At approximately 2:20 p.m. on August 28, 2003, Brian Wells—a pizza deliveryman—walked into a PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania and handed a note to a teller demanding $250,000 in cash. Wells had a bomb, which was strapped to his body via a metal neck collar, and a loaded shotgun that was fashioned to look like a walking cane. Approximately 12 minutes later, Wells strolled out of the bank with $8702 in cash, then made his way to the McDonald’s next door, where he retrieved a detailed note that told him where to go and what to do next. Within 15 minutes, Wells would be arrested. At 3:18 p.m.—less than an hour after he first entered the bank—the bomb locked around Wells’s neck would detonate, as police watched (and waited for the bomb squad), killing the 46-year-old in broad daylight.
The bizarre incident was just the beginning of a peculiar case that would eventually entangle a range of unusual suspects, including Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, and has had armchair detectives—and the FBI—questioning whether Wells was in on the bank robbery, or a genuine victim, for more than a decade. Evil Genius: The True Story of America's Most Diabolical Bank Heist, Trey Borzillieri and Barbara Schroeder’s provocative new four-part Netflix docuseries, continues the streaming network’s dedication to shedding light on fascinating true crimes—a trend that largely began with Making a Murderer and has continued through last month's Wild Wild Country. If you haven’t yet watched what is sure to become Netflix’s next true crime obsession, bookmark this page and do that now. If you’ve already binged all four hours and are thirsting for further details about the series (which was 15 years in the making), read on. Just be aware that there are spoilers ahead.
1. IT’S PRODUCED BY THE DUPLASS BROTHERS.
Mark and Jay Duplass have largely been known for their acting work and indie film co-creations, but the filmmaker brothers have been getting into the true crime scene in a big way as producers of late—first with Wild Wild Country (also for Netflix) and now with Evil Genius. When asked about their interest in the case, Mark Duplass told USA Today that, “We knew a little bit about the story. That image of that collar bomb and that cane gun always stuck with us. And then serendipitously, our really close friend, Josh Braun, who was instrumental in bringing Wild Wild Country to us, also brought us this series and put us together with the filmmakers. Ultimately, it is their show and that's I think what we're most proud of with both Wild Wild Country and Evil Genius."
2. IT WAS INSPIRED BY PARADISE LOST AND THE WEST MEMPHIS THREE.
It takes a certain kind of filmmaker to want to dedicate more than a decade of his or her life to telling one particular story, but Evil Genius co-director Trey Borzillieri had a feeling that the so-called “Pizza Bomber” or “Collar Bomb” case would be worth the effort. And he was inspired to pursue the project after seeing a landmark documentary that helped to bring justice to a trio of teenagers wrongfully accused (and convicted) of murder.
"After I watched the first West Memphis Three case documentary, Paradise Lost, that Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky did, I was blown away by that and looking for a story,” Borzillieri told Thrillist. “Ultimately, I started tracking this case the day it happened. Just by chance, I was in Buffalo, New York, which is close to Erie, in August of 2003. After seeing the reported coverage the day of—that a pizza deliveryman [Brian Wells] robbed a bank and blew up in the process—the mystery began right there. And then learning that there was evidence that indicated he had been put up to it? Holy cow!”
3. TREY BORZILLIERI HAS BEEN ON THE CASE FOR 15 YEARS.
Anyone who has seen Evil Genius is aware that Borzillieri has invested a lot of time in learning more about the case, including having years of correspondence and profanity-filled conversations with convicted co-conspirator Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong. Borzillieri's involvement, in fact, began when police in Erie announced a seemingly unrelated crime that occurred in almost the exact same spot where Wells’s journey on that fateful day had begun, but did not believe there was a connection.
Approximately one month after Wells’s death, “[authorities] discovered this frozen body, in a garage right next to the dirt road where Brian Wells made his last delivery before showing up at the PNC Bank, and the FBI was saying that the two cases were not connected,” Borzillieri told Thrillist. “That just sent me off the couch, and I began the early attempts at making this documentary—I went to Erie, began knocking on doors. The case went cold for upward of two years, and [Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong] was one of the few people living who could provide insight. Having no objective, but just looking for the truth, was what led me to her.”
4. BORZILLIERI WAS INITIALLY RELUCTANT TO APPROACH MARJORIE DIEHL-ARMSTRONG.
Though it was ultimately determined that Diehl-Armstrong was the real mastermind behind the entire Collar Bomb plot, she wasn’t yet on the FBI’s radar when Borzillieri first got involved with the case. And he admitted to Metro that he was initially reluctant to try to engage her. “Basically, when I began knocking on doors about the case there wasn’t a lot of coverage of Marjorie at that time,” he said. “So when I reached out I was hesitant to say the least. Just from looking at her in the photos.
