Trey Borzillieri was packing up his late mother Cheryl's belongings at her Buffalo waterfront home in 2003 when the obsession that sparked a new Netflix documentary series came alive.
"When I finally finished that evening, I saw the news report out of Erie (Pa.) that a bank robber used a live bomb in the process and had died," recalled the 1993 graduate of the Nichols School in a telephone interview. "I thought, 'How desperate must that man have been to use a live bomb?'"
"I began contemplating, 'What is this all about?' It was the start of this great mystery. A few days later, it started trickling out that there was evidence at the scene that suggested he was put up to this. At that point, the mystery was growing."
Fifteen years later, Borzillieri's obsession with finding the answer of what the bizarre crime story was all about led to the Netflix docu-series "Evil Genius: The True Story of America's Most Diabolical Bank Heist."
Borzillieri is credited with being a co-director and one of the executive producers of the four-part series, which involves the bomb going off, a murdered man hidden in a freezer, drugs and prostitution.
"Evil Genius" began streaming last week and immediately drew praise from critics and some celebrities.
The riveting, three-hour documentary attempts to resolve who was responsible for the death of the man with the bomb strapped to his neck, pizza deliveryman Brian Wells, and whether he was involved in the bank robbery that led to his death.
Borzillieri also narrates his telephone relationship with the lead player in the story, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, an intelligent bipolar woman with other mental health issues who had boyfriends who somehow ended up suspiciously dead. She is one of several strange and extremely messy characters in the series.
The cast of characters includes:
- Her former boyfriend, Bill Rothstein, who told police that Diehl-Armstrong had him put the body of a boyfriend she had killed into a freezer at his house.
- Floyd Stockton, a friend of Rothstein's who was a drifter and convicted sex offender.
- Ken Barnes, who operated an extremely filthy crack house and was friends with Wells.
Borzillieri was inspired to do a documentary series after taking a screenwriting course at his alma mater, the University of Miami, and watching a famous 1996 documentary "Paradise Lost," which dealt with injustice.
"After seeing that movie, I was absolutely blown away," he explained. "I had almost a participatory reaction to the movie. In the wake of that, I thought it would be incredible to find a story where I could do that. That was a big motivator for me."
He instantly saw the possibility of doing something similar as he packed up his mother's belongings on that Aug. 28, 2003, day.
"It's easy for one to become obsessed when seeking answers to a great whodunit mystery," he explained. "Once we learn who's responsible we want more information.
"To further understand a crime we begin 'chasing the why' -- why did a crime like this occur?' This case was so utterly shocking I couldn't help succumbing to it."
He worked on Off-Broadway productions, commercials and soap operas and earned an Emmy nomination for a MTV military documentary while researching "Evil Genius."
"It took 10 years to really gather the story," he explained.
When the authorities concluded the robbery and the man found dead in a freezer weren’t connected, Borzillieri became more intrigued.
"That was what compelled me to get off my couch in Brooklyn and drive to Erie," he said.
Over a decade, he drove to Erie numerous times to follow the events of what had become a cold case story.
Since Rothstein died in 2004, another pizza deliveryman believed to be possibly involved was dead and Stockton was extradited to the state of Washington for another crime, Borzillieri focused on establishing a connection with Diehl-Armstrong via letters. That evolved into her frequently calling him from prison.
"I assured her we could talk and I wasn't necessarily going to pass judgment on her in these conversations even though I obviously had my opinion," he said. "I had to be careful when was the right time to share. As the years went by and I was finally able to get more and more detailed information about the case, my questions and my opinions evolved.
"Like many other people, there was a time I did believe Brian Wells was a part of this and he very well could have been a co-conspirator. But because I was able to track it for so long and to get so much information that many people haven't seen or heard, that was how my opinions evolved about Wells, which led me to have to question her specifically on his involvement."
In 2013, he enlisted writer Barbara Schroeder, who had done a 2010 documentary and been part of a subsequent movie, "Talhotblond," about an internet love triangle murder in Clarence in 2006, to join him in the project.
With the success of the 2015 documentary "Making a Murderer" on Netflix, the streaming service made a deal with him.
"Once 'Making a Murderer' happened, I no longer looked like a crazy person with this huge project," Borzillieri said.
He and Schroeder started working on the series at the end of 2016 and delivered it to the streaming service in March.
The title comes from a line delivered by Diehl-Armstrong, who claimed she was innocent and added, "I am not some evil genius."
By removing the first four words and keeping evil genius in the title, Borzillieri's takeaway about Diehl-Armstrong's involvement is clear.
"Diehl-Armstrong was the leader of this group," he added. "She was the one linchpin that tied together all of the co-conspirators."
As in "Making a Murderer," "Evil Genius" has a different conclusion than the official view of law enforcement officials. They concluded that Wells was part of the bank robbery plans before he was blown up.
You don't need to be a genius to guess the authorities aren’t buying Borzillieri's conclusion and are reluctant to admit they may have made a mistake.
"They haven't yet," he said.
He added some retired law enforcement people who have seen the documentary are "becoming open to the possibility."
"But the collective opinion from federal investigators was he was involved," said Borzillieri. "I believe that to be wrong."
One thing is beyond dispute: Borzillieri's mother would have been proud of what her son's packing up her belongings inspired.