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Collar-Bomb Case

Collar-Bomb Case
Charges in Bizarre ‘03 Bank Heist


Metal Collar used in explosive device
Metal Collar used in explosive device

Four years after a pizza delivery man in Erie, Pennsylvania, robbed a bank with a time-bomb secured to his neck and then died when it detonated during a standoff with police, charges have been filed against two people for their alleged roles in the case.

Federal prosecutors on Wednesday announced an indictment against Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, 58, and Kenneth Barnes, 53, for allegedly helping to plot and carry out the botched scheme that culminated on August 28, 2003, when Brian Wells was stopped by police after robbing an Erie bank. Wells warned police that he was wearing a bomb and running out of time, but as bomb technicians were summoned the device exploded, killing Wells and leaving behind an odd lot of clues and characters.

The felony charges, announced during a press conference by U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, answer some central questions about the case, foremost whether Wells was a willing participant or an innocent victim. Buchanan said Wells played a “limited” role in the planning phase of bank robbery. According to the indictment, Diehl-Armstrong and Barnes contrived a plan to make it look as though Wells was “merely a hostage,” which would give Wells an alibi should he be captured. If the bomb detonated, meanwhile, Wells couldn’t be a witness against them, Buchanan said.

“It may be that his role transitioned from that of the planning stages to being an unwilling participant in the scheme,” Buchanan said.

Diehl-Armstrong and Barnes are currently serving unrelated sentences in prison—Diehl-Armstrong for killing her boyfriend in 2003 and Barnes for a drug-related offense.

The indictment alleges that Diehl-Armstrong solicited Barnes in July 2003 to help rob a bank. She would then use proceeds from the robbery to pay Barnes to kill her father and collect an inheritance, the indictment says. She is alleged to have supplied two egg timers that were used in the collar bomb. Prosecutors believe the 2003 murder of her boyfriend was intended to keep him from disclosing the emerging bank robbery plot.

The charges bring some clarity to a case that challenged investigators, who ultimately pieced together how Wells went from pizza delivery guy to bank robber in the course of an afternoon. According to the indictment, here’s how it happened:

  • On August 27, 2003, Diehl-Armstrong, Barnes, Wells and other unindicted co-conspirators met to discuss the next day’s plot.
  • On August 28, 2003 at about 1:30 p.m., the co-conspirators used a pay phone to order two pizzas for delivery to a remote TV tower site, which happened to be next door to one of the conspirator’s houses. Wells would be the delivery driver.
  • At about 2 p.m., the co-conspirators attached the bomb device to Wells’s neck.
  • At about 2:20 p.m., Wells entered a bank and presented the teller a demand note. He walked out about 12 minutes later with $8,702. The co-conspirators watched from a distance until Wells was stopped by police, at which time they fled.
  • Wells told police that the bomb on his neck was on a timer and that he’d been forced to rob the bank. The bomb exploded before bomb technicians arrived.

Ray Morrow, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Pittsburgh office, called the three-year, 10-month case “an outstanding, old-fashioned investigation” and lauded the joint efforts of the Pennsylvania State Police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The case involved nearly 1,000 interviews and as many leads, Buchanan said.

“This was a lengthy and complex investigation,” Morrow said.

Diehl-Armstrong and Barnes both face initial appearances in federal court this week. The three-count indictment, returned on July 9, contains charges of conspiracy to commit bank robbery, armed bank robbery, and using and carrying a destructive device in a crime of violence.