Erie reporter, FBI agent write book on collar-bomb case
The Lindbergh baby kidnapping in 1932 was the first caper designated by the FBI as a major case, and a bizarre bank heist would join the list on Aug. 28, 2003, when a pipe bomb locked onto the neck of a pizza delivery driver exploded.
The driver, Brian Wells, sitting handcuffed in a parking lot outside the bank he had just robbed of $8,702, died when the bomb went off. Once the FBI determined there would be no easy answers as to how and why that happened, its 203rd major case earned its file name: COLLARBOMB.
FBI special agent Jerry Clark was about 40 feet away when the bomb carved a deadly crater in Wells' chest. He and Erie Times-News reporter Ed Palattella have written a book meant to clarify the events and dispel claims by Wells' family that he was an innocent pawn in a deadly game.
“Pizza Bomber: The Untold Story of America's Most Shocking Bank Robbery” will be released Tuesday.
Clark, now retired, said going to work in his hometown, Erie, as an FBI agent was “the most proud day of my life.”
“And then to have this happen,” he said, “it almost came to be a personal thing to me to have this thing solved.”
A mentally ill Erie woman with a history of violence, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, was the only plotter to stand trial. She's serving life in federal prison for her 2010 conviction. Diehl-Armstrong, 63, was acquitted of killing a former boyfriend in 1984 after claiming he abused her and pleaded guilty but mentally ill in 2005 to killing another lover, James Roden, which would link her to the Wells case.
Another of her former boyfriends, William Rothstein, died of cancer before the 2007 collar bomb indictments and denied any role in separate death bed interviews with Clark and Palattella, spelling the word “No” with his index finger to punctuate his denials. But prosecutors contend Rothstein, a former high school shop teacher, built the scrap-metal bomb collar. He was drawn into the investigation when he called police a few weeks after Wells' death to say he had helped Diehl-Armstrong store Roden's body in his garage freezer.
Diehl-Armstrong still insists she shot Roden in self-defense because he was abusive. She was serving seven to 20 years in prison for that killing when she was charged in the collar bomb indictment, which alleged she killed Roden to keep him from alerting authorities to the plot.
Diehl-Armstrong's attorney, Douglas Sughrue, said she insists she was framed by Rothstein and had never seen Wells before she watched him die on the TV news. Federal authorities aren't commenting on the book because Diehl-Armstrong's conviction is still on appeal.
Diehl-Armstrong's drug-dealing fishing buddy, Kenneth Barnes, 59, pleaded guilty and then testified at Diehl-Armstrong's trial, implicating her and Rothstein. He has since had his 45-year prison term halved for his cooperation. Before that, his junk-strewn house was a haven for prostitutes, including one befriended by Wells.
The cast of characters includes two others never charged. Floyd Stockton was a convicted sex offender who lived with Rothstein and acknowledged locking the bomb collar onto Wells, though a bad heart kept him from testifying under a grant of immunity against Diehl-Armstrong. Robert Pinetti delivered pizzas at the same shop as Wells and overdosed three days after Wells died.
A coroner ruled Pinetti's death an accident. The book says Stockton told Clark that Pinetti was given an ultra-powerful dose of drugs to kill him.
Wells' siblings, John Wells, of Glendale, Ariz., and Jean Heid, who still lives in Erie, insist Pinetti's death is just one loose end in a botched investigation. Along with retired Miami Beach homicide detective Joe Matthews, who investigated the case for Fox TV's “America's Most Wanted,” they believe Pinetti was to wear the collar before it was locked onto Wells in a last-minute change of plans after Rothstein ordered pizzas to be delivered to a TV tower near his home.
“Brian was a completely innocent murder victim,” John Wells said. “There's nothing that has changed at all in my mind about that. The fact that Jerry is trying to profit off of Brian's murder is outrageous.”
But Clark insists the evidence shows Brian Wells “had some association with these people and had some cooperation with committing this crime.”
“I feel for them,” he said, “as a family who lost a brother, a son, a relative in a really horrific fashion caught on tape for everyone to see.”