“But she turned out to be someone I couldn’t have even imagined,” Borzillieri continued. “She was scary. She was fascinating. Dark and dynamic. The more I got to know her the more forthcoming she was. So we were able to have a relationship.”
5. GETTING PARTICIPANTS TO AGREE TO ON-CAMERA INTERVIEWS WAS NO EASY TASK.
When asked about the challenges of assembling a range of talking heads to participate in the documentary series, Borzillieri said it was a bit of a challenge. “Obviously, these interviews began a long time ago, so it was great that I got in on the day-of, which enabled me to have a unique perspective in that we could carry [the story] all the way to the end,” he told Thrillist. “But it was super challenging, and I have to underline that.
“The case went cold for two years, and reaching out to Marjorie was just an attempt at getting any information,” he continued. "Law enforcement was under a federal gag order, in essence, so nobody would speak. All the interviews you see with law enforcement in the series come after they've retired and they finally felt comfortable enough to speak publicly about the case. Because of the event and the explosion with Brian Wells, it was such a sensitive topic. These guys really had waited until their retirement to speak about it.”
6. GETTING DIEHL-ARMSTRONG TO TALK WAS RELATIVELY EASY (UNLESS SHE DIDN’T LIKE WHAT BORZILLIERI WAS SAYING).
Much of Evil Genius’s shock value comes from Diehl-Armstrong’s on-camera interviews/rantings, and it apparently wasn’t too hard to get her to open up. “[O]bviously she was a sociopath. Which made her a great liar,” Borzillieri told Metro. “That along with her other mental issues. Like paranoia, mania, personality disorder. She was a tough woman who was constantly manipulating everyone in her path to get her own way … Because she was a narcissist it was easy to get her to talk. But difficult to correct her. When she had any opposition, even a difference in opinion, she would approach it with reptilian indifference.”
Borzillieri believes that part of the reason he was able to build such trust and rapport with Diehl-Armstrong was because he reached out to her “so early on, before she was labeled a suspect in public … I became like a sounding board to her. She felt comfortable and I let that happen. When the time was right, because I had prepared properly, I would spring on her opinions and ideas and try to get her to open up.”
7. BEING VERBALLY ASSAULTED BY DIEHL-ARMSTRONG WAS ALL IN A DAY’S WORK.
In 2013, after 10 years of research-gathering, Borzillieri reached out to fellow documentarian Barbara Schroeder—writer/director of 2009’s award-winning Talhotblond—about working on the series with him, “and we teamed up and started getting deeper truths in the story,” he told Nylon. One of the things that became immediately clear to Schroeder was the fact that regular verbal assaults from Diehl-Armstrong were seemingly in Borzillieri’s job description.
“I mean, in one interview, you'll hear her say, ‘I'll sue your f***ing balls off if you say that, Trey,’” Schroeder recounted. “Then she turns around and in another conversation is very sweet and engaging and signs off with a ‘love you.’ It's interesting you get to see Marjorie try to play Trey, and then you see how Trey uses the confidence that he got with Marjorie to ultimately get to some deeper truths.”
8. WRITING THE SERIES REQUIRED A LOT OF FLOW CHARTS.
When Schroeder signed on as both writer and co-director of Evil Genius, her main goal was taking this extremely complicated case and large cast of co-conspirators and creating a narrative that would make sense to the viewer in four hour-long installments. How did she do it? With “a lot of charts,” she told Nylon. “A lot of flow charts. Yeah, it is super-complicated, and that was probably the biggest challenge—trying to tell this without overwhelming people. It’s easy to go down a rabbit hole when you have a story that's this complicated. But the drive to get the answers to these questions is what propelled and guided us as we laid it out and wrote. You know, [it’s like] keep it simple. The story kind of tells itself, and it’s what I like to call the ‘oh my god’ moments, like ‘wait, what?!’ moments, you know. So we spent a lot of time making sure that the ride was the best one to go on without confusing the audience.”
9. THEY WERE STRATEGIC IN HOW THEY INCORPORATED THE FOOTAGE OF BRIAN WELLS’S DEATH.
One of the most talked-about aspects of Evil Genius is that it incorporates footage of Brian Wells pleading with police to help him get the bomb off his neck, and ultimately the bomb’s detonation. The scene is shown a couple of different times throughout the series, but is manipulated in different ways, largely out of respect for Wells’s family.
