The Case of Brian Douglas Wells and America’s Most Bizarre Bank Robbery

On 28th August 2003 one of the most bizarre crimes ever seen in America unfolded in Erie, Pennsylvania.

A Most Unusual Heist

Events begin when 46-year-old pizza delivery man Brian Douglas Wells calmly walks into a PNC Bank in town and demands that they give him $250,000. But what is particularly unusual about this robbery is that Wells, who is also carrying what appears to be a cane, has a large bulge underneath his t-shirt. He hands a note to the cashier demanding the money and states that the device around his neck is in fact a bomb.

But the cashier tells him that they don’t have that amount of money in the bank, and she instead hands him a bag containing just $8,702.

Wells seems satisfied with this and leaves the bank, gets into his car and drives off. Everything about him is cool, calm and collected.

Just a few minutes later he stops, gets out of his car and collects what appears to be another note from underneath a rock. But soon the Pennsylvania State Troopers are onto him and surround the car. They force Wells to the ground and proceed to handcuff his hands behind his back.

Brian Douglas Wells bank robbery

Cane/gun that Wells carried

A Peculiar Tale With a Tragic End

Here the story takes an even more extraordinary twist. Wells begins to relate a bizarre tale to the police.

Wells, who has no criminal record, tells the officers that he has been forced to carry out the robbery after being taken hostage by three black men whilst delivering a pizza to an address just a few miles from the Mama Mia Pizzeria, where he worked. He says they held him at gunpoint, attached the bomb around his neck, and then instructed him to carry out the robbery. If he succeeds, he lives. But if he fails, the bomb will explode after 15 minutes.

But something about this man doesn’t quite add up. Despite his insistence to the officers that the bomb will explode at any moment, Wells seems completely at ease with the situation.

Is the bomb actually real? Wells, it seems, may think that the bomb is a fake – but the truth is about to be revealed.

At 3:18pm, the device starts to emit a loud bleeping noise, which grows steadily faster. It is at this point that Wells, for the first time, appears to become agitated.

Just seconds later, the device explodes, killing Wells.

Brian Douglas Wells bank robbery

Collar bomb device that Wells wore around his neck

The Case Unravels

Later, the FBI find a set of complex notes in Wells’s car which reveal that he had just 55 minutes to complete a series of tasks, including the bank robbery, before the device would explode. Upon the completion of each task, Wells was to be given more time before the device exploded.

But what really happened here?

This long and complicated story involved an even longer investigation – but ultimately Wells was, it transpires, in on the robbery.

Wells, together with Kenneth Barnes, William Rothstein and Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, had plotted to rob the bank. The purpose of the plot was to raise enough money to pay Barnes to kill Diehl-Armstrong’s father, so she could claim her inheritance. Barnes had drawn Wells into the plot, a man who he knew through prostitute Diehl-Armstrong. However, Wells’s personal motivations for his involvement are still unknown.

Rothstein died of natural causes in 2003 and as such was never charged.

In September 2008, Barnes was sentenced to 45 years in prison for conspiring to rob a bank and for aiding in the plotting and execution of the crime.

Due to bipolar disorder and a ruling that she was unfit to stand trial, Diehl-Armstrong was not sent down until February 2011. She was sentenced to life plus 30 years for armed bank robbery and using a destructive device in a crime.

Alex Browne studied History at Kings College London and is an Assistant Editor at Made From History. He specializes in post-war history in the USA and Central America.