The Incredible Story of the Collar Bomb Heist

August 22, 2017 | 4 Comments » | Topics: Interesting

At 2:28 pm on August 28, 2003, a middle-aged pizza deliveryman named Brian Wells walked into a PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania. He had a short cane in his right hand and a strange bulge under the collar of his T-shirt. Wells, 46 and balding, passed the teller a note. “Gather employees with access codes to vault and work fast to fill bag with $250,000,” it said. “You have only 15 minutes.” Then he lifted his shirt to reveal a heavy, boxlike device dangling from his neck. According to the note, it was a bomb. The teller, who told Wells there was no way to get into the vault at that time, filled a bag with cash—$8,702—and handed it over. Wells walked out, sucking on a Dum Dum lollipop he grabbed from the counter, hopped into his car, and drove off. He didn’t get far. Some 15 minutes later, state troopers spotted Wells standing outside his Geo Metro in a nearby parking lot, surrounded him, and tossed him to the pavement, cuffing his hands behind his back.

Throughout the standoff, Brian seemed relaxed. Had the police known then about the dum dum, they probably would have been looking at brian himself for the master mind.

Wells told the troopers that while out on a delivery he had been accosted by a group of black men who chained the bomb around his neck at gunpoint and forced him to rob the bank. “It’s gonna go off!” he told them in desperation. “I’m not lying.” The officers called the bomb squad and took positions behind their cars, guns drawn. TV camera crews arrived and began filming.

For 25 minutes Wells remained seated on the pavement, his legs curled beneath him. “Did you call my boss?” Wells asked a trooper at one point, apparently concerned that his employer would think he was shirking his duties. Looking around, Brian chatted somewhat impatiently, though not overly so. There he sat, balancing awkwardly, waiting for the bomb squad.

Suddenly, the device started to emit an accelerating beeping noise. Wells fidgeted. It looked like he was trying to scoot backward, to somehow escape the bomb strapped to his neck. He clutched at the device, tearing at his face and neck, desperately trying to free himself. Beep… Beep… Beep.

Boom! The device detonated, blasting him violently onto his back and ripping a 5-inch gash in his chest. The pizza deliveryman took a few last gasps and died on the pavement. It was 3:18 pm. The bomb squad arrived three minutes later.

The most perplexing and intriguing pieces of evidence, though, were the handwritten notes that investigators found inside Wells’ car. Addressed to the “Bomb Hostage,” the notes instructed Wells to rob the bank of $250,000, then follow a set of complex instructions to find various keys and combination codes hidden throughout Erie. It contained drawings, threats, and detailed maps. If Wells did as he was told, the instructions promised, he’d wind up with the keys and the combination required to free him from the bomb.

Failure or disobedience would result in certain death. “There is only one way you can survive and that is to cooperate completely,” the notes read in meticulous lettering that would later stymie handwriting analysis. “This powerful, booby-trapped bomb can be removed only by following our instructions… ACT NOW, THINK LATER OR YOU WILL DIE!” It seemed that whoever planned the robbery had also constructed a nightmarish scavenger hunt for Wells, in which the prize was his life.

Beginning at the last place Wells was seen before the robbery, detectives went to the pizza shop Wells was employed at. At around 1:30pm that day a caller had placed an order for two pizzas, although Wells was due to get off soon he agreed to take the order, and left the shop close to 2pm. The delivery address was for a desolate television transmission tower, accessible only by a dirt road. Foot prints and tire marks found on the scene indicated that Wells had indeed been to the location, but there was little evidence indicating a struggle or any other events that may have transpired there.

A man by the name of Bill Rothstein owned property adjacent to the transmission tower site, he allowed journalist to use his property in order to access the area police had sanctioned off for the investigation. Rothstein seemingly had no connection to the case until a month later. Rothstein called 911 and made the admission that there was a body being stored in his freezer. He claimed to have had nothing to do with the murder and said he had even contemplated suicide over it.

Notes were found in Rothstein’s possession, penned by Rothstein himself, identifying the body belonging to Jim Roden. One particular statement that struck investigators as odd was that Rothstein added the disclaimer that “This has nothing to do with the Wells case”.  Rothstein began explaining to investigators how the body had come to be stored in his freezer and what his connection was to the Wells case.

Rothstein claimed that sometime in August Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, a former girlfriend of Rothstein’s called him frantically. She had shot her then live-in boyfriend James Roden and needed help disposing of the body and the murder weapon. Rothstein agreed to her demands. He disposed of the weapon, but could not go through with butchering up the body. Fearing that Diehl-Armstrong would kill him, Rothstein decided to come forward to the police. Diehl-Armstrong was convicted of murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Rothstein died of lymphoma several months before his conviction.

It would seem that the murder of James Roden was an open and shut case, and aside from Rothstein’s strange disclaimer in his letter, had absolutely no connection to the Wells case. It wasn’t until Diehl-Armstrong admitted that Roden’s murder was because of the Wells case, that investigators had any connection between the two.

Making a deal with investigators to be moved to a lower-security institution in exchange for her testimony, Diehl-Armstrong came clean in her involvement with Wells and what part she played in the collar-bomb plot. She said that she was not involved in the scheme, but did supply some of the materials for constructing the bomb. She claimed that Rothstein was the one that proposed the idea, and that Wells was in on the whole thing. Not the innocent victim that he was believed to be. Working with several informants, investigators believed that Diehl-Armstrong had more involvement in the conspiracy than she was letting on. Not only had she told others details about the robbery, but that she had killed Roden because he was going to alert the police about what the clan was cooking up.

During this time another man, Kenneth Barnes, an associate of Diehl-Armstrong’s was turned over to police by his own brother-in-law, as Barnes was awaiting trial for another unrelated charge. Threatened with a harsher sentence, Barnes agreed to tell investigators everything he knew. He confirmed that the entire scam was the work of Diehl-Armstrong. The plan was to rob the bank so she would have enough money to pay Barnes to murder her father in order to receive her inheritance.

Finally, all the pieces of the puzzle were coming together. Floyd Stockton, a roommate of Diehl-Armstrong’s at the time of the robbery, was reported to investigators by Wells’ sister in connection to her brother’s death. Stockton was given immunity in the case in exchange for his testimony. Rothstein, Diehl-Armstrong, Barnes, Stockton, and Wells all conspired to rob the bank and split the money. Knowing about the group’s plan and threatening to go to police, Roden was murdered.  Believing that the collar bomb was a fake, Wells willingly attached the device to his neck. The scavenger hunt letters were simply a red herring to throw off investigators.

A reconstructed model of the collar bomb, which many people now think was built by Bill Rothstein.


Wells went to the bank and followed the orders given to him by the rest of his team, not knowing that he had become a pawn in their game. It wouldn’t be long before the group began to turn on one another. First with Rothstein alerting police to the murder; then Diehl-Armstrong’s testimony pinning Rothstein, Wells, and herself to the crime; Finally Barnes and Stockton’s testimonies implicating Diehl-Armstrong as the mastermind behind the whole idea.

Diehl-Armstrong was sentenced to life in prison, plus 30 years. Officials claimed “She was motivated by greed and completely characterized by evil,”. Co-conspirator Barnes received 20 years for his co-operation with investigators. Much to the dismay of Wells’ sister, Stockton received immunity and now lives outside of Seattle, WA.