When asked about why it was important to show that footage in the series, Schroeder told Thrillist: “I'm glad you asked that, because we didn't want to use it gratuitously. We're very aware that his family is probably going to watch this, but I hope you notice that we use it strategically. So at the beginning we don't show the whole event. At the end [of Episode 4], we do show it, but we blur it. The last scene [of his face] is also blurred. It was important to use that to reinforce how heinous it was that this is a victim who was publicly executed and nobody has been charged with this man's murder.”
10. THE CREATORS ARE SURE THAT MARJORIE DIEHL-ARMSTRONG WAS THE MASTERMIND.
Though Evil Genius leaves many questions unanswered (and the filmmakers admit that we’ll probably never know every detail of the case), one thing that both Borzillieri and Schroeder feel confident about is that Diehl-Armstrong was, in fact, the mastermind behind the Collar Bomb heist—though they don’t exonerate her many co-conspirators.
“I absolutely feel she was the leader, but there are layers to that,” Borzillieri told Thrillist. “What we were hoping to do here is create something where the audience felt like this was a participatory journey—to have conversations, to form their own opinions. What compels one to keep going on a cold case, in a mystery, sometimes is not really the ‘who did it,’ but the ‘why,’ like ‘why did this happen?’ That was a huge motivating factor for me. Especially at Marjorie's trial, we began to feel like we knew what was happening and who the players were, but we could never come to terms with the 'why.'"
Schroeder agreed, though she believes that there are still surprises that could be uncovered in the case. “By profession and by nature, I'm cynical,” she said, “so Bill Rothstein probably played a big part in this. But to me, the intrigue wasn't about answering the question—because some of these questions are impossible to answer … Some of these people took secrets to the grave. So there could be more surprises behind Door No. 3, or any of the doors that remain.”
11. THE CREATORS HOPE THE SERIES CAN DELIVER “SOME KIND OF JUSTICE.”
Because many of the series’ key players have passed away—Rothstein died in 2004, before he was ever officially named a suspect, and Diehl-Armstrong died of breast cancer in 2017—Borzillieri and Schroeder know that many questions in the case will likely never be answered. But what they hope the series will do, according to Schroeder, is open people’s eyes to the reality of the bizarre story. “If the co-conspirators couldn't truly be held accountable, and if Brian Wells's story wasn't ever told completely, hopefully, we were able to deliver some kind of justice,” she said. “Not only to the victim, but also in making people aware of how devious these co-conspirators were. They wanted to show the world how smart they were, and in the long run, we're hoping we can show that maybe they weren't that smart after all.”
Added Borzillieri: “The series and its conclusion also bring us to a second chance at justice. We want to have conversations afterward, and perhaps come away with bigger questions that can be posed—one that comes to mind has to do with the man [Floyd Stockton] who locked the collar around Brian Wells's neck. He received immunity in this case. What was that based on? Was that based on truth?”
12. THE ENDING COULD LEAD TO NEW CHARGES BEING FILED.
In the series' last few minutes, something unexpected happens: Jessica Hoopsick—a prostitute who Wells regularly saw, and developed a deep friendship with—stood in front of the camera and admitted that she had set Wells up to become an unwitting participant in the crime in exchange for drugs and money. Initially, Hoopsick was reluctant to sit down with the filmmakers, and it’s understandable why: By admitting she was in on the heist, Hoopsick has opened herself up to being named yet another co-conspirator.
“We always believed that Jessica knew more,” retired ATF special agent Jason Wick told TIME. “Getting her to tell us at the time was a whole other issue. We just couldn’t get enough from her. We were in a tough spot. She just wouldn’t cooperate.”
Though both Wick and his partner at the time, Jerry Clark, believe Hoopsick’s admission “should certainly be passed along” to both state and federal law enforcement agencies for review, they question her credibility and motives. “There is evidence that directly conflicts with what she’s saying,” Clark said. “There’s always some underlying reason for her cooperation. The fact that she’s saying it, you got to wonder why.”
For their part, Borzillieri and Schroeder told TIME that Hoopsick—who was given nothing in return for her interview—came clean because, according to Borzillieri, “This was eating her up inside.” While charges could be filed against her, both law enforcement and the filmmakers agree that it’s unlikely that will happen.
“Before we talked with Jessica, she was worried, like could anything happen to her? So we talked with all the different law enforcement agencies, and technically she could still be charged, but every one of them said they don't have any plans to do that,” Schroeder told Thrillist. “So when we talked with her, we couldn't guarantee that she wouldn't be charged. But even in the face of that, she was willing to come forward. That's a pretty compelling interview, for someone to do that in the face of possible charges.”