A bank robbery and a collar bomb were only the beginning.
The nightly news is filled with stories and images that disturb and occasionally secure a dark place in our memories, but one image from this millennium has haunted some of us more than most — a pizza deliveryman turned bank robber, handcuffed and sitting on the ground, proclaiming his innocence while police surround him and a bomb strapped to his chest begins to tick.
It explodes, blowing a hole in his chest, and he dies while the world watches.
Brian Wells’ end in 2003, though, was really just the beginning of a mystery that has lasted over the years since. Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist is the latest documentary collaboration between Netflix and producers Mark & Jay Duplass, and across its four episodes are the answers to nearly all of the questions birthed from that fateful day in Erie, PA. It’s every bit as bonkers and surprising as Wild Wild Country, but at only four episodes long it’s far easier to binge-watch.
The case fell under the jurisdiction of the FBI and became their major case #203 because, as explained by the agent in charge, “something like this has never happened before in the history of the FBI.” State police and ATF assisted in narrowing down the core questions. Was Wells a victim or a willing participant in the robbery? He claimed to be forced into committing the crime, and that made sense as who would willingly strap on a live bomb? Of course, if he was a random victim, how do you square that he was also carrying a loaded gun designed to look like a cane?
The episodes are written and directed by Barbara Schroeder, and they expertly tease each new revelation with details that feel wildly bizarre in their not-so-random nature. Weeks into the investigation the authorities are nowhere, but then a call comes in asking police to arrest a local woman because there’s a dead body in her freezer. The woman in question is Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, and the body? Not the first boyfriend she’s killed.
How she relates to Wells and the bank robbery sits at the center of the story, but they’re far from the only characters involved. An eccentric genius named Bill Rothstein plays a role — he’s the one who ratted on Diehl-Armstong — but rather than simply be a good Samaritan his hands look to be dirty even as his heart appears to belong to the woman he betrayed. There’s also a convicted rapist, a local fisherman, a crack-addicted prostitute, a wealthy father giving away his fortune, and a co-worker of Wells’ who himself dies mysteriously shortly after the robbery.
Archival footage and new interviews combine to craft the tale with equal parts fascination and information, and as each new piece of the puzzle falls into place the picture becomes clearer only to see it muddle again with the next revelation. Wells had elaborately written instructions on him specifying where to go after securing the bank’s money, and the steps would have seen him travel around Erie on a scavenger hunt in search of the key to open his booby-trapped collar. Law enforcement officers express befuddlement, vintage Geraldo Rivera clips see him confidently sniping at the agents, and various players reveal more of the truth both intentionally and otherwise. It’s a tale and character roster worthy of a Coen Brothers film — albeit one that would be criticized for its lack of realism.
The main draw here is the twisted and twisting story that unfolds with a tantalizing pace, but there’s more to Evil Genius than just a mesmerizing tale of true crime. The episodes highlight failures both of inter-departmental communication and the mental health system too. Details that might have helped the investigation don’t make it from the state police files to the FBI agents or vice versa, and some of those details are major. Diehl-Armstong’s past deeds saw her move in and out of the system, but every time they had her in custody for derangement or more traditionally diagnosed mental illnesses they declared her fit and released her back into the world. The information was there — in a file, on a notepad, or sitting somewhere in a criminal record — but the various threads just weren’t being brought together.
The truth worms its way through Evil Genius‘ episodes revealing the culpability of each person involved, and the label of “mastermind” alternates between at least two of them. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but figuring out their motivations and rationale isn’t nearly as easy. It’s ultimately a fascinating character study built on an unbelievable but true story, and it’s another must-see entry in the Netflix true-crime canon.