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'Collar Bomber' bank robbery solved Victim was part of the plot in Erie heist, police say

For almost four years, the "Collar Bomber" case baffled federal agents and detectives.

Brian D. Wells, a mild-mannered 46-year-old pizza deliveryman, walked into a bank with a bomb locked around his neck and a note that others were forcing him to rob the bank.

Forty minutes after Wells walked out with a bag of cash, the bomb exploded, killing him.

Now, police say they have solved the bizarre case, indicting an Erie woman and man.

The bank robbery was actually part of a larger murder-for-hire plot, and they claim that Wells was in on the conspiracy.

"He is both a participant and a victim," U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan said of Wells during a tumultuous news conference here Wednesday afternoon. "He was told to say that three black men had held him down and put this bomb around his neck," she said.

The bomb was set with a predetermined explosion time, but Buchanan did not comment on whether it seemed that Wells knew when it would explode.

"We're not sure he knew this bomb was going to go off," Buchanan said.

In federal court papers, authorities called Wells an unindicted co-conspirator with Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong and Kenneth Barnes. Those two are now charged with felony counts of bank robbery and conspiracy, as well as using a destructive device during a violent crime.

Authorities said they believe Diehl-Armstrong was trying to rob the bank for money to hire a hit man to kill her father.

The accusation that Wells was part of the conspiracy outraged members of the dead man's family, who repeatedly disrupted the news conference by yelling out accusations that police were lying.

Police took the easy way out by accusing Brian Wells of being part of the conspiracy, said John Wells, the bomb victim's brother.

"My brother was a brutal murder victim. He did not know any of these people," John Wells said.

Buchanan said authorities believe Wells knowingly took part in the robbery, pretending to be a hostage, but did not know that the bomb would kill him.

"We're not sure exactly how much [Wells] knew," Buchanan said. "We know he was involved to a limited extent.

"We have reason to believe that at some point, right before the bomb was fastened onto his neck, he was coerced," she said. "He did choose to go forward with the robbery," she added.

Charged are:

*Diehl-Armstrong, 58, a former Erie teacher who is already serving time for killing a live-in boyfriend, whose body was found stuffed in a freezer. Indictment papers claim the boyfriend, James Roden, was killed to keep him from telling anyone about the bank robbery plot. Her attorney issued a statement denying any involvement by Diehl-Armstrong in the Wells killing and has said she will not plead guilty.

*Kenneth Barnes, 53, a friend of Diehl-Armstrong's who used to go fishing with Wells. He is already in an Erie jail facing a drug charge unrelated to the robbery.

Authorities in Pennsylvania have called the case one of the strangest in their state's history.

Wells died Aug. 28, 2003, outside a store near a PNC Bank branch, shortly after state troopers responded to the bank robbery and arrested him.

Before the explosion, Wells told police that he was an unwilling participant in the crime. He said a man had accosted him at gunpoint after he had gone to a location in Erie to deliver a pizza.

Wells said the man locked a metal collar around his neck and then attached a bomb to the collar. He said the man gave him a gun, started the bomb's timer and directed him to rob the bank.

Buchanan said the plan was intended to make Wells look like he was "merely a hostage."

That way, authorities said, if Wells was caught, he could claim he was taken hostage and forced into robbing the bank.

According to court papers, Wells met with Barnes, Diehl-Armstrong and a friend of Diehl-Armstrong one day before the robbery to discuss plans for the crime.

Barnes was watching the bank robbery with binoculars from a nearby location, authorities said. The plot called for him to get the money from Wells immediately after the holdup, but for unexplained reasons, that did not happen.

Nine pages of maps and complex, handwritten instructions were found in Wells' car. The FBI released excerpts from the instructions.

"Go to the bank and 'quietly' enter with the weapon you were given. Give the demands to the receptionist or manager. Avoid panicking the tellers or customers. Use the weapon if anyone does not cooperate . . . Act now, think later or you will die."

Police said Wells presented a teller a note demanding $250,000. He was given a bag containing $7,000.

The notes directed Wells to go to several locations after holding up the bank. One of those locations was a discount eyewear shop near the bank, where police stopped Wells' car and handcuffed him.

"I don't have a lot of time," Wells told police at the time. "He pulled out a key and started a timer. I heard the thing ticking when he did it."

Wells was sitting on the pavement outside the shop when the bomb went off. Television cameras captured the horrific incident. A police bomb squad was speeding to the scene to help Wells when the explosion occurred.

According to police, the instructions found in Wells' pizza delivery car also directed him to go to a nearby McDonald's restaurant after the bank robbery and look under a rock in a flower bed. He was then directed to tie an orange ribbon around a nearby fire hydrant.

The various tasks Wells was ordered to perform were similar to a scavenger hunt, authorities said. Wells was told the bomb would be disarmed after he completed the tasks, but the device exploded before he had time -- 40 minutes after the robbery.

Authorities described Diehl-Armstrong as a woman whose past includes involvement in two violent deaths. In 1988, she was acquitted of the shooting death of a boyfriend. Diehl-Armstrong testified that she had been repeatedly brutalized by the man and shot him in self-defense.

In 2003, police charged Diehl-Armstrong with shooting Roden, a live-in boyfriend. A former substitute teacher from Erie, Bill Rothstein, told police that Diehl-Armstrong paid him $2,000 to hide Roden's body in a freezer.

Diehl-Armstrong pleaded guilty to complicity in Roden's murder but said it was due to mental illness. The woman, who suffers from bipolar disorder, was sentenced to at least seven years in state prison.
e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com
and kreedy@buffnews.com1

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