Evil Genius: the verdict
The pizza bomber mystery isn’t like most crimes you might learn about in a TV documentary. That’s because the pizza bomber mystery isn’t like most crimes. In fact, it isn’t going too far to suggest that the pizza bomber mystery might just be one of the strangest criminal plots you’re ever likely to hear about.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“There’s a woman that you might wanna question…”
That woman? Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong. The ‘evil genius’ of the title of Netflix’s gripping and wildly successful new four-part crime documentary series. Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist, to give it its full title, delves into the oddest kidnapping/bank robbery/murder case ever seen in the lengthy annals of crime. So outlandish are the events of this true crime doc that you’ll struggle to believe that they actually occurred. If it were a movie or crime drama you’d scoff at how unrealistic it is. But it’s not a movie or crime drama. This really happened…
Erie, Pennsylvania. It’s 2:20 pm on 28 August 2003 when a man called Brian Wells walks into the PNC Bank on Peach Street. As he nervously approaches the counter, the teller immediately notices the large metal collar locked around Wells’ neck. He slides over a note to the bank worker. He wants $250,000 in cash. Just over ten minutes later, with his loaded gun shaped to look like a walking cane, he leaves the building. He’s only $8,702 richer.
The man then walks to a McDonald’s next door and picks up a piece of paper that had been left for him. On it are detailed instructions with his next move written on them. In less than a quarter of an hour, Eerie Police would have him on the ground, hands behind his head, with their guns trained on him.
Wells explained to them, calmly but with a hint of rising panic, that attached to the metal collar around his neck was a bomb. Police assumed there were no live explosives involved, but called the bomb squad anyway. They’d shut off traffic too for public safety, which led to the bomb squad being held up in the congestion.
While police waited for help, a beep could be heard. It was coming from the device around Well’s neck. The noise sounded like a bomb in a cartoon. Surely it wasn’t real, police continued to think. But it was. At 3:18pm the bomb detonated, exploding around the chest, neck and head of the handcuffed man. Shortly afterwards, pizza delivery man Brian Wells was dead.
See? The events of that day hardly account for a ‘normal’ crime, do they? As the police investigation begins, the case just gets weirder and weirder. Wells is found to have a series of complicated handwritten notes on his person, given to him by whoever was behind the robbery. Only, as the exploding collar bomb kind of suggests, Brian Wells wasn’t hugely keen on robbing a bank at gunpoint that day. He’d been forced to. By who, though? Well, police were stumped – until a 911 call a month later. Which is where, somehow, the story gets even stranger…
The bizarre details of the case are drip fed to us as we sit watching in slack-jawed amazement at what’s going on in Evil Genius. There’s the unexplained death of Wells’ colleague friend shortly after the incident, the small matter of a shotgun-blasted man in a freezer, a missing $2m estate, a prostitute, a child molester, a pistol-whipping fishing buddy and the not inconsequential matter of the state of mind of the main person involved, ‘mastermind’ Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong.
“Marge had a lot of mental issues,” Evil Genius co-director Trey Borzillieri says. “Like paranoia, mania, personality disorder. She was a tough woman who was constantly manipulating everyone in her path to get her own way. Because she was a narcissist it was easy to get her to talk. But difficult to correct her. When she had any opposition, even a difference in opinion, she would approach it with reptilian indifference.”
Also heavily connected and not entirely sound of mind was a huge bear-looking man – constantly in denim overalls – called Bill Rothstein. Involved in an oddly obsessive yet on/off relationship with Diehl-Armstrong, Rothstein also had a big ego and narcissistic tendencies. A placid couple they were not, as the show soon alludes to.
This is no ‘quick look’, it has to be said. Evil Genius doesn’t skirt around the details. Borzillieri admits that the pizza bomber mystery has consumed the last fifteen years of his life. He’s been in constant contact with Diehl-Armstrong and can call upon endless hours of taped conversations and hundreds of prison correspondence letters as proof. This was no pet project for a lot of the crew involved, either. This documentary series is exhaustive in detail. Arguably slightly too exhaustive.
While it’s no doubt a fascinating story, at some 200 minutes in total, it does tend to tread water somewhat. Especially in the middle. The first episode, as it tells the story of the crime, is – understandably – nothing less than gripping. As is the fourth episode which features all the confessions and the ‘big reveal’. But the second and third instalments do meander a little, getting bogged down a little in slightly tangential plot threads that perhaps interest the filmmakers slightly more than the audience at home.
Perhaps my biggest complaint though is, ironically, a rather petty one. That title. Evil Genius suggests that, well, there’s some kind of evil genius behind the pizza bomber mystery. But a botched robbery that takes months to set up, nets precisely no money, sees a man die and results in criminal prosecutions… This is hardly Moriarty we’re dealing with here, is it? The reality is that a group of ex-cons with drug addictions and mental health problems conspired to commit a bank robbery, but didn’t have the criminal fortitude to pull it off themselves. So they set someone else up, killed him and never got paid.
The crime was, without doubt, one of the strangest on record. A bomb strapped to a pizza delivery guy’s neck, an enforced scavenger hunt incorporating an ambitious quarter million dollar bank heist that ends in a man semi-decapitated live on local news? It’s out there. But is it a nefarious, cunning and Machiavellian plot? Hardly.
Netflix is now one of the go-to places for true crime fans. Of course, non-fiction crime books still sell well and true crime podcasts are enormous nowadays. But the streaming giants have seemingly captured the television market by its throat and show no signs of loosening their grip. There was the success of Making a Murderer, of course, and more recently the fascinating story of Wild, Wild Country. You’ve only got to flick through Netflix’s offerings to see a plethora of top quality true crime documentaries.
While Evil Genius might not be perfect, it’s certainly a compelling story that deserves to be told and can sit up there with some of the best documentary series of recent years. Book a Sunday afternoon out and get it seen.
Have you watched Netflix’s Evil Genius yet? What did you make of it? Let us know in the comments below…