Netflix is now the premier purveyor of true-crime nonfiction, and few of those offerings are more binge-worthy than Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist, writer/director Barbara Schroeder and co-director Trey Borzillieri’s four-part series about 2003’s “Pizza Bomber Heist.”
That crime was committed by 46-year-old Brian Wells, who robbed an Erie, Pennsylvania, PNC Bank with a shotgun made to look like a walking cane and a collar around his neck that was attached to a bomb. When that device went off, it begat a tale of intrigue and insanity that soon came to involve a corpse stuffed into a freezer in the garage of 59-year-old Bill Rothstein, who claimed he’d put it there on the orders of his 54-year-old girlfriend, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong—an intelligent and cunning woman with severe mental-health issues who, two decades earlier, had gotten away with killing a boyfriend.
And that, believe it or not, isn’t even the half of it.
Featuring an amazing amount of archival footage (including clips of Wells’ explosive demise in the middle of a midday street), Evil Genius is a compulsive watch from its opening moments. And amplifying its suspense and complexity is the fact that Borzillieri spent years corresponding directly with Diehl-Armstrong, both in writing and over the phone. That stunning material grants the showrunners an insider’s perspective on what turns out to be a fascinatingly convoluted story akin to a Saw film come to wacko life.
With the series now available on Netflix, we chatted with Schroeder and Borzillieri about how they first became involved with the eye-opening case, their theories about what role each participant played in the plot’s planning and execution, and the outstanding mystery they’d still like to see solved.
Trey, what initially compelled you to cover this story—and, then, to strike up a long-running correspondence with Marjorie?
Borzillieri: As a student at the University of Miami, I saw a documentary called Paradise Lost by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, which was the first of the West Memphis Three documentaries. I was just blown away by that film, and I felt compelled to find a story that could be made into a documentary like that. That was the initial idea.
When this case happened in 2003, I was in Buffalo, New York. My mother had passed away, and I was gathering up the last of her belongings, and on the last day of doing that, the news came on in the evening and told the story of what had happened in Erie that day—this bank robbery where the perpetrator went to the extent of using a live bomb in order to rob the bank. I thought, “Oh my God, how desperate was this man?” A few days later, it came out that there was evidence found at the scene that indicated he’d maybe been forced to do the robbery. That totally captivated me.
A month later, the body is found at Rothstein’s house in a freezer, and then it’s revealed that the freezer in his home is directly next to the dirt road that leads to the power site where Brian Wells made his final pizza delivery. It was utterly shocking. If that wasn’t enough, very soon the FBI came out and said Bill Rothstein was not a suspect in the Wells case, and that compelled me off the couch and to Erie, knocking on doors chronicling the investigation, and trying to meet people and learn more about the case.
Almost two years later, the case had gone cold, and I had seen a picture of Marjorie. Obviously, it had been revealed that the body in the freezer at Rothstein’s house was her boyfriend, so I reached out to her—she hadn’t been labeled as a suspect officially in the case. It was just, necessity is the mother of invention. She was one of the only people who was alive at that time who could possibly have information, so that was the purpose in contacting her. As you can see, I never could have imagined who she would turn out to be.
Was there a point during your communication with Marjorie when you began to think that getting close to this woman might be a bad—or hazardous—idea?
Borzillieri: There was a very kinetic experience where I first went to visit her in prison in 2005. That same day, an eyewitness came forward saying she was a suspect in the case. This was a bombshell, and here I am on my way to visit her. This sense of utter darkness came over me. But I thought, wow, this could be the answer to the case here. She could be the answer to this great mystery, now that she’s been identified by an eyewitness at one of the scavenger site locations where Brian Wells was sent. That was unbelievable.
Going forward, there was always apprehension from me. I felt it could be dangerous. I felt like there were people on the outside of the case—and outside prison—that hadn’t been identified yet, and I thought perhaps if she didn’t like me, or if she felt like I was pushing too hard for information, she could in essence reach out to these folks and they could do me some harm.
Years later, it was revealed by her cellmate that she was actually doing just that—she was looking to place hits on some of the investigators that were leading the investigation. So all my fears and all those moments, they were real. But I kept going because I felt like she could reveal much deeper truths and information, and sure enough, she came out as being labeled the mastermind, and that wasn’t something I anticipated when I first reached out to her.
Barbara, how did you first learn about the story, and then partner up with Trey?
