What is Evil Genius?
A four-part documentary series, new to Netflix, three hours 20 minutes in total, based around the deeply strange events in 2003 – including a bank robbery that incorporated a ‘collar bomb’ – that led to the death of pizza delivery man Brian Wells.
On August 28th, Wells entered the Erie, Pennsylvania branch of PNC Financial Services, wearing a bomb around his neck and carrying an unusual shotgun shaped like a walking stick. He handed the teller a note demanding $250,000. She was unable to access more than $8,702, which he took.
A quarter of an hour later, police apprehended him. He explained that three people, who he couldn’t name, had fitted the bomb to him, given him the shotgun and ordered him to rob the bank. He said that completing the robbery and some other tasks would lead him to a series of four keys that he could use to remove the bomb. The bomb squad was called, but before they could arrive, the device was remotely detonated, blowing Wells’ chest open and killing him.
Hang on. Erie, Pennsylvania? Wasn’t that a TV show?
No, you are thinking of Eerie, Indiana.
Where did the bomb come from, then?
Well, here’s where it gets very, very strange. Earlier on the afternoon of the robbery, Wells had delivered some pizzas to an address where, according to investigators, he’d been planning to be fitted with a fake bomb. He’d helped come up with a plan to rob the bank, which involved him claiming he’d be blown up unless he was given the money. However, when he turned up with the pizzas, unbeknownst to him there had been a change of plan (which he learned about with a gun pointed at him) and he was fitted with a real bomb instead. He thought he was part of one nefarious plan and was actually part of a different one.
Yeah, a plan that started out strange just got stranger. Loads of details involving the bomb were just that little bit off as well.
– The tasks in the note could not possibly be completed in the time allotted to them.
– The bomb contained odd redundant parts, like a mobile phone that did nothing and completely useless loops of wire.
– Despite the four keyholes, there were only two locks.
– The note was presented in a deeply strange way in which it appeared to have been traced from a typed-out version, possibly to avoid the culprit being identified from their handwriting.
What actually was the plan then?
It was all pretty complicated. Two of his co-conspirators, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong and Kenneth Barnes, planned to use him to steal the $250,000 in order to use it to pay Barnes to kill Diehl-Armstrong’s wealthy father. Wells was essentially a patsy, in way over his head and destined to die whatever he did. A third co-conspirator (and ex-boyfriend of Diehl-Armstrong) William Rothstein, later called the police to report a dead body in Diehl-Armstrong’s freezer.
Yeah. During the plotting, Diehl-Armstrong had killed her boyfriend during a dispute about money, recruiting Rothstein to help her hide the body. It wasn’t even the first boyfriend she’d killed – she’d been acquitted for the 1977 shooting death of another boyfriend on the grounds of self-defence.
So she got arrested for that?
She did, and later used her insider knowledge of the Wells case to try and get transferred to a less unpleasant prison. She claimed Rothstein – who by this point had died of cancer – was the mastermind behind the whole thing, while Barnes – also in an attempt to reduce his sentence – claimed it was Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong herself who’d put it all together. Diehl-Armstrong died in prison of breast cancer last year.
So pretty much everyone involved in the case is dead now?
Yes, including Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong’s father, who she’d have stood to get next to nothing from anyway – he had given away most of his fortune and all but removed Marjorie from his will. After expenses were taken out of the $2,000 he left her, she got nothing.
Wasn’t there a film made of this?
The 2011 Jesse Eisenberg/Danny McBride/Aziz Ansari comedy 30 Minutes Or Less bears a lot of similarities to the story, although the filmmakers denied basing any part of it on true events. Brian Wells’ surviving family disagreed though.
How has the documentary been received?
Incredibly well. The Hollywood Reporter says people will find it hard to turn away, CNN calls it “twisted” and the Guardian opts for “meaty”. Meanwhile, former FBI special agent Jerry Clark, one of the predominant interview subjects in the series, was surprised by revelations within it.
Evil Genius is available on Netflix now