kenneth Barnes.
Furthermore, the police found Wells' story about a gang of "black guys" to be unconvincing and hedged on the racist assumption that generic minorities were to blame. It almost looked like Wells had been a willing conspirator, who would have threatened the bank tellers with his own suicide so that he could abscond with the cash and then take his own cut once he met with the bombmaker elsewhere. But if that was the case, then why use a real bomb?
It was a prison inmate who eventually revealed all. Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, an intelligent yet callous and erratic woman, who'd been sentenced to 20 years behind bars in 2005 for murdering her boyfriend James Roden, requested a prison transfer to a milder penitentiary in exchange for important information about the Wells case. She revealed that Wells had been in on the plot and had hoped to profit from the bank robbery, along with herself, crack dealer Kenneth Barnes and erudite handyman William Rothstein. Marjorie had wanted to raise enough money to hire a hitman to kill her father, so she could then inherit his considerable fortune. Barnes was purely in it for the money, but the ex-television repairman Rothstein, who succumbed to cancer before he could be prosecuted, seemed to be in it simply for the thrill of pulling it off.
Wells had originally agreed to play the part of the robber, back when he thought that the bomb would be a fake and he'd only be acting, and believed that the instructions he was told to follow were simply an elaborate alibi he could use if apprehended by the police. However, when he drove to a radio tower near Bill Rothstein's house on August 28, the plan suddenly changed; he was fitted with a real bomb and ordered to play along or die painfully. Without warning, Heat had turned into Saw, with Rothstein acting as a real-life Jigsaw, a theory that was corroborated by the FBI's alarming conclusions. They determined that the scavenger hunt was a hoax and the bomb was rigged so that any attempt to remove it would detonate it, even if the correct code had been entered into the three-digit keypad. Wells had been doomed from the start.
Barnes pled guilty to conspiracy and weapons charges and was sentenced to 45 years in prison. Diehl-Armstrong was convicted of armed bank robbery, conspiracy to commit armed bank robbery, and of using an explosive device and sentenced to life plus 30 years in 2011. She died in prison on April 4, 2017.
And Rothstein? The man who devised the whole scheme? Former FBI criminal investigator Jim Fisher believes that there are more circumstances of this mysterious case that we don't know about and that Rothstein was ultimately responsible. "The son of a bitch ended up winning," Fisher once stated. "He died with all of the secrets. He died taking all the answers with him. He gets the last laugh in that sense. He escaped punishment. He escaped detection. He left us with these idiots and a bunch of questions." It could be that something more sinister was going on and that Rothstein was a different kind of criminal. But the fact of the matter is, for now, the answers to these questions remain buried.