Schroeder: I was a news reporter/anchor at the time, and I remember reporting on the story and thinking it was awful. That visual of Brian sitting there in front of the state trooper vehicle was just so shocking. I had always wondered, what had happened to that? So when Trey came to me in 2013, and he had armfuls and bagfuls of just this treasure trove of evidence—videotapes, police videotapes, that tour of Rothstein’s house, and audio phone calls of Marjorie, who’s just this amazing one-of-a-kind character—I saw Trey as a citizen journalist. I expected him to have maybe one or two things, but he had gotten things that some of my best colleagues hadn’t been able to get on stories.
I was very impressed with his citizen-journalist approach, and then he started telling me things like, “OK, so we still don’t know who the mastermind is”—I call these the “Wait, what?” moments—and “they still don’t know what the involvement of the second dead pizza-delivery guy was.” He went down the list, and I thought, how is it possible that this is a major FBI case #203 that is technically closed and yet there are still all these questions that remain? I looked at it as an unsolved case. I wanted to know, just from a personal perspective, let alone a journalism perspective, who did write those notes, who made that bomb, where was it built, and who decided to make it live? What a heinous move that was. And most of all, the question of Brian’s innocence.
Trey had developed a relationship with an eyewitness, Jessica Hoopsick, who had kind of eluded the FBI. They had talked to her, and he’d developed a relationship with her, and it was unprecedented, because she wasn’t talking to the FBI anymore. She had lawyered up, and Trey was talking to her. So it was like, let’s go on this journey together. With his great instincts and blind faith that if you just keep following the story you’ll get to some truth, we teamed up, both went out to Erie several times, and then I started organizing it.
This was the most complicated story I’ve ever told in my career, and the breakthrough was to follow Trey. That became the clear and best path into the story, because it would allow the viewer to follow this very complicated story, and we were very careful not to fall off into the rabbit holes, which is easy to do, because there are so many tangents. We crafted it really carefully, and I rewrote it several times, and I interviewed Trey, which was fun, because it was interviewing my partner-in-crime here, and asking him things like, “How did you feel when Marjorie said ‘I’m going to sue your fucking balls off?’” It was great to incorporate that, and to turn his story into something that hopefully viewers will enjoy—and go on a journey with, and ask some of those questions too.
Did you always have a clear idea of who the heist’s mastermind was, or did your opinions change over the course of your investigation?
Schroeder: We were pretty sure it was either Marjorie or Bill. But isn’t it astonishing that investigators were never able to find out for sure who the person was that said, “Do this”? Were you intrigued by that question?
Absolutely—that’s one of the central mysteries here. Bill clearly played a central role in the heist, but did you ever come to a conclusion about how he and Marjorie divided up their responsibilities in the scheme?
Borzillieri: The four main co-conspirators are Bill, Marjorie, Ken [Barnes] and Floyd [Stockton]. Obviously, the motivation there was greed. But there are layers to it. Some of those co-conspirators were more diabolical, perhaps, than others. I think that’s one of the great parlor games within this. What’s participatory about it is that the audience can watch it and come to their own conclusions about the level of evilness within those four central co-conspirators.
Schroeder: Marjorie was definitely manipulating men. She was so good at that. Bill was her little minion at some point, doing her bidding, but maybe he was also enamored of the opportunity that this heist would provide him—i.e., he would be able to craft this heist that would outwit and outplay the FBI for a while. Also, maybe he knew he was dying; we were never able to nail down exactly when and if he knew for sure that his cancer had come back. If you look at it one way, Bill’s motive was bigger. If you look at it another way, it was Marjorie’s, because once she gets on to something, she doesn’t let go. It’s a good mystery.
The other mystery, as you’ve already discussed, is the issue of Brian’s role in all this—specifically, whether he was a conspirator or a victim. Do you feel like you have a definitive answer to that question now?
Borzillieri: Getting in so early enabled me to have a unique perspective, and at that point, my journey was similar to many people, whether they were the citizens of Erie hearing about the story or law enforcement. Initially, the reports indicated that he was perhaps involved. Then things changed. Then they changed again. It was going back and forth. But I have to say, it was the mystery that began it all. In this case, nothing is what it seems. Early on, when I started digging, I thought he might be a co-conspirator or the perpetrator himself. But the journey allowed my opinion to evolve.
Going to Rothstein’s driveway, and trying to get an interview with him, and his behavior, that didn’t strike me as the behavior of someone who was innocent in this. I thought he’d come out and clear his conscience about being perceived as a potential suspect in the Wells killing. I thought this would offer him a great sounding board. But it was the just the opposite. It was a frightening experience, and it reeked of guilt.
