On a seemingly ordinary day in Erie, Pennsylvania, August 28, 2003, the tranquility was shattered by a heinous crime that would later be etched in the annals of criminal history. Brian Douglas Wells, a pizza delivery man, entered a PNC Bank not for routine business but to execute a robbery, a bomb strapped around his neck.
This case, later described by the FBI as one of the most complex and bizarre in its history, involved a convoluted plot spearheaded by Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong and Kenneth Barnes. Their goal was sinister yet straightforward: to acquire funds through the bank robbery to pay Barnes for the murder of Diehl-Armstrong’s father, thereby securing her inheritance.
The bomb device itself was a macabre piece of engineering. It was a triple-banded metal collar, resembling a large handcuff, designed to lock around the neck. It featured four keyholes under the chin and a rectangular housing containing two pipe bombs and two kitchen timers. The device was laden with decoys, including unconnected wires and a toy cell phone, to mislead and confuse.
The involvement of Wells in the plot is controversial. Law enforcement concluded he was a participant, albeit under the belief the bomb was fake. His family, however, insists he was an unwilling victim, forced into the situation.
The robbery itself was as dramatic as it was tragic. Wells, under the duress of the ticking bomb, demanded $250,000 from the bank tellers. However, he left with only a fraction of this amount. Shortly after completing the first task of a bizarre scavenger hunt outlined in a detailed note found in his car.
The robbery took a dramatic turn when Wells, after leaving the bank with a fraction of the demanded money, was caught in a tense standoff with the police. In a parking lot, surrounded by law enforcement, Wells pleaded for help, explaining the imminent danger of the bomb around his neck. The police, maintaining a safe distance, were unable to disarm the bomb before it tragically detonated, killing Wells in a shocking and public manner.
The aftermath of this crime led to Diehl-Armstrong and Barnes being charged in 2007. Diehl-Armstrong, a woman with a history of mental illness and a penchant for violence, was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Barnes, in exchange for his testimony, received a reduced sentence of 22½ years. Both died in prison.
The Erie collar bomb heist remains a chilling reminder of the depths of human desperation and depravity. It’s a story that continues to intrigue and horrify, a stark example of the extreme lengths to which individuals will go, propelled by greed and twisted logic.