Moving forward, it was very, very difficult to get information. It was a tight-lipped case. Law enforcement was, in effect, under a gag order. It wasn’t until the release of an unsealed search warrant for Ken Barnes’ house—that was the point that the information about Jessica first came out. I just had a hunch that she had more information, but it took forever to find her, and a miracle for her to feel comfortable revealing the deeper truths that she had, and felt compelled to share. I think once you get to that information, and then take it and look back at the case, things start becoming comprehensible. You start to get a clearer vision of what happened. I’d say nothing’s 100 percent, but it certainly does seem like [Wells] was completely innocent.
Schroeder: Some people might see Jessica as an unreliable narrator—she’s a crack-addicted prostitute, she’s been in and out of prison several times. But going into these interviews with us, and talking to Trey on the phone so often, she knew that she could be charged. Technically, she could still be charged with something. And in spite of that knowledge…
Borzillieri: ...It was eating her up inside.
Schroeder: She needed to tell this story and cleanse her conscience. Of all the interviews I’ve done in my long career as a journalist, seeing her confess—the first time someone confesses, if you catch that on camera, that’s pretty amazing. This is by far the most convincing interview I’ve ever seen where somebody tells the truth for the first time. Do I believe that Brian is 100 percent innocent? I’m cynical by profession and nature, so I wouldn’t put it at 100 percent. But if anybody ever told the truth, it was Jessica Hoopsick.
Is there anything about the case that still nags at you, and that you wish you had more answers about? And is there a chance you might pursue those angles in a follow-up series?
Borzillieri: I’m so happy you mentioned that. A part of the conversation we’re hoping the documentary series brings to the public is co-conspirator Floyd Stockton. He received full immunity in this case, yet he admitted to being the one—the specific person—who locked this horrific device around Brian Wells, which ultimately killed him. So the question for me about the investigation—which was a big one, and which they did the best that they could on—is that, if Brian Wells was innocent, which is the opposite of what the investigators believe, what else could they have gotten incorrect? And if Floyd Stockton’s immunity was based on him telling the truth, did he really tell the truth? What can be done about it if he didn’t?
The footage of Brian’s demise at the beginning of the series is extremely jarring. What was your thought process regarding using that material?
Schroeder: We talked about it for a long time, and our editor Alex Calleros did a great job—he was an important part of this decision too. Early on, we decided we’re not going to gratuitously show this poor soul’s public execution. From day one, we were never going to show the snippets that people can find online, on the Dark Web, where they live. We literally went frame by frame, and we wanted to show how heinous it was that this happened to Brian, but we didn’t want to overplay it. If you watch carefully, you see the flash of the explosion, but we cut away from that. Then you see Brian on the ground. And when we revisit it at the end, it isn’t gratuitous—we blur the footage, so it’s hard to see, and then you see the damage that was done to his chest. That was used strategically to reinforce how stunning it is that someone was publicly executed and no one was ever charged with murder. That was out intent, and we hope it comes across as that. I hope the family doesn’t watch that part; I hope they see the part where, as they’ve always contended, Brian Wells was innocent.
Given that Marjorie had previously run afoul of the law numerous times, and had well-documented psychological problems, do you see this story as, in part, one about the failure of the criminal justice and mental-health systems?
Schroeder: People tried to take care of her, like her parents, but they never took seriously how badly off she was. And she was very good at manipulating people. Absolutely, mental-health deterioration is one of the reasons she became, as I like to call her, “The Dark Queen of Erie.” But I hate to cast aspersions on the criminal justice or mental-health systems. It’s easy to say, “Oh, she should have been in an institution, and they should have taken care of her.” But as her attorney from one of her first cases pointed out, the mental health system is underfunded, and then we expect it to perform miracles. There’s a lot of blame to go around, but in the end, it’s Marjorie who was able to transfix and play people—and even use her mental illness as a device to curry favor and convince you that she’s telling the truth while she’s lying to your face. Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong is just a one-of-a-kind woman: She’s unwell, disturbed, and really smart.
Borzillieri: This was a person who was so manipulative—and that was the top priority on her agenda. Any difference of opinion, she met it with reptilian indifference. You get to see that in the documentary. It’s unique, and you get to experience someone of that magnitude who’s dishing out manipulations at that level. It’s frightening.